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A social psychological view of voting

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 July 2017, 11:02

In this week's blog, the module team for Advancing social psychology (DD317) offer some timely social psychological reflections on voting in elections.

Undoubtedly, voting is a very important form of political action. It is one of the principal ways that citizens voice their political views and participate in the processes of democratic governance.

Voting can signify agreement with the way things are, or alternatively it can be a sign of protest against the status quo. For example, the Brexit vote, which was a surprise to many, can be said to symbolize dissatisfaction with the political establishment. On the other hand, the recent vote for Emmanuel Macron in France illustrates that French voters showed a preference for established centre politics as opposed to the far-right politics of Marine Le Pen and the Front National.

How can we understand how people vote? Given the failure of recent polling to predict electoral results (such as Brexit and the 2015 general elections in the UK), it appears that voting behaviours can be quite complicated.

From a social psychological perspective, we can approach voting in terms of the kinds of groups that people are affiliated with. For example, if someone identifies as a socialist, they are likely to support the Labour Party in the UK. If on the other hand, they identify as a social conservative, they would be more likely to support the Conservative Party. The role of identities in political action, and particularly identities that are politicized (such as activist identities), is examined in detail in work in the social identity theory tradition, for example in the social identity model of collective action, which is discussed in DD317.

Other social psychological work can also be very useful for understanding voting and political behavior more generally. For example, social constructionist approaches, such as social representations theory and discursive psychology, examine the ways that citizens construct knowledge about their social and political worlds and how this ‘common sense’ knowledge is connected to the history, politics and culture of particular communities. Such approaches also emphasise the ideological underpinnings of what we can call ‘common sense’. They suggest that common sense is not neutral and a-political but that it is ideological and consequential. Gaining a deep understanding of how people think about politics, not just their attitudes to specific issues, can give us insights into their political orientations and voting behaviours.

Social psychologists would also note that voting is a form of action, and interaction. It is one of the actions associated with citizenship, along with carrying a particular passport and paying taxes to a national government. It can therefore be understood as a way of enacting or performing citizenship, a form of belonging associated with the nation. The academic theorist Benedict Anderson described a nation as an 'imagined community' because its citizens feel that they belong together, as a community, yet there are too many of them to be personally acquainted: the community can't be directly experienced but only imagined. Voting is an individual action that is meaningful because the voter imagines many other individuals voting at the same time, participating in the same election. Obviously it wouldn't be an election if there was only one voter! The action of voting therefore reinforces the imagined community and idea of the nation, even though there is disagreement about who should win the election.

In addition, we may also note the social psychological significance of the role and perception of political leaders. Contests are not always as much about individuals as in the case of the US or the French election, yet personality is inevitably an element of any election contest. In fact, in the present British election arguments abound that the decisive factor might prove to be the perceived difference in the personality of the party leaders – all the policy details will pale in contrast. Thus, there exists a “special relationship” between voters and leaders. Leaders often embody idealized or wished-for aspects of voters’ selves. The “care” the leaders profess with regard to those who are to be governed is not completely unlike that of caregivers in a family.

Finally, the recent US presidential election and the UK referendum raised some other thorny issues about the relationship between social psychology and voting. There has been a lot of discussion about the involvement of certain companies who specialise in using psychological knowledge of personality profiles to predict and influence various online behaviours and preferences. Some of these companies focus explicitly on steering the outcome of elections by using psychological knowledge to influence how, and indeed whether, people vote. A common strategy is to send messages designed to tap into individual emotional dispositions, playing to voters’ hopes, fears, desires and prejudices. This controversial idea of using social psychology as a means not just to describe, but to deliberately shape and change people’s opinions and conduct is addressed in DD317 under the label of ‘humaneering’.  This humaneering mission of social psychology raises many ethical and political issues, especially when such companies are funded by powerful and rich individuals seeking to manipulate elections for their own profit. Should social psychologists let their knowledge become a tool for such manipulation, and if not, how should they resist?   


To learn more about how you can use social psychology to understand voting and political action, check out our new module DD317 Advancing Social Psychology.

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Simon Reed, Friday, 19 May 2017, 07:29)
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