About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The physiology and psychology of voting

In case you haven’t noticed, election season is upon us! Ok, it has been upon us for almost two years, but never mind that. Pollsters are busy trying to determine why people might be voting for one candidate or another, with special attention being paid to the so-called undecided voters, on whose last-minute whim the fate of the nation -- and the world -- seems to hinge.

Two recent studies, however, provide much food for thought about why people vote one way or the other, and about the reasons they give to themselves and others. A paper by Douglas Oxley and collaborators in Science (19 September) investigated the effect of physiological reactions to a perceived threat on people’s political opinions. Their findings were startling, to say the least. Oxley and colleagues discovered that people who react physiologically (as measured by changes in their skin conductance) to sudden noises or to threatening images are much more likely to support conservative issues like gun control, the war in Iraq, restrictions in immigration and so forth.

Indeed, the magnitude of the response was astounding. The researchers used a multiple regression analysis to compare the effects of change in skin conductance levels in response to threatening images, gender, age, education, and income on support for socially “protective” policies such as the ones listed above. The only two statistically significant effects were those of education (less education translated into more support for conservative policies) and skin conductance. That in itself means that -- within the confines of this study -- physiology trumps gender, age and income, traditionally considered highly relevant causal factors in politics by social scientists. Moreover, the regression coefficient associated with skin conductance was more than 56 times that of education! Similar results were obtained when skin conductance was measured in reaction to startling noises, though in that case the corresponding regression coefficient was of the same magnitude as the one for education. Finally, when skin conductance was measured in response to non-threatening images, the only variable with a significant effect was education. Wow.

The news for political scientists doesn't get any better after one reads the second study, by S. Galdi and collaborators, also published in Science earlier in the summer (22 August). Galdi and colleagues were interested in the effect of what Science commentators Wilson and Bar-Anan call “the unseen mind,” that is the unconscious apparatus that our mind uses for rapid decision making. The results strongly indicated that whatever reasons people give for their choices have little if anything to do with the real reasons they make their choices. For instance, subjects were given photos of two women and asked to pick which one they preferred. After a while, the subjects were shown the picture they selected and asked to provide the reasons for the choice. Here is the kicker: through sleight of hand, the experimenters sometimes provided the respondents with the wrong picture, the one of the woman they said they did not like. Surprisingly, people articulated convincing reasons for their stated choices, regardless of whether they corresponded or not with their original ones! In other words, once confronted with a given choice, even the one they did not make, subjects were perfectly capable of providing reasons for that choice, with seemingly no hint of conscious fabrication. They were simply able to quickly convince themselves that that was in fact their choice, and to equally quickly provide the researchers with the rationale for it. So much for the value of exit polls.

This sort of research keeps raising questions about Aristotle’s assumption that humans are “the rational animal,” an assumption on which philosophical discourse, science itself, and public education are all based. It increasingly looks like we are more like “the rationalizing animal,” with serious consequences for how we interact with each other. Even so, I’m inclined not to be too pessimistic, though, since learning more about how the human mind really works -- as opposed to the way we would like it to work -- is surely the only way to discern effective from fruitless approaches to engage that mind in productive discourse. Just beware of loud noises, threatening images, and investigators who surreptitiously switch the pictures of women you like with those you don’t.


  1. I'm extremely dubious about the significance of Galdi's study. I haven't read the study itself yet (and I'm unlikely to for time reasons), but I've read another summary/discussion considerably more detailed than yours. It seems pretty clear to me that the researchers presented subjects a classic "forced choice" situation. If forced to choose between two alternatives which both have merits, one will naturally contemplate those merits while making one's choice between them. Straightforward and long-familiar availability effects would cause the subjects to remember the merits of whichever picture they were presented with later. This rather ordinary effect would be especially pronounced if, as I suspect, the researchers used pictures that were fairly similar in terms of the criteria usually used to make attractiveness judgments (age, facial symettry, etc.).

    The connection between fear and conservative voting is much more telling, although not exactly surprising. If strength of startle response is as strongly correlated with knee-jerk conservatism as this study shows, then all those "swing voters" with a middling-strong startle response would be particularly vulnerable to the Rethuglican strategy emphasizing the politics of fear: Vote for us or... The terrorists will getcha! The brown people will take your jobs! The libruls will take your guns so you can't protect yourself from all those terrorists and scary brown people!


    It makes me wonder what other failures of reason might be traced to a underlying cause as simple as a hyper-active amygdala?

  2. The physiological reaction comes from knowing that most everything on the left is attached to non-pro-life views. And it is the ONLY ISSUE btw.

    And the only people I have been seeing blowing up and marching out of the room over politics lately are BHO supporters. How many examples do you want?

