Social Psychology: Meredith College Students Analyze Presidential Election

by Jeff Canning

socialpsych3>November 6 will usher in a new wave of eligible voters participating in their first presidential election, including members of Cynthia Edwards’ social psychology course at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. For this young demographic of social psychology students, their introduction to presidential politics has been defined by attack ads and one-liners.

Instead of just accepting this trend as the new norm, the social psychology students offer psychological explanations as to why this election has proven to be so divisive. The following conclusions are drawn from independent research of social psychology students at Meredith College.

Caught in the middle

Voters today experience cognitive dissonance regularly, as they are bombarded with non-stop campaign advertisements. Oftentimes, one advertisement may be in direct response to another on the same subject, so voters begin to feel like they are in the middle with the ball being passed over their heads.

When voters’ minds hold two ideas simultaneously that are inconsistent with one another, they will be quick to discredit the source that seems most contradictory to their personal beliefs.

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Once people make up their mind for which candidate they are voting, they are likely to stick with their choice. At this point, individuals seek affirmation that they are making the right decision.

Voters then justify their choice with information that presents it as correct, as well as discount evidence that suggests otherwise. Social psychologists refer to this phenomenon as confirmation bias.

Political cliques

In a dual-party system, it is almost certain that the winning candidate will come from either the Republican or Democratic Party. Although they can impact the race in other ways, third party candidates have not won a modern election.

The tendency to steer away from third parties is likely because people have an inherent desire to be connected to others. Once in the group, members tend to show favoritism to other members of the group (i.e. party candidates). Members also show negative feelings to unfairly treat others simply because they are in the out-group.

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Politicians are people too

When people identify themselves with a certain political party, they may tend to group the members of the other party together. They may catch themselves saying “those republicans” or “those democrats” as an all-inclusive label rather than acknowledging the differences of the members as individuals.

By taking identities away, it is much easier to now disregard politicians’ individual feelings and beliefs. It is easier to berate an entire group rather than individuals, because groups do not have feelings. Opponents feel completely justified as they become more malicious because their comments are not perceived to be against any person with an identity.

Mirroring the candidates

socialpsych2During the debates, the candidates were blatantly aggressive, at times yelling, interrupting, and using aggressive hand gestures and facial expressions. Partisan viewers of the debate tend to agree with their candidate. If the candidate a viewer prefers is being aggressive to the opposition, they learn it is acceptable to also be aggressive to the opposition and behave in a similar fashion.

Appeal to emotions

Candidates have a keen ability to tap into voters’ psyche on a very personal and emotional level. They relate their policies to aspects that are very personal in the everyday lives of the electorate.

When a person feels they are emotionally attached to one of the candidates, they can react emotionally when someone puts down his or her candidate. In some instances, one may even become irritable because an attack on a candidate is perceived as also an attack on them personally.

The students concluded that despite these pitfalls of a divided electorate, having identified these barriers will enable Meredith’s young voters to cast a well-informed ballot as they enter the booth on Election Day.

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