Uncategorized — 11 December 2008

The debate about what makes people vote the way they do is timeless. The view that the unlike-minded person is strange, unwise or confused by selecting the other candidate is common. Since political votes are not based on issues, what truly makes one a Republican, Democrat or an Independent and what can a candidate do to sway some to his/her side?

In addition to all the political scientists, pundits, analysts, reporters and interviewers, psychological researchers have also entered the field of study related to political stances of individuals. Both social psychologists and neuroscientists have contributed new findings as to the source of one’s political persuasion.

Jonathan Haidt, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, writes: “Conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death. People vote Republican because Republicans offer “moral clarity”—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep-seated fears in much of the electorate. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.”

David M Amodio and colleagues in “Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism” identified the specific brain activity that correlates with greater liberalism. It supported what political scientists and psychologists have theorized that, “On average, conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty”.

Beyond the innate personality and electrical brain activities that may determine one’s political predispositions, additional factors come to play. Haidt adds that “Feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete.” Robert Putnam in “E Pluribus Unum” (“From many, one”) pointed out that people’s sense of belonging and shared community is an additional essential factor in determining individuals’ political choices.

Interestingly enough, regardless of one’s innate personality structure and neurocognitive brain activity, the psychological issues purported by these scientists parallel Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ theory of human motivation. Needs start with the essentials of food, shelter and clothing, (physical security and stability), followed by belonging needs, (the connection to the whole), and only later come the needs for self –actualization.

It appears then, that the candidate who hopes to win has to:

• Understand that voter decisions are primarily based on emotions – not issues. The main emotional assessment is how will you, the candidate, best serve me- the voter.
• Address the basic human needs universal to all people. Begin with security, stability, and safe physical survival for the majority of people.
• Use unifying language that assures us that you will provide sufficient group protection for our essential needs, such as health, education, and social security.
• Deal with the emotions that propel our decisions more than with the logic behind the options. For example, most people get repelled by negative advertising, as accurate as they may be.
• Maximize your likeability, veracity, appeal and image. These traits evoke our strong emotions of familiarity and trust.
• Admit mistakes, errors and untruths. Americans are forgiving when they encounter humility.
• Since every person wants to feel important, recognized and valued, address us in a personal and affirming way. Look into our eyes, not at us.
• Use enthusiasm, positive energy and direct appeal to increase our voter confidence and hope.
• Speak clearly and directly about the benefits to us rather than attempt to impress us with complicated and incomprehensible plans.
• Respect the savvy of the average voter by documenting the funding sources for all your promised programs. It reduces fear, disbelief and mistrust.
• Above all, be as human, real, personable and familiar to us as you can. This helps us feel that you are close enough to us to understand our needs and that you care enough to be there for us as a good parent always will.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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