June 24, 2008 — -- When considering who to vote for in the upcoming presidential election, it might behoove us to consider where we vote, as well.
A new study suggests that where people vote may affect how they vote.
"Seemingly innocuous factors can influence behavior," said Jonah Berger, assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and the study's lead author. "There is a connection between location and the thing people are voting on."
Berger examined results from the 2000 Arizona general election and found that, even after controlling for location and political preferences, people who voted in schools were 2 percent more likely to support raising the state sales tax to increase education spending.
Berger's experimental data supported the results of the analysis. He found that, when people were exposed to images of schools, including lockers and classrooms, they were more likely to vote for a hypothetical tax to fund public schools, than people who were exposed to less evocative images, such as office buildings.
"While the effects of the physical location in this instance are modest, they are not small compared to the differences by which elections are often decided," said Dr. Bruce Cohen, the Robertson-Steele professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass.
Small differences have had huge effects in past elections. During the 2000 presidential elections, George W. Bush inched past Al Gore by a 0.93 percent margin in electoral college votes. Conversely, Al Gore won the popular vote by 0.5 percent.
The study is one example of a well-known psychological phenomenon called contextual priming, in which environmental cues can activate certain memories or associations that can influence behavior.
"We need to be able to evaluate context to make decisions, such as classic fight-or-flight decisions in dangerous circumstances, or to evaluate the status and intentions of people we meet," Cohen said. "Politicians and marketers take advantage of this natural trait all the time in presenting a candidate or product."
Berger suggested steps could be taken to minimize the effect of the location, such as placing voting booths in a school's multipurpose room, away from lockers or desks and blackboards.
But some experts say that more nefarious forces could be at work in a voter's mind.
"It is not only the physical environmental cues that unconsciously affect voters, but voters' paranoia," said Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist from the Neuropsychiatric Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles. "Indeed, voters may well be afraid that 'Big Brother' is watching them as they mark their ballot, and that they had best conform to what those in a particular environment would want ... fear of disapproval may well be guiding their vote."
While the study represents situations where the location is directly reflected in the issues, Berger pointed out that location becomes less influential as voters consider multiple issues, policy implications, and how much they like a candidate or party as a whole. And the location of a voting booth has almost no impact if a voter has definitively made up his or her mind about whom or what to vote for.
"It's not the case that this is changing everyone's vote, and we're not expecting it to," Berger said.
But his findings show that even a small effect can have a large impact in the final tally, possibly enough to tip the scales for or against an issue, party or candidate.
"All settings produce conscious and unconscious reactions," Cohen said. "The first step in dealing with such biases is to be aware of them."