    I can get us a high resolution abortion on "you tube", but for anyone to log in they will have to go through a series of age verification hoops to get there. I personally do not want to watch one myself, but I feel that anyone who does support this REALLY ought to see one. AND IF you have hardened yourself so much that there is NO OUTRAGE AND SADNESS in ref to seeing something like this, then you ought to ask what IS WRONG with your physiological state.


    4D womb scape w/baby (very nice)


    Born alive


  3. thinkmonkey,

    yes, Galdi's study is a case of forced choice. But isn't that exactly what happens during elections? Or, for that matter, most times in life?

  4. Forced choices, yes, but forced choices between alternatives of relatively comparable merit? Not so much.

    Ask me to choose between two pictures of women of similar age and health, as Galdi's study did, and I'll make a largely idiosyncratic and somewhat arbitrary choice based on my tastes then forget about it. When presented with the other picture later, I would certainly come up with nice things to say about her as well. *shrug* That's not quite the same as, for example, the real forced choices we make in an election.

    Yes, some elections are no more than the choice between the evil of two lessers - or whatever. But in some elections we are presented with a forced choice between very stark alternatives, not between two very similar choices with largely shared merits. The choice between Obama and McCain is as stark as the choice between peace and war, generosity and greed, calm competence and hot-tempered foolishness. I guaran-damn-tee you that if someone came back to me after I cast my vote for Obama and asked me what justified my decision to vote for McCain, I'd be screaming about Diebold voting machine fraud rather than blandly listing McCain's few political merits...


  5. Caliana's comments are now so clearly within the "spam" range that I wonder if Massimo can block her comments. Is there such a feature on Blogger? If so, I think Pigliucci should use it.

  6. I agree with Joseph. Cal has decended into the realm of spamming.

  7. If you feel "spammed" for having to look at something that you vote for and claim to believe is okay for people to do...I don't know what to tell you.

    You'll just have to feel that way.

    In the meantime, if anyone "feels" like being honest about the horrific nature of this "procedure" it's time to observe an abortion before you vote once again for the left.

    Things done in secret or under the privacy of a clinic are no less damaging to our culture. And just because you haven't seen something, does not mean that it is not the worst possible thing that you can imagine.

    It is SO much worse than you can imagine.

  8. Who brought up abortion?

    Caliana did.

    Who posted unwanted media on abortion?

    Caliana did.

  9. "Who posted unwanted media on abortion?"

    I wouldn't have expected it to be wanted. But "wanted" does not necessarily make something more valuable or relevant. It just makes the people who don't care to hear about it not truly for "free choice".

    Children who are never born because someone ends a pregnancy intentionally never get to choose if they want to live or not.


    And YES, this is all that this election really is about. Are you for "life" and therefore TRUE "choice" or not?

  10. I have no intention of discussing the moral aspects of abortion with you, Caliana. I only wished to point out that you are a spammer and, as such, Dr. Pigliucci would be justified in blocking your posts if he chose to do so. That you are a troll is, I believe readily apparent to anyone who has read your comments on this post.

  11. Cal,
    Thanks, I have always wanted to see and abortion, I will go check it out.
    Your outrage is very selective. Perhaps we should see more images of the victims of U.S. bombing in Iraq and Afghanistan? Actual persons with names and identities, instead week old tadpole like fetuses.

    "And YES, this is all that this election really is about. Are you for "life" and therefore TRUE "choice" or not?"

    Well maybe for you abortion is the one center of the universe issue. For most of the rest of us, we have other interests.

    But do note, humanity under utilizes its capacity to bring in new babies to this world. Abortion is one method, but not the best, of keeping this capacity in check. And it is probably a good thing because our will to take care of the world's children fails to meet the need for that care.

    I propose Massimo keep Cal's comments around and we start nominating some of her statements to the following website,

    "Fundies Say the Darndest Things"


    But seriously, she does fly off the topic on a whim, thus distracting from the intelectually interesting exchange that does occur here.

  12. Re: Caliana

    Notice that I ignored Caliana's first comment when I replied to Massimo, and that Massimo ignored Cal too. In the words of a famous imaginary man-deity, "Go forth, and do thou likewise."


  13. The effect of Sumatran coffee on skin conductance.

    There's your thesis ...someone.

  14. Since several people have asked, I'll comment about Caliana. As thinkmonkey noticed, my policy with her for quite some time now has been to ignore her. On the other hand, several people here seem to enjoy tearing her nonsense to shreds, and I often get a chuckle out of your responses to her.

    So I'm inclined not to use the power of barring a member from commenting. Also because that member could easily sign up under a different name and start all over again...

