Brains for voting

Elections are supposed to be about asking citizens which policies they want. In practice many more factors play a significant role, not least emotional ones. By peering into the brain of voters their behaviour might become more transparent – for voters themselves as well as for the parties who court them.

It is a well-researched phenomenon that consumers will buy more products if they are led through a supermarket counter clockwise. Marketing experts know many more tricks to persuade consumers to buy things. Yet, if a researcher would give consumers a questionnaire about their shopping decisions, few of them would state that they were motivated by the lighting or their route through the shop. Of course, their main motivation is that they need certain products. Nevertheless the influence of unconscious incentives is significant in making them part with their money.


The same might apply to voters, thinks Martin Rosema, who has built a career on researching the psychology of elections. ‘There plenty of themes to explore’, he explains. ‘How do people decide on which party to vote? How do parties attract voters? Why do people bother to vote at all? What is the impact of assistance tools for online voting?’

Traditionally voter behaviour is studied by asking voters to fill in questionnaires. These certainly tell a lot, as in the case of supermarkets, but much remains untold. Rosema: ‘It is said voters these days vote for party leaders they like rather than policy. That’s only partly true. Policy remains the dominant consideration. It is true, however, that voters are bad at pointing out the motives for their choice. As a result, questionnaires have limitations.’

Unlike shopping sprees elections do not happen on a daily basis, thereby limiting the scope for observation of voter behaviours. Therefore Rosema is opting for another method to lay bare their hidden motives.


‘We are planning to combine political science and neuropsychology’, Rosema says. ‘The idea is to put people in an mri-scanner, present them with textual and visual fragments on political themes and see what these do to their brain. We already know quite a lot about where the emotional centres of the brain are located. So, we should be able to see if certain fragments trigger certain emotions. Once we know how to connect emotions and policies we may try to link these to party preferences.’

Jumping to conclusions is certainly a risk, Rosema warns. If, for instance, a picture of an overcrowded boat with migrants triggers the amygdala, the brain centre associated with fear, it could still mean totally different things. One person could fear the boat will sink, while another might fear the migrants taking away his job. The two ostensibly similar cerebral effects of the same picture would probably be linked to quite different voting behaviour.

Still, Rosema thinks that, when treated carefully, physiological reactions to political statements can be a measure of voting intent. ‘In the forties pollsters would visit people at their homes to ask them about their voting intentions’, he says. ‘Quickly they learned to predict which way people would vote on the basis of their living style, even if their research subjects themselves told the pollsters they were undecided. So there is really nothing new about trying to predict voting on basis of indirect information. Right now it is far-fetched to think of predicting someone’s vote on basis of a brain scan, but it is not unthinkable.’

Positive mood

Naturally, political parties, who are already using demographic and other data extensively in their election campaigns, will be interested in getting into the voter’s brain. To a certain extent they already have. Researchers have shown, for example, that using active phrases such as ‘run and ‘jump’ in election brochures stimulates people to go to a polling station more than ‘sleep’ and ‘relax’. If such a weak stimulus has a measurable effect, there must be more powerful ones.

‘For example, winning a football championship can bring a whole country in a very positive mood’, Rosema says. ‘If elections are held shortly afterwards, the outcome will be affected. Ideally, our research could predict which parties were to profit most.’

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