What Voters Want
Damon Winter/The New York Times
Imagine you’re discussing the presidential election with a group of friends who live in Iowa or New Hampshire. You ask them who they intend to vote for next month.
“Oh, whoever’s the tallest,” one friend says. “So Jeb Bush, I guess!”
“No way — I’m voting for Bernie Sanders,” another friend says. “He has a deeper voice, and my best friend growing up was named Bernie.”
It sounds ridiculous — like dialogue from “The Twilight Zone” — but it’s not too far off from the sometimes superficial shortcuts our brains use to make decisions.
Casey Klofstad, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami, studies how social and biological factors affect human decision making. Last year, he collaborated on a study with his wife, Rindy Anderson, a biologist who studies birdsong. They had subjects listen to manipulated male and female voices saying, “I urge you to vote for me this November.” The subjects then participated in a mock election. They found that both men and women picked candidates with lower-pitched voices.
In the final week before the Iowa caucuses, candidates are making a mad dash to prove themselves the best option. They have six days to call voters, knock on doors and generally make their case before the first actual decision of Decision 2016 is made. But this down-to-the-wire effort to share policy proposals and paint their opponents as establishment shills or unelectable wacko birds probably matters less than candidates hope.
Often, seemingly superficial characteristics and split-second judgments can affect voters’ decisions. Another study found that most American presidents are taller than average, and that voters tend to choose taller candidates. In the general election, the taller of the two candidates won roughly two-thirds of the time.
A 2005 study by the psychologist Alexander Todorov presented participants with photos of two congressional candidates, and asked them to choose which one looked more competent. More than two-thirds of the time, participants were able to pick the winner of each Congressional race just by how “competent” he or she looked. The keys to looking competent? A square jaw, an intense stare — in other words, not too far from Donald J. Trump on the cover of Time.
There is also a well-documented primacy effect in voting: Candidates who are listed first on the ballot have been found to get 2.3 percent more votes on average than when they are listed farther down on the ballot. Having a familiar-sounding name has also been found to help candidates’ electoral success. In Cook County, Illinois — home to Chicago, a city with the second-largest Irish-American population in the country — Irish-sounding last names have been thought to help candidates so much that in 2005, a candidate for Cook County judge legally switched from Frederick S. Rhine to Patrick Michael O’Brien. “It seemed like a very voter-friendly name,” he said at the time. (So far it seems unlikely that the Irish Name Effect will pay off for one Martin O’Malley, any more than it did for the new Mr. O’Brien, who dropped out of his race.)
What accounts for all this superficial reasoning? It comes down to something called decision heuristics, or mental shortcuts. As humans, we need to use our brain power efficiently. We do that by reducing the amount of effort we spend assessing each interaction, decision or task. Heuristics help us process the boatloads of information that we take in every day. As a result, we make decisions not by arduously ticking off a list of pros and cons, but by assessing the information, or cues, that are most readily available.
Some of these shortcuts can be built up over the thousands of daily encounters we’ve had. For example, I tend to distrust people who unironically use the word “synergy.” It just makes life easier. Of course, there are instances when our own mental shortcuts and preconceptions distort the truth, and that is where our cognitive biases arise. The vocal pitch preference that Mr. Klofstad studies, for one, is pretty outdated. While voice pitch may be a sound proxy for figuring out which candidate may have the most testosterone, that doesn’t necessarily equate to being a better leader.
“In human history, politics was about physical contact, fighting with rocks and sticks,” Mr. Klofstad said. “Nowadays, war still matters, but our political battles are about ideologies and not physical conflicts.”
Another example of this sort of cognitive bias is something called the “third person effect,” according to David Greenberg, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of “Republic of Spin.” Because we like to protect our own egos, we tend to not worry about our own susceptibility to biased judgment, while worrying about others’ lack of savviness. That is to say, we only think other people’s biases are a problem.
Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a co-author of “Democracy Despite Itself,” said there are “three I’s” that unite voters: ignorance, irrationality and incompetence. He says that as voters, we don’t reflect on our own core beliefs and then seek out the candidate who best matches them. Instead, it’s usually quite the opposite: We decide which candidate we like based on subjective cues, then mold our beliefs to fit theirs.
“Most people have no idea where most candidates stand on most issues, so they just assume that the candidate agrees with them,” he said. “People will actually change their position to align with the candidates they prefer, and will also assume that candidates agree with them on important issues, even when that isn’t true.”
This isn’t to say that shortcuts in decision making are necessarily bad; they are often good. It’s evolutionarily beneficial for humans to be able to process a lot of information without shutting down.
“Heuristics are usually very helpful. We wouldn’t use them if they weren’t,” Mr. Oppenheimer said. “It’s just that sometimes they’re not.”
Good politicians know that voters make a large share of their decisions superficially, which is why campaigns spend so much time and energy devising an effective image for their candidate. Aside from celebrities, there is no one who is more conscious of his or her own subconscious signals, vocal and visual cues than a presidential candidate. Even politicians who appear messy or unscripted to the layman’s eye are most likely calculating how to appear that way to voters.
Remember when Senator Marco Rubio was spotted wearing shiny, high-heeled boots while campaigning in New Hampshire? Since then, Mr. Rubio has been upping his machismo on the trail.
In some ways, political parties are the original decision-making shortcut for voters. Don’t know anything about your local county clerk race, but identify as a Republican? There’s an easy way to help you quickly decide whom you’d probably rather see get elected. Candidate endorsements can also act as a mental shortcut — “I like Celebrity X, and she just endorsed Candidate Y, so I should support Candidate Y.” Being a single-issue voter is another way to ease decision fatigue. It’s a lot easier to figure out where all the candidates stand on one issue that’s important to you — abortion or climate change, say — than on every issue.
Mr. Oppenheimer said voting was a lot like grocery shopping, with more sensible but unappealing choices often losing out to tastier but less nutritious options. If someone like Gov. John Kasich of Ohio is a bag of low-calorie, gluten-free rice cakes, then Donald J. Trump, the Republican front-runner, is a big box of chocolate-chip cookies. Mr. Kasich may not have his own line of festive hats, but he does have experience both in executive office and in Congress. Sensible policy solutions just don’t taste as good as emotional appeals to fear and braggadocio promises to restore America’s lost greatness.
This is not to besmirch the good name of chocolate-chip cookies, or to suggest that American voters should support candidates they don’t find engaging. It’s unreasonable to expect every single voter in America to sit down and thoughtfully digest each candidates’ policy proposals.
“It’s simply silly to think that every single citizen is going to get up to speed on the differences between Medicare expansion and single-payer health care,” Mr. Greenberg said. “Individuals shouldn’t be held to a standard of being public policy students. That’s just not realistic. That’s not how people live their lives.”
What we can do is try to consciously push back against some of our baser instincts. When you decide to vote for a candidate, ask yourself: Why do I like this person? What does he or she represent that I agree with? Instead of trying to deny our innate superficiality, maybe we should try to embrace it. After all, we’re only human.