by Don Boudreaux on January 18, 2005

in Politics

UCLA psychiatrist Joshua Freedman has this interesting essay in today’s New York Times on neuropolitics studies.

Summarizing, he and other researchers – using MRI brain scans – find that voters deep down are not as partisan as they appear.  Importantly, the typical voter is less partisan than he appears even to himself!  Each of us appears to others and to our conscious selves to be more partisan – more ‘for’ candidate Jones and more ‘against’ candidate Smith – than we really are.

Here are some off-the-cuff reactions to these findings:

(1)   These findings support the median-voter model (which predicts that, in electoral systems such as the one we have in the U.S., right-wing candidates move to the left while left-wing candidates move to the right – all in an attempt to win more votes).  Looking more like each other than they would if the median-voter model were invalid, Democratic candidates appeal in a surprising number of ways to Republicans and Republican candidates appeal in a surprising number of ways to Democrats.

(2)   These findings highlight politics’ ‘bundling’ problem.  Each candidate has a position on each of the countless issues in play in each election.  It’s a practical certainty that every voter will find that his preferred candidate takes several positions that he dislikes and that his less-preferred candidate takes several positions that he likes.  Choice of which candidate to support is a choice of the entire (perceived) bundle.  (In these two posts, here and here, I speculate on how the world would look if we bought groceries in the same way that we ‘choose’ policies.)

(3) Because choosing Smith over Jones in the voting booth means that you really choose the bundle that is Smith over the bundle that is Jones, it’s very difficult to know if the candidate who wins the election won because of his position on some issue or despite his position on that issue.  These neuropolitics findings suggest that exit polling and other means of trying to decipher why people voted as they did are unlikely to reveal very much.  People deceive themselves (so these findings suggest) into feeling a greater loyalty toward their candidate than they ‘really’ have; they blind themselves to their candidate’s flaws and focus excessively on their candidate’s merits.  If voters are so easily self-deceived, what can polling tell us? 

(4)   I wonder what brain scans last year of Howard Dean supporters would have revealed.


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