How Emotions Shape Our Voting Behaviour

Emotions are not mere distractions or obstacles to rationality; they are essential components of our political psychology. Let’s understand the sway of emotions and psychology on voting behaviour, revealing their profound influence on electoral choices and the broader implications for democratic decision-making and governance within nations
By Barish Raman
  • Emotions stem from beliefs, judgments, and behavior, while social beings are influenced by upbringing and environment
  • Raised in a butcher family, my views on veganism may differ; killing animals doesn’t evoke the guilt veganism aims for
  • Elections hinge on persuasion, a pivotal psychological concept often underestimated in its influence and potency
  • ‘Stürmer’, Streicher’s publication, held such sway that it was Hitler’s sole cover-to-cover read. authored anti-Semitic children’s books

WE all strive to change the fate of a nation, on an organisational, district, city, state and then a country-wide election by pressing just a single button. A single action of our finger has substantial implications for an entire country, but often, we forget that that finger is attached to a body with a brain, a mind and even more importantly, a heart. As much as we may think otherwise, it is actually our emotions that guide us in life, reigning supremacy over logical thinking or rationality. 

In the realm of political decision-making, voters often ponder two fundamental inquiries when contemplating their allegiance to a particular party or candidate. Firstly, they seek to discern whether the individual in question possesses an understanding and empathy towards individuals akin to themselves. Secondly, they assess whether the candidate aligns with their core values. Interestingly, these queries remain consistent regardless of the level of voter education, as they resonate on both an emotional and rational level, underscoring their significance in the electoral process. Dr Drew Westen, a political psychologist and consultant for nonprofits and Democrats, suggests that politics is “less a marketplace of ideas than a marketplace of emotions.” 

INTERPLAY OF EMOTIONS AND COGNITION

Emotions don’t exist in a vacuum; they are both causes and products of our beliefs, judgments, and behaviour. We, as social beings, don’t exist in isolation either; we are born as nothing but malleable clay that is shaped, cut, and solidified by who we are born, who we are born to, where we are and who we interact with. All these factors shape our judgments and beliefs, which influence not only our decision-making but also the catalysts that incite emotion in us. Growing up in a family of butchers, my opinions about veganism might not necessarily be congruent since maybe, the thought of killing animals doesn’t incite the guilt in me that the ideology of veganism aims to. The concerning fact of the matter is that in political discourse, what we care about and not have far more impacting implications. 

A seminal work in understanding the Psychology of Voting is “The American Voter” (Campbell, Converse, Miller, & Stokes, 1960), authored by Phillip Converse, who, drawing from his background in social psychology during the 1950s, contributed significantly to the early development of academic theories on voter behaviour. 

Voters often ponder two fundamental inquiries when contemplating their allegiance to a particular party or candidate. Firstly, they seek to discern whether the individual in question possesses an understanding and empathy towards individuals akin to themselves. Secondly, they assess whether the candidate aligns with their core values

Central to “The American Voter” was the assertion that individuals’ affiliation with a political party forms early in life and typically persists into adulthood, influencing their perceptions of political events and figures, thereby perpetuating party loyalty. Concurrently, other noteworthy research has highlighted that political campaigns seldom alter individuals’ party loyalties. Instead, these campaigns primarily activate existing predispositions within voters, shaping their interpretation of new information and leading to choices that can often be anticipated before the campaign commences. This supports the rational voter concept, which argues that voters do not always make decisions by carefully considering all available information but rather rely on heuristic, shortcut, and emotive cues when making decisions.

In the complex commerce of cognition and emotion, recent research unveils a profound interconnection between the two realms, reshaping our understanding of how they influence our thoughts and behaviours. Memories steeped in emotion possess a remarkable tenacity, imprinting themselves deeply within our minds and subtly guiding our choices. Consider a woman unconsciously drawn to a life partner who mirrors the traits of her beloved father—a poignant illustration of how childhood emotions can intricately shape our adult decisions and social interactions.

