Voters get to choose how they think

Paranoid conspiracy theories about mass mind control via subliminal messages in party political broadcasts aside, it is the voters, not the politicians, who get to choose how to go about making the decision on who to give their votes to.

Knowing why people vote the way they do is tough. That is not only because people may be reluctant to be honest to others about their motivations, but also because people are often bad at understanding themselves.

In fact, one of the findings increasingly coming out from research into how we make decisions is that often we make a decision using our subconscious and only afterwards come up with a justification for it. Our subconscious decides, our conscious rationalises.

It is an intriguing – and in some ways, scary – finding, that is best illustrated by a clever experiment where people were shown photographs of two similar, but different, people and asked to pick which one was the most attractive. They were then given that photograph and asked to explain the reason for their decision.

Except that what the researchers did was try out a bit of sleight of hand, so sometimes the person was actually given the photograph of the other person. The vast majority of the time, people did not notice that the photograph has been swapped and, moreover, went on to give detailed reasons as to why they had picked that photograph – even though they had selected the other one.

This power of rationalising a decision after you have made it – even if, in fact, you did not actually make it – has wide implications in the fields such as behavioural economics and is increasingly popular in pop psychology literature such as Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller Blink.

It also has major implications for political campaigning. The power of the subtle signals which we pick up subconsciously can move votes just as it moves other decisions.

In some ways, the implications are not so new as they reinforce the point increasingly made in recent years about how people do not just vote based on careful consideration of competing policies, but also on more impressionistic grounds such as whether someone seems honest, credible or competent.

There is a decent rational argument for stepping away from detailed policy considerations, because so often events come up which were unpredicted at the time of an election and require decisions that were not discussed in the campaign or itemised in manifestos (a point often made by Charles Kennedy). Events throw up new and unexpected political challenges. If you picked a candidate based on their skills and outlook, they are more likely to have a response that is one you are happy with.

For campaigning then there are three (of course) things to remember.

First, when presenting a candidate for election, remember to present not just their polices but also why they are the right person in terms of judgement, skill or experience for the job. Even better, define the job up for election as one that your candidate, and only your candidate, can do.

Second, candidates need to show how they understand and respect the perspectives that voters are coming from. Do they understand and share the values of those people?

Third, small details can influence those subconscious decisions which often trump the rational mind. ‘Action photographs’, which repeatedly show a candidate all on their own send a subconscious – and unflattering – message, for example. You almost certainly won’t find a voter saying, “Your candidate seems a bit lonely” on the doorstep, but it can still influence views, even if the post-decision rationalisation for the views talk about something else.

In other words, pay attention to personalities, pay attention to values and pay attention to details (and if you want to know more about how to do that, you can of course try 101 Ways To Win An Election).

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