Casting a Vote Alters the Mind: Post-Decision Dissonance Among Voters

Photo: wikiwand

During the 1984 Presidential election — to test the theory that voting caused people to become as optimistic as gamblers after betting on a horse — seven Cornell researchers stood right outside the door of polling stations and interviewed voters going in and coming out.

The race was between President Reagan, the overwhelming favorite — who was leading polls by 17 to 20% — and former Vice President Walter Mondale; who had served under the continually maligned Jimmy Carter; and was considered, arguably, too liberal to win, actually highlighting that he would raise taxes. Predictably, the Cornell researchers who caught people before voting found that Reagan supporters were more optimistic than supporters of Mondale. But the post-vote interview was strange to many — on a scale of 1 to 9, where a candidate was judged a “slight,” favorite to win, up to “can’t lose,” Mondale supporters, on average, were nearly a full scale-point more confident than they had been before marking their ballots; going from thinking, say, that their candidate had a “fair” chance to win to a “good” chance.

The optimism of Mondale voters is part of a phenomenon known as post-decision dissonance — which indicates that after making a choice, people alter their behavior and attitudes to match that choice. It seems to happen instantaneously — such as in the aforenoted research on horse-track betting. Like flipping a switch. Since the 1950’s, the phenomenon has been studied and observed not only in politics and betting — or even solely with non-impaired adults — but with amnesiac patients not able to remember their choices, children, and primates.

In politics, specifically, post-decision dissonance heightens the feeling that a voter’s candidate will win — and also that the candidate is superior to challengers, a mindset which can persist for an amazing two to four years (Yet another reason why incumbents maintain an electoral advantage). It is a feeling that is not necessarily rational — as can be seen in its manifestation in the pre-rational (young children) and those operating by instinct (monkeys) — and it seems to emerge from primitive, even ancestral, stages of development, as well as altered brain chemistry.

MRI Scan. Photo: Monty Rakusen/Getty Images

Dissonance Arising From Altered Brain Chemistry

To test the hypothesis that post-decision dissonance is physiological, scientists from University College, London, used MRI machines to scan the brains of volunteers during the decision-making process. While being scanned, subjects were given a list of 80 vacation locations, visualized travelling to each, and then were asked to rate how happy they would be in each spot. Subjects were then asked to choose between two equally rated vacation spots. In other words, when they couldn’t decide which beach or resort to visit — they were asked to choose anyway.

After making their choices, however, their ratings of their chosen spots went up, and the discarded options plummeted. As far as brain activity, when asked to visualize the chosen vacation spot, the subjects’ blood oxygenation levels went up in the caudate nucleus — which produces dopamine — and when asked to visualize the discarded choice, the blood oxygenation levels went down. Prior to being asked to choose between the two locations, the blood-oxygenation levels during both visualizations were roughly the same.

Figure A (below) shows the increased blood oxygenation flow — the orange and red colors — during the visualization of the chosen spot; with the brain activity changes being graphed in B and C. In the figure D line chart, we see, at the lower left corner, how the subjects’ viewed the two choices prior to making a decision — roughly equally — while the rising line represents the split in opinion between the two choices after the decision had been made.

Example of post-decision dissonance. Image: The Journal of Neuroscience

Dissonance is Primitive

Since post-decision dissonance is physiological, it makes sense that the process isn’t restricted to non-impaired adults — and, in fact, is found, as mentioned, in children, primates, and amnesiac patients. In a Yale study of four-year-old children and capuchin monkeys, both groups took a test that followed a similar pattern of decision making. In the case of the children, they were basically asked to rate the attractiveness of colorful stickers and they picked their three favorites — which could be called A, B, and C. They were then asked to choose their favorite between A and B, and then were requested to take the winner, say A, and choose between A and C. Since the children had originally liked all three stickers equally, it could be expected they would have a tough time choosing their favorite — but that wasn’t case. Once they picked A over B, B was forever downgraded in the children’s minds — and they quickly picked C in the next test. The test with the monkeys revealed the same basic results, except they were given the choice of different colored M & M’s, instead of stickers, and, of course, were given physical prompts rather than instructions.

A third test — which also points to the primitiveness of post-decision dissonance — involved, as mentioned, anterograde amnesia patients, who lack the ability to form new memories. If the children and monkeys had at least some memory of their first choice — between A and B — the amnesia patients didn’t. Nevertheless, despite not remembering their first choice, the amnesiacs had a similar aversion to the discarded alternative — which runs counter to a prevailing view that dissonance requires some reflection on choices. It seems that the process doesn’t involve much thinking at all.

Dissonance in Politics

Dissonance in politics is scary — especially if trying to get rid of nests of corrupt incumbents — because it is so primitive and, as mentioned, maintains its grip. In a National Bureau of Economic Research study of 20 years of presidential and congressional elections, it was found that voters were twice as polarized (meaning they overvalued their choices and undervalued discards) as non-voters and this bias lasted from two to four years. This was true even if research established that the non-voters (such as those who were too young to vote in a previous election) were as passionate about the candidates as voters. In short, when you combine dissonance with name recognition and fundraising ability, it’s easy to see how incumbents can bounce from election to election with little effort.

So, in the United States, where house representatives have been reelected 93 percent of the time, senators get reelected at an 82 rate, and a President hasn’t lost an election in 28 years — how do you get incumbents out? Well, in terms of dissonance, politicians have to be so bad that they realter brain chemistry.

“There is a point where the dissonance produced between consistency and the growing realization that he (is a bad candidate) becomes problematic,” said University of Kansas professor Mark Joselyn, the author of “Cognitive Dissonance and Post-Decision Attitude Change in Six Presidential Elections.” “If the latter attitude increases in salience, then it may challenge that consistency motivation and vote preference could move to another candidate.”

“It’s much more likely for an independent that a strong partisan, however,” added Joselyn.

Masters degree in journalism, political junkie, lover of Bhakti Yoga.

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