"Undecided" Voters' Minds Already Made Up, Study Says

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
August 22, 2008
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.

Implicit Attitudes

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.

The study appears today in the journal Science.


Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the author of the book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, said there are two interpretations of the study results.

"It may be that participants really had made up their minds and just didn't know it yet," said Wilson, who was not involved with the study but wrote an accompanying article in this week's Science.

"Or they may have been leaning in one direction unconsciously and that biased how they interpreted the information they got about the issue in subsequent days."

Gawronski, the study co-author, says automatic mental associations play a particularly important role in a person's decision-making when it comes to ambiguous situations, such as political debates.

"In a debate between Obama and McCain, it may not be entirely clear who showed the better performance," he said.

"But undecided voters with more favorable associations with McCain may see him as the one who did the better job" and vice versa, Gawronski said.

"It's this biased perception of events that then provide the basis of their future decisions," he added.

Poll Predictions

The study findings may help experts better predict election outcomes from polling data.

And one thing is clear: Undecided voters should probably not be taken at their word, said Wilson of the University of Virginia.

"They may either have made up their minds, or they are leaning in one direction," he said.

"Perhaps what campaigns should be doing is not persuading people to change their minds but basically getting people who are leaning in one direction out to the polls.

"The problem, of course, is how to figure out who's your voter."

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