ELECTION 2016: Why People Will Vote For Their Own Destruction, And How To Stop Them (Part I)


The realities of why we vote the way we do are actually more to do with appearance, and less to do with policy. In the shadow of an election, Dr Lissa Johnson explains the psychology behind the polls.

The long-anticipated early election has finally been announced, as the election campaign splutters to a start.

So far, it is a world away from the vaudevillian spectacle that has been the US presidential primaries. No impassioned unshackling from establishment traditions here.

Words like ‘boring’ and ‘beige’ have been doing the rounds.

The treasurer Scott Morrison even sought to distance himself from another kind of ‘b’ word on budget night. ‘Budget’ has such a nasty ring to it. ‘Plan’ is much less inflammatory.

Especially when you’re selling voodoo economics.

At least we aren’t facing a choice between a walking reality TV disaster and the woman-most-likely-to-start-World War III. I don’t envy those Americans.

Hillary Clinton may be more keen to pick a fight with Russia for no good reason, but the Republican Party is so crazy that one of the most cited individuals in history, respected MIT professor Noam Chomsky, has called it a radical insurgency.

In an interview with the Huffington Post earlier this year Chomsky said, “Today, the Republican Party has drifted off the rails…. It’s become what the respected conservative political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein call ‘a radical insurgency’”.

We know what that’s like, don’t we? Remember ‘Team Australia’ and ‘the right to be bigots’? Thank goodness those days are behind us.

The Republican insurgency is so extreme that Chomsky has called it, “A serious danger to human survival”. He qualified his position by adding, “literally”.

Renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky.
Renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky.

Malcolm Turnbull may not have dazzled us with innovation, but at least he doesn’t beat the xenophobic drums of War On Terror, shouting “Death Cult” at every opportunity. Plus he’s less embarrassing than Donald Trump.

However, Trump and his nationalism are not the danger to which Chomsky refers.

The singular threat to humanity posed by the Republican Party has to do with their climate policies.

In a subsequent interview, Chomsky was asked why the Republican party frightened him more than the far right in Europe (or Hilary Clinton for that matter). Chomsky replied, “The extreme right in Europe is indeed tremendous, but it does not have the support necessary to accelerate the destruction of life on the planet…. Today’s Republican Party, I would add, is one of the most dangerous organizations in human history.”

Chomsky had earlier “cited ‘Republicans’ rejection of measures to deal with climate change, which he called a ‘looming environmental catastrophe.’ All of the top Republican presidential candidates are either outright deniers, doubt its seriousness or insist no action should be taken — ‘dooming our grandchildren,’ Chomsky said.”

Despite the obvious significance of this issue, it has been dwarfed by the media circus surrounding the US presidential primaries. During the presidential debates, climate change featured in less than two percent of questions to candidates on most news networks.

As is the convention in mainstream election coverage, focus has been on the race, the spectacle, the candidates’ tactics, their gaffes, their polling, and their reactions to one another. And on providing them with a megaphone for their postures and pronouncements, ultimately allowing the candidates to set the agenda in the policy ‘debate’, as if the issues they choose to ignore magically disappear.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, our own media circus of sorts is underway, with our very own Threat-To-Human-Survival Party on the campaign trail.

The Liberal National Coalition may look and sound different to the Republicans (with the possible exception of Cori Bernardi, George Christensen, Peter Dutton, Simon Birmingham, Luke Simpkins, Brett Whiteley, Barry O’Sullivan, Andrew Hastie, George Brandis… oh never mind. The list is too long).

Democrats presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. (IMAGE: iprimages, Flickr)
Democrats presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. (IMAGE: iprimages, Flickr)

Turnbull may look and sound different to Trump. But, like the Republican Party, the Coalition in Australia is forged from a hard core of climate nihilism and denialism, elemental to the party’s very being. And, like the Republican Party, the Coalition’s policies are in “abject service to private wealth and power.”

From the Government’s first actions in the earliest days of office under Abbott – axing the Climate Commission and the carbon tax – to cutting climate research and funding a new fossil fuel industry ‘growth centre’ under Turnbull, the Coalition has been swinging a wrecking ball through environmental policy from beginning to end.

The latest in this long line of carnage has been the Turnbull Government’s first budget, with no mention of climate change and $1.3 billion in cuts to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

The beneficiaries, of course, have been the Coalition’s financial backers, the fossil fuel industry.

At this “completely unprecedented” time of “climate emergency”, were voting a rational endeavour, this would be all anyone needed to know about the Coalition.

