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Undecided voters’ brains decide without them

Many American voters claim to be undecided, but new technology could conclude that political affiliations are actually an innate part of who we are.

Scientists are finding that most undecided voters have unconscious preferences for political candidates, according to recent research.

The Implicit Association Test is a website that measures people’s conscious and unconscious associations with a variety of people and objects, and one of the quizzes tests people’s associations with the two main presidential candidates.

Users are asked to assign good words with Barack Obama and bad words with John McCain. Then, users are asked to assign good words with John McCain and bad words with Barack Obama. Based on the speed and accuracy of the responses, the site determines participants underlying feelings toward the candidates, Brian Nosek, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who pioneered IAT, said.

‘ ‘IAT gives us a way to measure associations that exist in people’s memory that might be different than what they report,’ Nosek said. ‘Science is in society to make sure our intentions lead to actions when automatic responses are out of line with what we do and how we behave.’

In the study, decided voters almost always align both consciously and unconsciously with the candidate they plan on voting for, Nosek said.

‘The most interesting people are the ones who say they’re undecided,’ Nosek said. ‘Implicitly, 60 percent of undecided voters do have a preference either for Obama or Mccain, which suggests an implicit bias that is going to lead them more towards one or the other, even if they don’t yet consciously experience the bias’

The primary focus of the project is education and to see how peoples’ minds work, Colin Smith, a graduate student at the UVA and IAT project team member, said. The project can be helpful to people by making them aware of their own unconscious alignments, so that they’re able to look more closely at how they’re making decisions and how they can be more open, Smith said.

‘We experience our lives thinking we control our ideas and thoughts and thinking that we do mental work to come to decisions like voting. But a lot actually occurs outside our conscious awareness,’ Smith said. ‘If I stop and think about it, I might tend to click on stories on CNN in line with my opinions already, and now I have to wonder if that’s being driven by unconscious attitudes and if maybe we should read stories that counter our standards instead.’

Whether or not people are conservative or liberal may depend a lot on their personality, Sam Gosling, a University of Texas’ of psychology professor who has performed studies on people’s personalities regarding politics, said.

‘Conservative political orientations show two core traits: that conservatives are generally resistant to change and new things and that conservatives tend to think inequality is all right,’ Gosling said. ‘Liberals tend to think that inequality is a bad thing.’

Psychologists classify five broad dimensions of personality, and two of those dimensions are strongly correlated with political orientation, Gosling said. One trait that is strongly associated with political orientation is known as openness to experiences, Gosling said. The term describes people who tend to be abstract, intellectual, curious and imaginative, which are traits often correlated with liberals. Concrete, traditional people are more likely to be conservative, Gosling said.

‘One way to think about it is if people go to a restaurant and they see a menu, a person with a high association of openness to experiences might say ‘I’ve never seen that before. I’ll try that.’ But people on the low end of the spectrum may say ‘Give me spaghetti. I already know what I like,” Gosling said. ‘Obviously, the people I’m talking about are caricatures, but essentially they capture what this is about.’

The other broad dimension of personality that is highly correlated with political views is called consciousness, and conservatives are more highly associated with consciousness than liberals, Gosling said.

‘Consciousness is not a good label, but it refers to people who have a high need for order and organization,’ Gosling said ‘They’re the type of people you want in air traffic control towers because they focus on what they’re there doing while people not highly correlated with consciousness would be more sloppy.’

Though liberals are highly correlated with openness to experiences and conservatives are highly correlated with consciousness, the personality traits are not set in stone, Gosling said.

Though tests like the IAT’s may give psychologists a look into the minds of American voters, the results cannot be used to predict the results of a presidential race, Nosek said.

‘What we know from our research is not the same thing that pollsters know about voting possibilities because we do not collect representative samples from everywhere in the U.S.,’ Nosek said. ‘It’s a very skewed sample in terms of what we care about, and in terms of doing polling of 2,5000 people a week who choose to go to the website.’

After the election, IAT researchers plan to contact the undecided voters who participated in the study and see if their actual vote coincided with what the test projected as their unconscious beliefs.

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