Jan. 19, 2012 -- A new study adds to growing evidence that where you vote might affect how you vote.
When asked about gun laws, the death penalty and climate change, people responded with more conservative views if a church was nearby, the study found.
"One of most common polling places in the United States is a church," said Jordan LaBouff, a psychology lecturer at the University of Maine and lead author of the study published in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. "This study definitely demonstrates it can change attitudes. The extent to which those attitudes change how people behave at the ballot box is the next question."
LaBouff and colleagues from Baylor University surveyed 99 people outside either religious or nonreligious landmarks in London and Maastricht, Netherlands. Regardless of their religious views, people surveyed near a church responded with more conservative views on a range of political issues, from border patrol to gay marriage.
It's still unclear whether polling location can influence the outcome of a vote, but LaBouff said it's worth investigating.
"I don't think we can definitely say these potential changes in attitudes are threatening the validity of the electoral process, but in some cases you're talking about a fraction of a percent," he said. "Any time decisions are being made -- particularly if they're decisions that relate to social issues and national policy -- we should pay attention to the context in which those decisions are made."
A 2008 study led by Jonah Berger, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, found people were more likely to support a tax hike for education spending if they voted at a school.
"I think this study nicely contributes to research showing that polling location can have an important impact on how people behave, whether it's how they vote or the attitudes they hold when they go to voting box," Berger said of the new study. "We don't think about polling location as something that could matter, but research continues to show these things can and do have important impact on how we behave."
Marketing strategists have long known that subtle cues in the environment can influence how people make decisions. A 1999 study found supermarket shoppers were more likely to buy French wine when French music was playing in the store. But the idea that polling location might influence voting behavior is relatively new.
"Voting is not all about economics. It's also about psychology; what things come to mind when people are making decisions," said Berger. "Subtle cues in the environment -- in this case the type of building nearby -- can affect what's on the top off your mind."
LaBouff said he hopes to uncover whether polling location can influence voters later this year, when Maine is expected to hold a referendum on homosexual unions.
"These very subtle influences have admittedly subtle effects on behavior," said LaBouff. "But subtle effects are sometimes important."