Brain Dump: the science behind voting

by Arhana Aatresh (’23) | November 18, 2022

Photography by Riley Walukiewicz (’24)

The arrival of November is an exciting time: leaves falling and changing colors, a rare peek at rain, and perhaps most importantly, Election Day. A portion of the Saint Francis student body can now legally vote, a cherished civic responsibility, and all sixteen and seventeen-year-olds can pre-register as well. 

The science behind voting is a complex mix of theories that pull from psychology and neuroscience in regards to executive function, the subconscious mind, value-based decision making, and more. Let’s delve into the neural mechanisms responsible for this important decision for greater insight into the process.

Researchers at McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) and Center for the Study of Democratic Citizenship conducted a joint study in 2015 to shed light on the science underlying our voting decisions. The study found that the brain’s lateral orbitofrontal cortex (LOFC), located in the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for this decision-making process. Study participants were presented with pictures of relatively unknown politicians; subjects without lesions to the LOFC incorporated perceived competence into their decision, while subjects with lesions only voted based on perceived attractiveness. 

When the LOFC experiences damage, we lose complexity in the decision-making process and begin to base voting on simpler characteristics such as physical appearances. Voting involves aggregating often conflicting information about a candidate’s platform, reputation, and character from different sources to make an informed decision. “How multiple attributes are combined in decision-making and how values are constructed is an important field that is just starting to be considered,” stated Dr. Lesley Fellows, lead researcher of the study and MNI neurologist. 

A 2006 Emory University study from psychology professor Dr. Drew Westen and colleagues also dove into the world of political decision making. Through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers studied the brain activity of partisan voters as they listened to positive and negative statements about their candidate before an election. 

Notably, only the brain areas controlling emotion activated as the participants drew conclusions about the statements they heard; the areas responsible for reasoning did not show any changed activity. These results demonstrate that emotion does play a role in voting decisions, and subconscious emotion does underlie conscious decision-making. Therefore, voters should constantly reevaluate their paradigms for voting, and politicians should develop effective ways to connect with voters without compromising their message.

By understanding mechanisms behind our voting process, we can gain deeper insight into human political behavior and into how our values and self-interest factor into the decision. In 2016, the company Spark Neuro used physiological signals like brain waves to assess people’s feelings towards Democratic candidates in the presidential primary. Because Spark Neuro’s algorithm essentially measures the biological strength of emotions and the degree of attention being paid to candidates, it’s more accurate than traditional political polls, which are simply self-reported. Coincident with the field of neuromarketing, this phenomenon is not new, but is becoming increasingly common and relevant.

While institutions may attempt to use this information against voters, it is our civic duty to make sound, informed decisions and be aware of all external influences that could sway our opinions. Teenagers are especially more susceptible to sway, because we are targeted with messages designed to take advantage of our partially developed frontal lobes. However, we all have the tools to fight misinformation and can use our self-awareness to make rational decisions. After all, knowledge and the ability to wield it is power.

Categories: Column, Science

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