Fancy human survival? Like to avoid mass extinction?

Change governments.

As Chomsky notes, “What they are saying is, let’s destroy the world. Is that worth voting against? Yeah.”

For a country with a small population, we Australians are particularly well poised to destroy the world. As the world’s largest exporter of coal, 90 per cent of our current coal reserves must stay in the ground to avoid catastrophic warming. Our Coalition Government, however, is bent on exporting as much as possible while it still can.

This during the second half of the critical decade in which to prevent planetary meltdown. A matter of importance to the 7 billion people of the world’s population.

At the next federal election, Australian voters will stand at an unusual moment in human history. They will hold power over life on Earth in their hands.

Literally. In the form of a pencil.

It is a rare and precious opportunity.

But will Australian voters take it?

Although almost 80 per cent of Australians polled believe in anthropogenic global warming, almost half (48 -49 per cent two-party preferred) intend on returning the Coalition to office.

Yes, that’s less than it was a few months ago, but still, almost half.

This being the party that has made Australia the worst performing country in the OECD on climate change.

Why would so many people vote them back in? This corporate insurgency that endangers human survival.




Voting behaviour

In their 2015 book ‘The Rationalising Voter’, Professors of Political Science Milton Lodge and Charles S Taber summarised the psychological literature on voting behaviour, including their own 20-years worth of research on the subject.

Their book sets out to empirically answer the question, “What determines how citizens evaluate political leaders, groups and issues?”

Lodge and Taber note that dominant models in political science view this question from the perspective of an Enlightenment “Rational Man” (“Rational Woman” wasn’t yet a thing), in which “the conscious construction of arguments and reasoning [form]the foundations of pubic opinion and political behaviour”.

Such Enlightenment assumptions inform every aspect of our approach to elections, electorates and electioneering, overtly at least. Between now and July we will experience an extended period of argument and reasoning in pursuit of our opinions and votes.

But will all that argument and reasoning really matter? Do arguments win elections in the end?

Based on the empirical data to 2015, what did Lodge and Taber find was among the most consistently decisive factors in election outcomes the world over, apart from money?

Communication strategy? Economic forecasts? Political vision?


Across numerous studies in numerous countries, glancing briefly at photos of electoral candidates is enough to predict election outcomes with around 70 per cent accuracy.

Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull, pictured in parliament delivering the 8th annual Close the Gap report.
Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull, pictured in parliament delivering the 8th annual Close the Gap report.

In one study, for instance, the average rating of (previously unknown) Senate candidates’ competence, based on one-second glimpses of their headshots, predicted the outcomes of 70 per cent of the Senate races held across 2000, 2002 and 2004.

In another study, when people in the US and India rated headshots of candidates for various public offices in Brazil, judging photos for “suitability to office”, the headshot ratings predicted election outcomes 75 per cent of the time.

In yet another study, entitled “Predicting Elections: Child’s Play”, Swiss children aged 5-13 were asked to select a ship’s captain from photos of two French parliamentary candidates. The children’s choices predicted actual election outcomes with a correlation of 0.71. The predictive correlation for adults in the study was 0.72.

The researchers posited that voters, whom they note are performing “one of democracy’s most important civic duties… might still be using the same cues that children do to categorize individuals on competency”.

That would explain a lot.

This effect is robust, and holds even when people glimpse photos for as little as one tenth of a second.

Little wonder, then, that a change of face following the leadership spill last year lifted the Coalition’s fortunes without any real change in policy.

Interestingly, in times of war people prefer ‘facial dominance’ in their leaders (rectangular face, strong brow, square jaw). During health scares they prefer facial attractiveness, presumably for its allusions to health.

Lodge and Taber note, “All this predictive power without party identification, ideological proximity, or any of the traditional predictors of vote choice!” (exclamation mark original).

The Coalition must be hoping that during times of economic transition, people prefer the face of a wealthy businessman.

Needless to say, not everyone casts their vote based on looks.

The authors of the Brazilian election study, “Looking Like a Winner”, observed, “These are strong relationships, large enough to alter the outcome of all but a handful of the races in our sample.”


The looking-like-a-winner effect, however, runs deeper than face value.


Voting and human cognition

As Lodge and Taber explain at length in their book, voters’ susceptibility to appearance reflects fundamental realities of human cognition. These realities are uncontroversial in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, but, the authors say, “have gone largely unnoticed in political science”.

In a nutshell, human information processing occurs primarily outside conscious awareness, and emotion, rather than reason, directs the unconscious information flow.