Emotions serve as potent catalysts for memory formation, etching experiences into our minds with indelible clarity. A childhood encounter with a fearsome dog can leave an enduring mark, evoking visceral reactions years later at the mere sight of a canine companion.

Yet, the influence of emotions on cognition is a nuanced interplay, with both positive and negative effects. In moments of rage or panic, clarity eludes us, clouding our judgement and hindering logical thinking. Conversely, the warmth of maternal love fosters keen discernment, guiding thoughtful decisions in the complex landscape of parenthood. The research underscores the detrimental impact of negative emotions like anger and anxiety on problem-solving abilities and creativity, emphasising the pivotal role of cultivating positive emotional states. Gratitude, love, and hope not only enhance decision-making but also nurture emotional and mental well-being.

Central to this discourse is the concept of emotional intelligence—our ability to navigate and harness emotions effectively. Individuals with a high EQ exhibit resilience in the face of adversity, adeptly managing conflicts and fostering robust relationships.

In essence, the synergy between cognition and emotion forms the bedrock of human experience, shaping our perceptions, choices, and ultimately, our paths in life. Embracing this symbiotic relationship, we unlock the power to make mindful decisions, guided by the wisdom of both heart and mind. 

BALLOTS & EMOTIONS : THE HEARTBEAT OF DEMOCRACY

The omnipresent forces of persuasion and propaganda significantly shape the political landscape, influencing the formation of our views, our sense of community, and our electoral choices

POLITICS is often seen as a rational and logical domain, where facts, evidence, and arguments prevail over emotions, biases, and intuitions. But emotions actually play a big role in how we think about politics. They help us care about certain issues, feel connected to certain groups, and support certain candidates. The omnipresent forces of persuasion and propaganda significantly shape the political landscape, influencing the formation of our views, our sense of community, and our electoral choices. The mindset of an elector at the polling booth is shaped by an array of factors, encompassing cognitive, emotional, social, and contextual elements. Here are some pivotal psychological factors that can sway voters:

IDENTITY AND BELONGING: Emotions are deeply intertwined with our sense of self and community. Political entities leverage this by crafting narratives that echo the sentiments of voters’ identities. For example, in the 2016 US Presidential election, Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” made people feel patriotic and nostalgic. Many of his supporters felt a profound emotional bond with Trump’s campaign, perceiving him as a representative of their ideals and convictions. In a similar vein, in India, catchphrases such as ‘Ab ki Baar Modi Sarkar’ and ‘Modi Hai to Mumkin Hai’ evoked comparable emotional responses among the electorate. Furthermore, the dynamics of caste-based politics play a pivotal role in shaping voter behaviour in India.

FEAR AND ANXIETY: Emotions like fear and anxiety can be powerful motivators for voters. Political advertisements often exploit these emotions by highlighting potential threats or dangers associated with opposing candidates or policies. Fear-mongering tactics can sway undecided voters towards a particular candidate or party. During the Brexit referendum in the UK, proponents of leaving the European Union capitalised on fears surrounding immigration and loss of sovereignty. Emotionally charged messages about controlling borders and regaining control resonated with voters who were anxious about the perceived threats posed by EU membership. In India, Political Parties like Trinamool Congress in West Bengal have actively courted Muslim voters by positioning itself as a protector of minority rights and interests.

HOPE AND OPTIMISM: On the flip side, emotions like hope and optimism can also influence voting behaviour. Political campaigns that offer a vision of a better future or promise positive change resonate with voters who are seeking optimism amidst uncertainty. Candidates who inspire hope can mobilise support and enthusiasm among voters. Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012 were characterised by messages of hope and optimism. His promises of change and unity resonated with voters disillusioned by partisan politics and economic uncertainty.