  15. "So I'm inclined not to use the power of barring a member from commenting. Also because that member could easily sign up under a different name and start all over again..."

    BUT YOU KNOW I would NEVER do that. To get me to leave, all you have to do is ask me to leave.

    I totally respect you as owner and moderator of this blog, and I'll simply do as you wish. You may run into people all the time that will insist on getting their way one way or another, but I'm not quite that complicated.

    I'm only here because you LET me be here. :) And I'll stand behind and comply w/ whatever decision you make.

    What is your pref on this matter?


  16. Caliana,

    as I said, I'm not in the habit of censoring, unless one uses foul language or becomes deliberately insulting (now, some here would say you have crossed the latter line with some of your posts, but that is an admittedly subjective line, and my skin is pretty thick...).

  17. If you consider placing the truth of how something works in front of your face as insulting, there is not too much that won't be considered an insult to you.

    And if I were to vote for something, I certainly would not want to do so unadvisedly. Anyone who does so does this does so under a differing pretense of BLIND faith.

    Funny thing is, M,, I have never felt shredded here at all. There are far worse things in life than having someone tell you that they don't think your pov has any merit. And that is, having a POV that actually HAS NO MERIT.

    I expect a decision from you...

  18. If only Cal would stick to the issue at hand...

  19. One little point of terminology: I think that Conservatives in the U.S. oppose gun control, not support it.

    Other than that, a correlation is not a cause. It's quite possible that people who've convinced themselves that this is a dangerous world are more nervous, like the man who heard a rustle in the closet and shot his prank-playing daughter & her friend or the people who shot someone on their doorstep for ringing the door bell. It would be interesting to do a longitudinal study and compare infant reactions with political convictions. One of the nine well-known character traits of babies is whether they like new things. And that probably explains why there's more evidence for the genetic transmission of conservative politics than for intelligence. It also suggests that it will be difficult for either side to change the mind of the other--although education helps, applied over about 30 years.

  20. I have spent all my childhood and youth under a leftist state government and federal governments aligned at various times to conservative, centrist and social ideologies. Having been trained in medicine, and undergone parts of the same in the most rural as well as the most urban set ups in a developing country, my opinion is that pro-life and non-pro-life issues have absolutely nothing to do with the political ideology of a governing structure.
    The morality of the social stance on medical termination of pregnancy (MTP) is more dependent on prevailing local socio-politico-religious currents than on anything else.
    To characterize medical termination of pregnancy as the only non-pro-life issue and to link it with one particular political philosophy reflects a myopic and ill-informed POV on the part of the opiner.

  21. Cal,

    A Pro-choice voter does NOT necessarily aprrove of abortion.

    If you are interested in actually reducing abortions, you may want to think about voting Democratic.

    Please consider carefully what former President Jimmy Carter - personally opposed to abortion - has to say about the pro life movement which he believes ironcially and tragically causes more abortions:

    Carter is opposed to abortion, as what he calls a tragedy "brought about by a combination of human errors." But the "pro-life" forces compound rather than reduce the errors. The most common abortions, and the most common reasons cited for undergoing them, are caused by economic pressure compounded by ignorance.
    Yet the anti-life movement that calls itself pro-life protects ignorance by opposing family planning, sex education, and informed use of contraceptives, tactics that not only increase the likelihood of abortion but tragedies like AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The rigid system of the "pro-life" movement makes poverty harsher as well, with low minimum wages, opposition to maternity leaves, and lack of health services and insurance. In combination, these policies make ideal conditions for promoting abortion, as one can see from the contrast with countries that do have sex education and medical insurance. Carter writes:

    Canadian and European young people are about equally active sexually, but, deprived of proper sex education, American girls are five times as likely to have a baby as French girls, seven times as likely to have an abortion, and seventy times as likely to have gonorrhea as girls in the Netherlands. Also, the incidence of HIV/ AIDS among American teenagers is five times that of the same age group in Germany.... It has long been known that there are fewer abortions in nations where prospective mothers have access to contraceptives, the assurance that they and their babies will have good health care, and at least enough income to meet their basic needs.

    For more, including citations, see HG's blogpost

  22. I'm more fascinated about the local politics, ... sure, its easy to follow the "national scene" ... and you feel all well informed, ... and then you get into the "voting booth" to find (aghast) that most the names and questions on the local ballot are unrecognizable. And I'm pretty in tune.

  23. Thinkmonkey,

    That link was hilarious, thanks! :-D

  24. Galdi's study doesn't surprise me. From what I've read of split-brain experiments, the human mind makes most decisions on a substantially non-verbal level, and then the part of us that speaks is really just sort of a public relations department, that makes up justifications for our actions.


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