The Psychology of Voting

Perhaps the most surprising result of the study is how we regard emerging politicians about whom we know very little. The study shows that most people approach a politician they don’t know the same way they approach anybody else.

“When people know nothing about a new person they are about to meet, they walk into that interaction slightly optimistically, hoping and expecting that the person will be pleasant, competent, enjoyable,” Krosnick says.

It doesn’t matter if the new person is a blind date or a presidential candidate. We still hope for a pleasurable experience. Maybe what that suggests is we really want to like each other, regardless of occupation.

Love/Hate at First Site

That first meeting, incidentally, turns out to be very important down the road. First impressions really do matter most.

The study shows that if people liked, or disliked, the candidate at the first encounter, that opinion proved really hard to change later on. That suggests that current marketing strategies for candidates — saving the big bucks for the end of the campaign — is dead wrong.

“Candidates tend to save their money so they can have the biggest blitzes of advertising at the end of the campaign, right before people vote, on the assumption that people will have forgotten everything they heard earlier,” Krosnick says. “Our results show that if you can spend the same dollar making a first impression on people, that will have more impact on their ultimate behavior than throwing in something at the last minute.”

But in the end, he adds, what really seems to make a difference is the success of one candidate at vilifying an opponent, without looking too nasty in the process.

“It’s not all that surprising that people put more weight on the failings of candidates than they do on the strengths of them,” Krosnick says.

In other words, it’s easier to cross someone off because there’s something about him or her that you can’t stomach than it is to search out the virtues that would make the candidate a good public servant. And as so many candidates have shown over the years, it’s pretty easy to stumble out there, giving voters an easy target.

So, George and Al, or Al and George, it appears that it’s your election to lose.

You’ll make it easier on us busy voters if one of you lays a giant egg sometime before the election. We may be basically optimistic, but if you give us a reason to hate you we will turn out in droves to blast you out of the sky. Unless, of course, the other guy lays an egg of equal stench. Then we will just stay away from the polling booth.

What a system. But as political commentator David Brinkley once noted, somehow it works.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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