EMPATHY AND COMPASSION: Voters are drawn to candidates who they perceive as empathetic and compassionate. Emotional appeals that showcase a candidate’s understanding of voters’ struggles and hardships can foster a sense of connection and trust. Candidates who can evoke empathy are more likely to garner support from voters. One notable example is the rise of Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). During the 2013 Delhi Assembly elections, the AAP campaigned on a platform focused on issues affecting the common man, such as corruption, price rises, and access to basic services. Arvind Kejriwal, the party’s leader, effectively connected with voters by empathising with their everyday struggles and promising to address their concerns. Kejriwal’s grassroots approach and genuine concern for the welfare of ordinary citizens resonated with voters, particularly those disillusioned with traditional political parties. Ultimately, the AAP’s empathetic appeal and commitment to addressing the needs of the common man helped the party secure a stunning victory in the Delhi elections, forming the government with a significant mandate. 

PERSONAL EXPERIENCES AND TRAUMA: In countries with a history of conflict or oppression, voters may be deeply influenced by personal experiences of trauma. For example, in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, many voters cast their ballots based on their experiences under apartheid and their hopes for a more inclusive and equitable future.

POWER OF PERSUASION 

Looking at India’s political campaigns of the past decade with social media being a medium, we can see that most videos tap into our emotions by showing a protagonist that we can connect with emotionally who talks about their problems,  but not just their problems as their own but using a collective pronoun with ‘We’, whether that is shedding light on “the farmers of our country”, or, “Our electric bills”. These ads are a great example of Implicit techniques of not only helping viewers connect emotionally but also connecting them with the sense of belonging to a bigger group which is something humans strive for and time and time again, social psychological research has shown that we are always likely to be more agreeable when we feel the need to conform, when in a group.

Another factor regarding emotions dictating our decisions is the fact that emotions can be fleeting and oftentimes we cannot think back to why we did, what we did based on our emotions of that current time. This explains why political campaigns or governments choose to carry out huge decisions or monumental phenomena to sway the emotions of their voters to sustain a recency bias. The timing of Ram Mandir serves as a great example of this. This is interesting because after the recency bias might fade, voters might not necessarily still hold those views but have already voted. 

Individuals’ affiliation with a political party forms early in life and typically persists into adulthood, influencing their perceptions of political events and figures, thereby perpetuating party loyalty. Concurrently, other noteworthy research has highlighted that political campaigns seldom alter individuals’ party loyalties

When talking about elections and voting, it is impossible to not bring up a central concept of psychology that plays a huge role, which is persuasion. We often underestimate and don’t realise the power of persuasion. A great example is the Pew survey (2003) that showed a pronounced division emerged between Americans and Western Europeans regarding the Iraq war. Before the conflict, Americans largely supported military action against Iraq, contrasting sharply with European opposition. Once the war commenced, American support surged, while international sentiment remained largely opposed.

This disparity in viewpoints underscores the persuasive power at play. Media narratives, particularly in the United States, played a significant role in shaping attitudes. Half of Americans came to believe Saddam Hussein was directly linked to the 9/11 attacks, and an overwhelming majority falsely anticipated the discovery of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Sociologist James Davison Hunter highlights the top-down nature of culture-shaping, where cultural elites influence the dissemination of information. Consequently, individuals across different regions were exposed to contrasting narratives about the war, leading to divergent beliefs and interpretations. Something that we see often in the Indian political landscape whether that is with celebrities doing ads or signing up for a political party when acting in front of a camera gets too boring and they decide to change things up. Nazi Germany serves as another instance of this, Paul Joseph Goebbels, Germany’s Minister for National Enlightenment and Propaganda during the Nazi regime, possessed a profound understanding of the power of persuasion. Entrusted with control over various media outlets such as publications, radio broadcasts, motion pictures, and the arts, Goebbels utilised these platforms to propagate Nazi ideology, including virulent anti-Semitism. Working alongside Julius Streicher, who published the vehemently anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, they orchestrated a systematic campaign aimed at indoctrinating the German populace.

