The psychology behind irrational voting

As Canadians prepare to cast a ballot in a 2015 federal election, competing polls will be peppering the airwaves, each claiming to be a representative snapshot of public opinion.
As Canadians prepare to cast a ballot in a 2015 federal election, competing polls will be peppering the airwaves, each claiming to be a representative snapshot of public opinion. THE CANADIAN PRESS

Why do some people keep voting for the same parties or candidates even after they repeatedly lie to them or waste their tax dollars? This sorry state of affairs can be explained in part by a) voter apathy and ignorance; b) discomfort with or fear of the unknown (hence the saying, “better the devil you know”); c) severe dislike for the alternative choices; or d) the rigid and narrow-minded tradition of automatically endorsing the same party or candidate no matter what.

However, another fascinating psychological phenomenon can help account for many types of seemingly irrational decisions: cognitive dissonance reduction (CDR). This theory has undergone several revisions since its introduction in the 1950s but the most relevant aspects of CDR with respect to the current discussion are:

  1. Typical North Americans or people from other individualistic cultures such as the UK and Germany, but not collectivist cultures such as traditional Japan and India, want to maintain a positive self-image.
  2. Their positive self-image includes the beliefs that they are “good” and “smart.”
  3. When they do something that could contradict these beliefs or otherwise challenge their positive self-image, they feel an inner tension, conflict or “dissonance.”
  4. This cognitive dissonance can be very psychologically uncomfortable.
  5. People in this state of cognitive dissonance are highly motivated to reduce their unpleasant feelings.
  6. Because they cannot deny to themselves that they committed the act that is making them feel not so good or smart, they need to convince themselves that what they did was not really “bad” or “foolish” at all. Other related ways people can reduce their cognitive dissonance is by telling themselves that they had no choice in the matter and/or some other person or factor outside of their control was responsible for what they did or for the outcome of their actions.

CDR theory is not perfect and does not apply to everyone. Also, it is really just a slightly reformulated version of the Freudian defence mechanism, rationalization. However, a lot of research on CDR has turned some common assumptions on their head: namely, instead of acting rationally in line with their beliefs or opinions, many people will actually modify their beliefs of opinions after the fact in order to conform to their decisions and actions.

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How cognitive dissonance reduction can be applied to voting

One can apply this concept to seemingly irrational voting choices: people overlook or downplay unrealistic election promises for a variety of reasons, particularly those mentioned above. When the politicians or party do things that disrespect or hurt the electorate, those who voted for them are faced with having to admit that they made a bad choice. Or, they can unconsciously and somewhat consciously modify their opinions, belief systems, or perceptions of what the politicians or party did so that they don’t feel so foolish for having voted for them.

When the next election comes around, voters often choose the same politicians or party because otherwise they would need to admit to themselves that they had made a bad decision during the previous election—why else would they change their vote? This process continues until the politician or party’s actions are so obviously egregious that no amount of spin can reduce the voter’s cognitive dissonance.

The best way to prevent CDR from enabling politicians or parties to maintain their reign of ineffectiveness, incompetence and/or corruption is for voters to find the intellectual or psychological strength to realize that making a bad decision does not make the person bad. Research shows that, in certain countries, admitting to and reflecting on one’s shortcomings is more likely to lead to self-improvement rather than the distress, depression or anxiety that many North Americans fear will accompany such honesty. In those same countries, acknowledging one’s mistakes is seen as a way to help create a stronger and better populace, not weaker. It is no coincidence that CDR does not seem to occur in countries with such an adaptive mindseteven if their political systems might still leave a lot to be desired.


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