Ready, Set, Voter Psychology!

Voter analysis needs both psychology and logistics

There’ve been several articles recently about the Minds of Voters—some good; others quite bad. (Gawker has a roundup here.)

A Salon piece from yesterday presumably wanted to add to this discussion. The article, by neurologist Robert Burton, argues that overconfidence in one’s beliefs can lead to “the inability to consider how new facts might alter a presently cherished opinion,” and offers a philosophical mandate, couched as a solution: “…if we, as a country, truly want change, we must be open-minded, flexible and willing to revise our opinions when new evidence warrants it.”

Good, good, yes. And? But no, that’s essentially where it ends.

Burton’s commentary is based on a paper published in 1999 by two Cornell psychologists, called “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” which studies “our ability to judge ourselves and others”—an ability that is unsurprisingly decreased when we ourselves are incompetent.

Burton uses the paper to explain why voters might be bad at judging the capabilities of the candidates they support, even when alerted to misinformation or false statements. Unfortunately, his efforts just add another ____-ological explanation for why individuals don’t always vote rationally, without advancing a particularly new insight. If that’s the deal, then I vote to pass on this brand of commentary.

The article exemplifies how unconvincing this type of psychology-behind-the-electorate commentary can be at times. (From a Newsweek piece about a possible biological basis for conservatism and liberalism: “The research…attempts to connect the dots between a person’s sensitivity to threatening images—a large spider on someone’s face, a bloodied person and maggot-filled wound—and the strength of their support for conservative or liberal policies.” Analyzing voter predilections with physiology makes for an entertaining read, but that’s about it.)

Articles like this (and the Salon piece, which remains infuriatingly vague about whose voting psychology it is parsing), remind us that voter-psych studies are most useful when balanced with a more logistical approach to voter mindsets. For instance, an analysis of existing structural problems in the voting system might arguably explain some of the historical voting trends as well, if not better, than many psych studies ever would.

It’s an interplay that a recent New York Review of Books piece tackled skillfully, looking at both the psychology of white voters and the logistics of black voter registration to analyze the possibilities of the Bradley Effect. (Writer Andrew Hacker advises the Obama camp: “ALWAYS SUBTRACT SEVEN PERCENT!”)

Hacker’s article, weaving practical and theoretical issues to confront a difficult topic, is a rarity in the Inside the Minds of Voters slalom. Many other writers have succumbed instead to Analysis by Archetype, treating voting blocs (and their resident psychologies) like so many lump sums to add to or subtract from the candidates’ respective totals. The Salon piece likewise suffers from a vague and belittling analysis (you know who I’m talking about, so I won’t be so indelicate as to call Sarah Palin fans incompetent), and an unproductive shout-out to the necessities of testing executive response:

It is not enough to hear each candidate regurgitate memorized and rehearsed policy statements; we must know what they will do and how they will act in situations for which they have not been adequately prepared. Leadership is measured by the best decisions during the worst times.

It’s as if in addition to not providing any specific, useful voter analysis, Burton is a bit behind on recent headlines. Physician, heal thyself.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.