5 November 2014

Electoral Debates and Psychology of Choice and Decision Making

Free Elections are the foundation stone of democracy and, in a way, the only chance The People have to say – do something that truly matters.  

As you might know, there are elections for President in my country of birth – Romania. Last week there was the first round of voting and next week there’s the second and final round between the last two candidates. A particularity of these elections is the lack of debates between candidates. In the first round of voting several candidates refused to take part in such debates, while in the second round, the socialist prime-minister (who’s the candidate with the most votes in round one) avoids a one-to-one confrontation – debate with his opponent.

Apart from having my own political views, I am also a psychologist who knows (quite) a lot on the psychology of decision making and choice.

In elections there are several cognitive biases that occur and, whether we like it or not, voting and the choice voters make have a very strong emotional component. We like to see political programs and we like to believe what candidates promise during electoral campaigns, but when it comes to the act of voting, emotion is the main driver.

One particular cognitive bias that thrives during electoral campaigns is Confirmation Bias. Basically we tend to follow information that confirms our existing beliefs and discard information that goes against what we already believe. Moreover, we find confirmatory information to be truer and we find disconfirming information as less true.

People want confirmation and not information.      

People who like candidate A will follow his (her) campaign closely and will more or less ignore candidate’s B campaign. If the two candidates never meet in a one-to-one confrontation, A’s voters will not see too much of candidate B and vice-versa.

Even in the case of a one-to-one debate between candidates the chances that a voter will change her mind and vote for the other candidate are slim at best. People who like A will find that A did better in the debate and B was awful. Likewise for people who like B.

We see what we want to see.

Another interesting psychological effect that occurs in electoral campaigns is whether people evaluate candidates jointly or separately. We know from psychology of choice that preferences can change depending on how we evaluate items (products, candidates etc.).
In brief, if two items are evaluated separately, the focus will be on the easy to evaluate attributes such as aesthetics, brand etc.

If, however, items are evaluated jointly (in direct comparison) the focus tends to shift towards the harder to evaluate attributes such as Hard-Disk capacity or number of programs a washing machine has.  This is because we tend to apply the rule “the more, the better”.

This difference between separate and joint evaluation modes would be more or less irrelevant if consumption would match the evaluation mode. Basically when evaluating jointly two items, say in a consumer electronics shop, we make comparisons that we will never make again after purchasing.

In a classic example from a paper by prof. Cristopher Hsee and colleagues, in a shop one might choose the large ugly speakers that sound a bit better than the smaller, more elegant ones. However, after the purchase the comparison in sound quality will never be made again and our shopper might end up with some ugly things in her living-room.

As a tip for making choices, think about how you will consume the product. If you will never make comparisons between what you bought and other similar items, do not make comparisons when purchasing because you might be fooled by your own mind.

When it comes to voting for a candidate or another things are quite similar. If candidate A is elected as president, senator or mayor, we will never make the comparison between A and B again… at least till the next elections.

The correct question is not whether A is better than B for president.

The correct questions are:
How good is A for president?
How good is B for president?
Which score is higher: A’s or B’s?

Then, why all the fuss on the lack of one-to-one debates?

Well, one reason is that we think that making comparisons is good. We also like to believe that people make a rational well-informed choice between candidates, therefore a one-to-one confrontation is the best way to make that rational, well-informed decision.

But, we (those who know a thing or two about decision making psychology) know that voting doesn’t go like this.

There is, however, an upside to a one-to-one debate between candidates.

We know that people who like A will (most likely) not shift their vote to B and vice versa regardless of their performance in the confrontation.

There are, however, people who are undecided and by undecided I don’t mean people who are indifferent to voting for A or for B. Most undecided people have a preference or an inclination towards one of the candidates. Some of them somehow like A, while others kind-of like B. However, these people are not sure if to vote at all or not.

A one-to-one confrontation between candidates might make some of these undecided people, but who have a preference, to actually go and vote.

So in a one-to-one electoral debate, each candidate has to confirm to his (her) voters that they are right and to mobilize the undecided who kind-of prefer him/her.   

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