for National Geographic News
Memo to U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain: Most undecided voters may already have settled on you without realizing it, a new study suggests.
People's voting decisions on a future political issue are largely determined by automatic mental associations, even when people consciously believe that they are still undecided.
Such mental associations could include attitudes toward ethnicity and age, for example.
(Related: Voter Decision Affected by Polling Place, Study Finds [June 23, 2008].)
"The decisions that people make may often be rooted in automatic mental associations that have roots far earlier than they realize," said study co-author Bertram Gawronski, a social psychology researcher at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.
For their study, the researchers examined the views of citizens of Vicenza, Italy, on a controversial political issue: the expansion of a local United States military base.
Participants were surveyed about their conscious beliefs about whether the base should be expanded.
But they also took part in a computer exercise using words and pictures to test their automatic associations related to the base expansion.
When the volunteers were asked about the issue a week later, a clear relation between their automatic associations and their voting behavior emerged.
For citizens who had initially claimed to be undecided, their subsequent decisions were mostly consistent with the automatic mental associations they had made.
"For roughly 70 percent of the participants who originally indicated that they were undecided, we could precisely say if the participants would be in favor, against, or still undecided about the base expansion," Gawronski said.
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