Business Standard

Bias at the ballot box: The ways voters are influenced in elections

Authority figures to availability choice: Our voting decisions are often coloured by biases that are often unconscious


Manoshij BanerjeeMohammed Shahid Abdulla
Elections are upon India once again, and political parties are working overtime to woo us. From rallies to door-to-door campaigning to novel forms of digital messaging, they will pull out all the stops. But do we ever wonder why we tend to favour one party over the other? We assume that we rationally choose one candidate or party over another, or that we vote for anti-incumbency as a routine matter. Yet, lurking beneath our choices are deeply ingrained psychological biases that operate subconsciously. Let us explore some of these mind games that political parties play on us voters. Princeton University psychologist Alexander Todorov suspects that except for voters who have hard core political beliefs, the reasons we vote for particular candidates have less to do with politics and more to do with basic cognitive processes, with perception being at the top. Indeed, the thrust of a campaign in a general election might also be more about perception than in an assembly election.

The availability bias trap

Remember that massive roadshow your favoured party held three days before the polls, with song, dance, and motorbikes? Of course, you remember, because chances are that if you attended or watched it, the euphoria and razzle-dazzle may have skewed your judgment. This is called the availability bias – when we tend to make decisions based on the most recent or memorable information available to us. Political parties know this, which is why they amp up campaigning just before the elections, and go door-to-door or arrange for other forms of messaging in the 48-hour silent period prior to the polls. It’s like a shopkeeper arranging the most tempting goods right at the entrance – you’re more likely to pick those up first. When you reach the polling booth, you’re reminded of the last impression a party or its leader has left on you. This helps you make a decision that does not cognitively tax you, and it unsurprisingly is a trap. It was empirically established in 2012 that though voters intend to judge parties on cumulative economic growth, they end up looking at only the election-year performance because it is easily accessible to evaluate and is lighter on cognition too.

The confirmation bias bubble

All of us have our preconceived notions and beliefs about politics and leaders, cultivated over years of watching news, scrolling social media, chatting with like-minded friends, or even based on our experience of favours and problems on the ground. But how often do we step out of this echo chamber and objectively analyse contrasting views? This tendency to seek out and favour information that confirms our existing beliefs is known as confirmation bias. Political parties are masters at exploiting this. They tailor their messaging to resonate with your worldview, making you nod and think, “Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been saying all along!” Yet, the next time you feel yourself getting swept away by a party’s rhetoric, try playing devil’s advocate on purpose. Seek out opposing viewpoints and evaluate them with an open mind. You may be surprised at the nuances you have been overlooking and you will also notice that the work involved takes mental effort. Confirmation biases are harder to overcome in the information age since social networks allow the creation of echo chambers easily - content recommender algorithms cherry-pick information that we are most likely to ‘consume’. A WIRED magazine article from 2020 said: “Over time, algorithms turn slight preferences into a polarized environment in which only the loudest voices and most extreme opinions on either side can break through the noise”, suggesting that confirmation bias will require a very intentional breaking away from.

The in-group, out-group divide

Human beings are hardwired with tribal instincts. These instincts have evolutionarily helped us fight predators, survive calamities, and come this far. We derive comfort and a sense of belonging from being part of a group. This tendency often manifests in our voting patterns, where we gravitate towards parties that align with our social identity – be it religion, caste, language, region, or economic class. Political parties are naturally well aware of this, and they tap into our “us vs. them” mentality. They portray themselves as champions of our in-group while painting their opponents as outsiders who threaten our interests. In no time, we find ourselves voting more out of a desire to protect ‘our tribe’ than out of an objective assessment of policies – yet we do not deride our own form of in-group thinking as appeasement. Behavioural scientist Cass Sunstein said in 2015 that “if a group’s members begin with some willingness to engage in risky behavior, groups will engage in more of that behavior as a result of group discussion”. This suggests that even conventional forms of ‘discussion’ or charcha would do very little to avoid reinforcing such a divide, and hence we should mentally adjust for such a possibility.

The next time you catch yourself leaning towards a party solely because “they’re our people,” take a step back. Ask yourself – are you voting for the betterment of society as a whole, or just for your narrowly defined in-group?

The authority bias influence

We tend to put leaders and authority figures on a pedestal, assuming their words and actions must be right or justified simply because of their position of power or influence. The most infamous example of it is from Nazi Germany: Research found that two out of the three biases attributed to Hitler’s image are variants of authority bias. Political parties milk this bias to the fullest by projecting a halo of credibility and trustworthiness around their top leaders, who may also have decades of experience in public life. Their charismatic personalities and oratory skills can make even outrageous claims sound plausible to an average voter. Authority bias enables a sidestepping of scrutiny and causes a suspension of disbelief i.e. it makes us suspend our critical thinking abilities. Leaders in uniform, or in charge of managing large businesses, provinces, or countries, are likely to employ authority bias. For example, to impress those watching its contest with the United States, China appealed to authority bias by inviting a diplomatic eminence such as Henry Kissinger to Beijing. The first step in overcoming the bias is to appreciate, instead, that everybody has their limitations and that we are all likely to make errors.

The hindsight bias spin

Finally, there is the good old hindsight bias – where we convince ourselves that we saw an outcome coming all along, even if we didn’t think that way just before the event. This bias often kicks in after the election results are out, and we retrospectively justify our voting choices (as well as the eventual outcome). Haven’t we often told ourselves, “Of course, Party X won – their manifesto was so much better than the others!” or “I always knew Party Y would lose – their blunder was to pitch that leader as the face of the party!”

This is a neat psychological trick that allows us to assume our rationality, maintain our self-esteem, and feel like we’re still in control - even when events don’t unfold as we expected. Yet, by subscribing to this bias entirely, we miss out on valuable lessons that could inform our future voting decisions. Instead of justifying our own or others’ past choices, why not objectively analyse where we went wrong (or right) in our assessment and what can be done policy-wise or messaging-wise to alter the vote the next time? This also means we become more discerning voters, supporters, or even psephologists in the long run. In 2012, Viktor Koen wrote in the ‘New York Times’ on the hindsight bias “One reason it is hard to avoid this bias is that it mirrors how the brain operates biologically. The brain cannot make sense of incoming sensory information instantaneously; it continually reconstructs, inserting meaning and making judgments very quickly, but post hoc.”

As we’ve seen, our voting decisions are often coloured by powerful biases that fly under our conscious radar. The good news is that simply being aware of these biases can help us make more rational choices at the ballot box, even if the act of adjusting for such biases is a relatively imprecise one. Before casting our vote, let’s take a step back and analyse if we’re being unduly swayed by any of these impulses. Our vote shapes the nation’s future. We must make an informed, bias-free choice that truly reflects the term ‘wisdom’ in the phrase ‘wisdom of the crowds’.

Banerjee is an independent consultant on digital behaviour and culture; Abdulla is a faculty member at Information Systems, IIM Kozhikode.

These are the personal opinions of the writers. They do not necessarily reflect the views of or the 'Business Standard' newspaper

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First Published: Apr 02 2024 | 1:41 PM IST

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