Learning from the psychology of voter decision-making

As a psychologist and counsellor/psychotherapist, I realise that I have a tendency to make sense of political issues, such as the Scottish independence debate, in psychological terms. I am not sure that this is always a helpful thing to do. But its part of me, so I need to make the best of it.

Following the referendum outcome, I have been thinking about two theories of political psychology that come from the USA.

The first is Bill Clinton’s famous slogan: “it’s the economy, stupid”. Clinton was one of the political geniuses of the modern era, a hugely intelligent and widely-read man. The story goes that “it’s the economy, stupid” signs were erected on the walls of all of his campaign offices, to remind staff that what mattered most to voters was their sense of economic security. The result of the Scottish referendum confirm Clinton’s theory. It would appear that, in the end, the decision hinged on the belief of many voters, particularly older people on pensions, that independence would make them worse off.

“It’s the economy, stupid” is essentially a psychological theory, because it predicts motivation and decision-making. If you ask people, they might say that their referendum vote was based on many factors – identity, equality, nuclear weapons, belief in politicians, and so on. The Clinton theory suggests that, while all of these factors play some part, the key underlying driver of voter behaviour is economic self-interest.

The other political-psychological theory from the USA is described in The Political Brain The Role Of Emotion In Deciding The Fate Of The Nation by Drew Westen (link to further information about this book is given below). Westen is a clinical psychologist, who has made major contributions to research and practice in counselling and psychotherapy. He is also an active supporter of the Democrat party, who was frustrated about the electoral success and popularity of Republicans such as Reagan and the Bushes.

In his book, Westen presents evidence from two main sources – experimental studies that he has carried out in his lab, on the decision-making processes of voters, and detailed analyses of effective and ineffective media campaigns run by presidential candidates in the USA. The findings of these studies are interpreted in relation to models of brain functioning.

The gist of Westen’s theory is that the decisions that people make on how to vote are primarily based on their emotional response to candidates and the media communications (e.g., TV performances and ads) of candidates. Westen argues that, in relation to big political choices, there is too much competing and conflicting information around to make it possible to arrive at a decision on rational, cognitive grounds. Instead, individuals rely on their emotional gut-feeling, using brain mechanisms that cut through cognitive complexity and simplify the choice.

I read Westen’s book toward the start of the referendum period, and did not believe that it would apply to Scotland. I thought that what he was writing about was only relevant to the kind of polarized, media-dominated, consumerist political system that exists in the USA. How wrong I was. It is easy to see, in hindsight, that referendum choices were all about emotion. Many of those who voted no would appear to have done so because of fear. (Westen’s book includes many powerful examples of how fear – of black people, of terrorists – has been used effectively in American elections). On the other side, recent pro-independence blogs have been full of stories about how emotionally involved yes voters have been in the referendum, and how emotionally devastated we were when the result was announced.

It is clear that the campaign to achieve an independent Scotland will continue. I think that is important for the campaign to give serious consideration to the psychology of voters’ decision-making. It seems clear that the Better Together campaign made use of these ideas. However, they did so in a cynical, manipulative and disrespectful way. That approach to using psychological insights would not be consistent with the values and aspirations of those of us who want to see a different kind of society, and different kind of political system, in a new Scotland. We need to learn how to take account of the emotional psychology of self-interest, so we can harness that energy in a positive way. We also need to learn how to counter the psychological tactics adopted by the mainstream political parties.



One thought on “Learning from the psychology of voter decision-making

  1. I have just found and read your most recent posts. I found them really interesting. What are your thoughts on how we proceed from here?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s