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Social Science Matters: Freedom of choice or group pressure?

Dutch politician Caroline van der Plas recently said: ‘Populist sentiments matter’. As the elections approach, we focus on how people decide who or what to vote for.

How rational are our choices? Do we vote in our best interests? Or do we vote based on our gut feeling? On what do we base these feelings? And to what extent is our voting behaviour determined by external factors such as peer pressure, disinformation, education or populist sentiments? Our social scientists share their views.‘’

From Campus to Cabinet

This article is part of the Social Science Matters series and is simultaneously the start of our From Campus to Cabinet series. From October 30, our researchers are reflecting on the key issues in these elections are healthcare, housing, livelihood security, immigration and asylum, the climate and sustainability. Which aspects should a new government bear in mind?

John D. Boy, assistant professor of Sociology
John D. Boy

Thinking-feeling processes

‘A protester goes out into the streets to join a Palestinian solidarity protest. There, they are confronted by a journalist who asks why they are there, and they struggle to articulate their reasons’, says John D. Boy, an assistant professor of sociology. ‘Given the injustice of it all, the honest answer may be: because something doesn’t feel right about the state of the world. Although acting on emotion, the protester is not, therefore, acting irrationally. Their feelings of unease, which have grown into indignation, possibly even outrage, are providing them with motivation and goals, helping them to decide that being out in the streets carrying a sign is a better use of their time than learning to code or writing a novel.

‘Just as a thinking-feeling process guided this hypothetical protester, so are voters guided by more than “rational considerations” in the narrow sense of utility maximisation. That doesn’t mean that they entirely driven by strong passions, but it does mean that thinking and feeling are inseparable in how they reach decisions. This is true across the political spectrum. Those who set out to revive “mob” or “crowd” theories of yesteryear to demonise their political opponents make us collectively dumber by depriving us of a vitally necessary vocabulary for understanding how people achieve coherence in their lives and make commitments accordingly.

This doesn't mean that all commitments are equally valid, but we cannot simply judge their worth on the basis of role feelings play in them.’

Gert-Jan Lelieveld, assistant professor of Social, Economic and Organisational Psychology
Gert-Jan Lelieveld

Do emotional expressions influence voting behaviour?

‘People increasingly seem to switch party preferences during elections’ says Gert-Jan Lelieveld, an assistant professor of social, economic and organisational psychology. ‘This suggests that voters are more influenced by short-term factors, such as specific characteristics of politicians. These can be outward or personal characteristics, but politicians’ behaviour during media appearances can also influence voting behaviour. For example, the type of emotions politicians express can have important consequences for how many votes they get.

‘Emotional expressions have a social function and can influence the behaviour of others by providing information. For example, research shows that expressions of gratitude cause more people to decide to vote. In addition, emotions also communicate information about the person expressing the emotion. Thus, based on a politician's emotional expression, voters can draw certain conclusions about competences and leadership qualities.

‘We see great differences in how politicians use their emotions to influence voters. Adolf Hitler’s strategy was mainly to express anger, while Donald Trump often displayed the positive emotion of pride. Both emotions communicate status and competence. In contrast, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela communicated hope, which evokes prosocial behaviour in people. Barack and Michelle Obama, on the other hand, sometimes expressed weakness by showing sadness, sympathy, or disappointment, which has actually been shown to work well for some politicians.

‘Therefore, emotional expressions can have a significant impact on voting behaviour. However, which emotions are best to express is difficult to say and depends on the type of leader and the voter themselves.’

Elina Zorina, PhD candidate at the Institute of Political Science.
Elina Zorina

From rational choice to bounded rationality

‘Ever since the publication of Anthony Downs’ seminal book An Economic Theory of Democracy in 1957, political scientists have widely employed a rational choice framework to explain people’s voting behaviour’, says Elina Zorina, a PhD candidate at the Institute of Political Science. ‘That is, we base our theories and expectations, not without ample empirical evidence, on the premise that a voter possessing accurate and complete information about options they have, can weigh these different options and rationally select one that will maximise their personal gain.

‘By now, we also know that human beings are much more complex, often having to make their decisions in situations of uncertainty or being unable to process avalanche-like volumes of information. There is also quite a lot of work on motivated reasoning and psychological processes underlying voting. Many factors, conscious and unconscious, come into play when one votes for their preferred party or politician. Among them are structural elements such as education, class, or even a generational cohort of a voter; their identity and values; as well as issue and policy stances of contenders or an incumbent’s performance.

‘All of these can be placed on the so-called “Funnel of Causality” – the theoretical model that organises determinants of the public’s vote choice in different sections – from those stably affecting people’s long-standing affinities to those having short-term consequences on voter’s electoral preferences. Media campaigns, personal networks and interactions within them, the political context surrounding the election – are all placed at the end of this funnel, being “filtered” through factors at the wider end of it, resulting in the most short-lived effects on people’s behaviour. But make no mistake, these effects might not seem to be very impactful until they are.’

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