This view is supported by “three decades of research, backed by hundreds of well crafted behavioural studies in social psychology and now evidence from the neurosciences”.

Advanced though our capacity for conscious awareness, our brains can only handle so much of it. Lodge and Taber point out, for example, that we can process about 11 million pieces of sensory information per second. 10 million of those pieces are visual, but we are only consciously aware of 40. In other words, we notice 1/250,000th of what we see.

Of 1 million pieces of tactile information, we consciously experience 5.

In working memory – the information we hold in conscious awareness – our brains can manage 7 plus or minus 2 chunks of information at any one time.

Overall, according to Lodge and Taber, around 98 per cent of what we experience occurs outside our conscious awareness.

Most importantly, the unconsciously processed material influences our opinions and behaviour. Countless studies have shown that subliminal stimuli (or “unconscious primes”) shape our beliefs and actions without our realising.

For instance, in one study, people were subliminally exposed to cartoon smiley-faces, or cartoon frowny-faces (for 39 milliseconds), and then asked to generate a number of opinion statements on illegal immigration and energy security. When exposed to smiley-faces people generated more positive opinions, and when exposed to frowny-faces their opinions were more negative.

Remarkably, the effect of the unnoticed cartoon faces was stronger than that of prior attitudes towards immigration and energy security.

Similarly, subliminal priming with positive or negative words (such as rainbow, paradise, syphilis or vomit) results in more positive or negative evaluations of political candidates.

Studies such as these form part of a larger empirical literature demonstrating that unconscious influences shape people’s conscious decision making and reasoning via their emotions.

Tony Abbott eats an onion. Just because.
Tony Abbott eats an onion. Just because.

Lodge and Taber say that “Feelings enter the decision stream before cognitive considerations, and immediately influence what thoughts and preferences will enter the decision stream.… Much of the thinking that we perceive as causally prior to our policy positions are in fact rationalisations of our feelings”.

In other words, we feel first and think later.

This is not a new or radical notion in psychology. Back in 2001, writing on Emotion as Virtue and Vice in the book Citizens and Politics, Professors of psychology Gerald Clore and Linda Isbell described reason as a “gun for hire” in the service of motives and emotions.

Experimentally primed feelings exert their power over reason and opinion when presented for as little as 15 milliseconds. Conscious recognition begins to arise after around 100 milliseconds and conscious decision-making does not begin to unfold until after around 1000 milliseconds.

Lodge and Taber note “conventional models [in political science]… fail to appreciate the significance of information processes that occur on a millisecond timescale… Conscious deliberation is in the wake behind the boat.”

As well as subliminal or implicit influences on our political cognition, there are those we notice consciously, but whose impact on our thoughts and actions goes undetected. These are known as “supraliminal”, “unappreciated” or “unrecognised primes”.

For instance, voters are more likely to support increased taxes to fund education when casting their vote in a school rather than a church or fire station. This effect overrides that of postcode partisanship.

In another example, “business paraphernalia” (briefcases, boardrooms, fancy pens) cause people to be more competitive and less generous in their allocations of money.

Perhaps our leaders should devise budgets wearing jeans and T-shirts, in student digs.

Relatedly, people report stronger belief in global warming on hotter days and in warmer rooms, and when seeing images of deserts rather than snow (using ice imagery to communicate about climate change to sceptical audiences may need rethinking, then).

Strikingly, ambient temperature has been found to predict belief in anthropogenic global warming as strongly as political ideology.

Like cartoon smiley-faces, this temperature-effect wields its unconscious power via our feelings. When people feel hot, or imagine feeling hot, global warming feels viscerally more real, and belief and opinion follow.

One can’t help but muse that the world may have been a different place if more menopausal women held positions of power.

Lodge and Taber’s main thesis is that when people feel good, or bad, about an issue or party or leader they engage in arguments and reasoning to rationalise their feelings. The ‘rationalising voter’.

Importantly for understanding political cognition, this emotionality does not reflect the weaknesses of an irrational voting minority. It reflects the workings of the human mind. It describes us all.

If you are sceptical, consider people with damage to brain areas governing the experience of emotion, but whose memory, attention, learning and intelligence remain intact. Such damage removes emotion from the cognitive equation, yet causes marked deficits in problem solving, not advantages, even for problems based purely on probability.

In other words, feelings not only precede conscious deliberation and analysis, they are integral to it. We need emotions to reason well.