Streicher’s publication, ‘Der Stürmer’, held such sway that it was reportedly the sole newspaper read cover to cover by Adolf Hitler himself. Additionally, Streicher authored anti-Semitic children’s literature, further perpetuating hatred towards Jews. Together with Goebbels, they played pivotal roles in orchestrating mass rallies, integral components of the Nazi propaganda apparatus.

Emotions are often fleeting, Making it challenging to recall the rationale behind our decisions. Political campaigns and governments capitalise on this by choosing to carry out huge decisions or monumental phenomena to sway the emotions of their voters to sustain a recency bias. The timing of ram mandir serves as a great example of this

While it’s true that not all Germans were persuaded to harbour intense animosity towards Jews, a significant portion succumbed to the insidious propaganda. It’s essential to acknowledge that while not every German citizen actively participated in or endorsed the atrocities of the Holocaust, many either remained silent or complacent in the face of the regime’s genocidal agenda. Without the complicity or indifference of millions, the Holocaust could not have occurred—a sobering reminder of the dangerous potency of propaganda and the ease with which it can manipulate collective consciousness. Not very contrasting but rather of the same colours, when we look at today’s time with the rise of media (Godi and otherwise) that serves a certain narrative in India today or the highly misconstrued and rather heartless coverage of the genocide of Palestine.

These examples demonstrate the diverse outcomes of persuasion, which can range from contentious to beneficial. Ultimately, the distinction between propaganda and education lies in the purpose and content of the message, with education being grounded in factual information and less coercive in nature. However, perceptions of these messages often hinge on subjective beliefs, underscoring the complexity of persuasive endeavours, which is why it is always easier for parties to target people who might already have similar views as their ideology. 

At its core, electoral persuasion hinges on a variety of factors, including the credibility and likability of candidates, the content and delivery of campaign messages, and the receptiveness of the audience. Researchers analyse the role of emotions, cognitive biases, and social influences in shaping voter attitudes and behaviour.

SOCIAL IDENTITY THEORY

Key concepts such as the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) shed light on how voters process campaign information. According to the ELM, individuals may engage in either central or peripheral processing of political messages. Central processing involves thoughtful consideration of the message content and arguments, while peripheral processing relies on superficial cues such as the candidate’s appearance or party affiliation.

Moreover, psychological principles like social identity theory highlight how voters’ identification with political parties or social groups can influence their susceptibility to persuasion. Campaigns often tailor their messaging to resonate with voters’ identities and values, aiming to forge strong emotional connections and foster loyalty. Social identity theory elucidates how individuals’ affiliations with social groups, like political parties, shape their behaviour during elections. It underscores the influence of group identity, intergroup dynamics, and social norms on voter attitudes and decisions. Campaign strategies often leverage social identity dynamics to mobilise support and rally voters. Political messaging may appeal to voters’ sense of group identity, framing the election as a choice between “us” and “them” or emphasising shared values and goals. Candidates may also seek to cultivate a charismatic persona that resonates with the collective identity of their supporters, fostering a sense of camaraderie and unity within the political group. Narendra Modi perfectly utilises both of these factors as an extremely charismatic and persuasive leader who has been able to form a majoritarian ‘Us’ with a Hindutva ideology. 

Electoral persuasion hinges on a variety of factors, including the credibility and likability of candidates, the content and delivery of campaign messages, and the receptiveness of the audience. Researchers analyse the role of emotions, cognitive biases, and social influences in shaping voter attitudes and behaviour

All in all, in the sick game of democracy, each vote casts a ripple that reverberates through the annals of history, echoing the collective voice of a nation. As we chart our course through the turbulent waters of politics, let us heed the wisdom of both heart and mind, guided by the principles of reason, empathy, and integrity.

Barish Raman

The author is a young writer with a keen interest and strong base of expertise in society and psychology. She aims to shed light upon any topic in a manner that can empower a reader. She is fascinated with the ever changing dynamics of society and how they aff ect us. Barish is currently pursuing Psychology in Universitá Cattolica Del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy.

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