Lodge and Taber note that this is “In direct contradiction to much Western thought, which treats affect, feelings and emotion as irrational intrusions that befuddle decision making.”

But what is the point of all this emotional reasoning? Why should brains so complex be so silly? Why isn’t logic the master, and emotion the slave?

If it were, the Coalition wouldn’t stand a chance.

The former Abbott Government Ministry.
The former Abbott Government Ministry.

To function, human beings must process vast quantities of information efficiently and effectively. Conscious processes are slow, deliberative and effortful. Unconscious processes are fast, spontaneous and effortless.

So that we can manage our enormous information load, the unconscious system bears the brunt of the information processing, and takes shortcuts. One such shortcut is to unconsciously tag things “good” or “bad” (known as affective – or emotional – tags). This triggers automatic feelings of like or dislike, causing us to approach or avoid accordingly.

It is a “quick and dirty” pathway, prone to false positives and negatives, but without it our information processing systems would overload.

When affective tags line up with reality and our values, they work well. In these instances “Emotions can provide indispensible guides for making sensible choices,” say Clore and Isbell.

Think empathy and human rights, for instance.

Equally, a thorn in the Coalition’s side has been that ‘universal healthcare’, ‘education’ and ‘jobs’ are positively affectively tagged in most Australians’ minds, making it more difficult to swing the same wrecking ball through these policy areas as through environmental policy.

The costs of affective tagging arise when our unconscious minds take inaccurate and counterproductive shortcuts, such as stereotyping and prejudice, or judging political candidates based on looks.

Unfortunately, the nature of election campaigns is that they provide precisely the conditions in which our minds become susceptible to quick and dirty processing. Our unconscious system is wired to take over, and take shortcuts, when we are bombarded with information (particularly conflicting, complicated or confusing information), overwhelmed with detail, overstimulated with distractions and/or when the consequences of our actions are delayed.

Under these conditions, political reasoning becomes “a bobbing cork on the currents of unconscious processes”, susceptible to the tidal pull of unseen psychological forces.

Lodge and Taber say that the failure of traditional Political Science to account for these implicit processes “goes to the heart of our discipline’s problems in accounting for how, when and why citizens think and act as they do”.

All of this is not to say that our consciously constructed, well-crafted, carefully considered opinions and arguments are redundant. When affective tags are reality-based (eg. climate-change-bad, climate-action-good), they lead to logical and productive thought. And argument and reasoning can create affective tags in the first place.

The point is that when our affective tags are divorced from reality, our rationality comes unstuck.


The media and human cognition

In terms of the real-world political ramifications of human cognitive architecture, Lodge and Taber say, “The most worrisome implication of our research program, we believe, is the ubiquity of consciously unnoticed and unappreciated priming events in the media (italics original)… Our conservative estimate is that implicit cues are embedded in virtually all political communications”.

One such implicit cue, pertinent at election time, is subtleties in media disposition towards political candidates.

In a study of US presidential campaign coverage, for instance, the facial expression of media presenters varied when they uttered different candidates’ names. Candidates whose names were paired with more positive facial expressions received greater support from viewers.

I seem to recall an experiment about smiley-faces….

A similar effect has been found for media interviews. When interviewers’ nonverbal behaviour is friendly towards interviewees, viewers perceive the interviewee more favourably, or unfavourably if the interviewer is hostile.

Amy McGuire deconstructed the significance of this phenomenon very eloquently last year in respect to the ABCs sugar-coating of Scott Morrison and human rights abuse, during a ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ interview.

Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison delivers his first budget in Canberra.
Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison delivers his first budget in Canberra.

Given the opinion-shaping power of media halo effects, the media infatuation with Turnbull in the early months of his leadership carried significant opinion-shaping force. This halo-effect, moreover, would have been intensified by the power of first impressions.

A great deal of research shows that people tend to form snap impressions of one another, and that first impressions persist, even despite later contrary information.

In the political realm, the authors of Predicting Elections: Child’s Play note, “Unfortunately, voters anchored in an initial impression do not appropriately correct the initial inferences; additional information on the candidates does not change choices by much”.

No wonder Turnbull still leads by almost 20 percentage points as preferred PM, despite his widely acknowledged failures of ‘agility’, ‘innovation’ and ‘mature government’ as leader. And his government’s antagonism to life on Earth.

Another potentially powerful and pervasive mind-bending media force is the ranking and placement of stories.

Experiments led by psychologist Dr Robert Epstein have found that subtly altering the order of search results in search engines changes the voting intentions of undecided voters by 20 per cent or more, without their realising. Ratings of candidate trust and liking change along with votes.

Given the power of position, a valuable opportunity to build trust and liking in climate science was recently missed by the Australian press. The tragic news of widespread coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef was ranked 9th most reported news topic in the first week of the story breaking, and 10th in the second week, out-ranked by the Tewnty20 World Cup and the Socceroos.

Not the kind of ranking that influences votes.

But do all these media influences really matter? Laboratory experiments are one thing, but is there any impact on real-life voting at the end of the day?

If not, what’s the harm? Perhaps it’s all passing perturbations, like a swell in the sea, leaving no meaningful trace.

I will examine this issue more fully in part II, but suffice to say that implicit media processes not only influence reality, they create it.

With respect to voting behaviour, newscasters’ facial expressions have been linked not only to viewers’ evaluations of political candidates but to their votes. During the 1984 US presidential election coverage, of the newscasters studied, facial bias (smiley-face/frowny-face) was detected in favour of Ronald Reagan. Viewers who watched the facially-biased coverage were more likely to vote for Reagan.

Reagan brought us neoliberalism. Neoliberalism brought us corporate takeover of everything, the GFC, austerity, unbridled climate change…. You get the idea.

Oh, and the fossil-fuelled Coalition.

Former US president Ronald Reagan. (IMAGE: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)
Former US president Ronald Reagan. (IMAGE: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)

The Reagan study is not alone. In more recent research, coding of newspaper content during election campaigns revealed differences across papers in percentages of negative, neutral and positive mentions for candidates. Readers’ real-world voting patterns followed suit.

The authors concluded that their “results raise serious questions about the media’s place in democratic processes.”

Serious questions, for instance, about the impact of newspaper coverage of the mining super-profits tax in 2010, 76 per cent of which was negative. Had anyone tracked the real-world implications of this, the empirical trail would no doubt have led, along with other trails, to mining’s privileged and protected status in Australia today.

More protected than the Great Barrier Reef.

Professor of Media and Communications Simon Cottle says, “Journalism has become the principal platform for the communication and conduct of politics… [and]structures the wider play of power ” in a way that is “consequential for democracy”.

This is not simply Professor Cottle’s opinion. Journalism has been shown repeatedly in research to be an active, agenda-setting player in politics and world affairs.

To pretend otherwise, by claiming that journalism is and can be an objective observer, serves mainly to disguise this fact, lending already unseen media influences the added camouflage of ‘impartiality’. Biases that favour the status quo become as good as invisible under cover of ‘mere reporting’.

Moreover, the ‘objective observer’ is based on a fictitious account of human information processing, as old as the Enlightenment ‘Rational Man’. Truth is a far more psychologically viable standard, and more defensible, as John Pilger argues powerfully here.

Needless to say, there are exceptional journalists in the mainstream media doing outstanding work, with truthful transparency rather than grandiose delusions of objectivity.

However, the media ecology in which they operate works against them.

During the coming election coverage, for instance – with all the detail and distraction, numbers and counter-numbers, under cover of ‘mere reporting’ – will climate change, a faceless entity, get lost in the face-value fray? In the noisy political personality pageant, and the commentary on the race, will the quiet realities of climate change get the top billing they deserve? The billing they need to influence votes?

Or will editors hand politicians a bullhorn, allowing their priorities and scare-campaigns to dominate, drowning reality out, and tugging on voters’ most visceral and simplistic cognitive impulses?

At the end of it all, will Australians vote for the headshot of whoever won the popularity contest of the day, or for life on Earth?

In Lodge and Taber’s words, “Where, when, how and for whom conscious processing will successfully override the automatic intuitive response is the critical unanswered question that goes to the heart of all discussions of human rationality, and the meaning of a responsible electorate”.

In part II of this series I will look at one journalistic convention that renders minds particularly psychologically pliable, and runs riot at election time. With reference to case examples, I will examine how this convention has closed minds to information on climate change over decades.

Lastly, I will offer educated guesses as to remedies for this and other varieties of mass media mind control, drawing on lessons from Psy Ops, information warfare and the US presidential primaries.

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Dr Lissa Johnson

Dr Lissa Johnson is a clinical psychologist and practice principal in private practice. Prior to becoming a psychologist she qualified in Media Studies, with a major in Sociology. Lissa has a longstanding interest in the psychology of social issues and the impact of social issues on psychology, and is a former member of the Australian Psychological Society Public Interest Advisory Group.