Emotions, not intellect, will choose country’s next president

Costa Rican election authorities are promoting the concept of an informed vote Feb. 2.

Luis Antonio Sobrado, president of the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones, calls this and participation fundamental for democracy.

The Tribunal Web site is full of information about the 13 presidential candidates. There is a debate scheduled Jan. 5 and 6 at 8 p.m. on Canal 13 and another Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. on Canal 6 and Radio Monumental 93.5 FM.

In addition, millions of electrons are being expended by the news media to provide the voting public the slightest nuances in the differences in the platforms of candidates.

Candidates, themselves, have produced elaborate documents on most aspects of governance, ranging from concessions to citizen security.

In the face of all this effort is a mountain of political science literature that says emotional factors will guide the public vote, not their intellect.

La Nación has prepared an online survey system where readers can agree or disagree with various pronouncements of presidential candidates. There is high agreement because candidates promise the obvious: security, a fight against corruption, a review of the controversial concession process.

The newspaper outlines a process whereby voters analyze the positions of candidates, compare their statements and determine the veracity and consistency of their words. Even the biggest election junkie would be challenged in doing this for all 13 presidential candidates or even the five leading ones.

Costa Rican election officials generally have frowned on emotional pitches for votes. The campaign season begins later this week after a mandatory halt during the holidays. Some of the best campaign commercials got the most heat. Who can forget the Ottón Solís figure fighting an Óscar Arias Sánchez figure in the boxing ring just before the 2006 elections. There is a YouTube video HERE!

The commercial was not received well by election officials.

Election decision-making has been studied elsewhere for decades. Even earlier, in 1957, academic Leon Festinger released his theory of cognitive dissonance which says individuals will avoid situations that cause them stress. In politics that means citizens will generally seek out media presentations to which they agree.

Psychology has evolved to the extent that magnetic resonance imaging is being used to study brain activity as subjects listen to positive or negative statements about their chosen candidates.

The American Psychological Assocation gave this summary of the 2006 experiment led by Drew Westen of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia:

The researchers found that the brain areas responsible for reasoning did not show increased activity as participants drew their conclusions about the information. Instead, the brain areas controlling emotions lit up. Further, when participants had twisted the facts until they exonerated their candidate of choice, areas of the brain involved in reward-processing showed increased activity.

The association quoted Westen on studies of major U.S. political situations during the Bill Clinton presidency that pre-dated the experiment:

“We ultimately found that reason and knowledge contribute very little. From three studies during the Clinton impeachment era to the disputed vote count of 2000 to people’s reactions to Abu Ghraib, we found we could predict somewhere between 80 percent and 85 percent of the time which way people would go on questions of presumed fact from emotions alone. Even when we gave them empirical data that pushed them one way or the other, that had no impact, or it only hardened their emotionally biased views. Then we followed that up with the brain study that begins the book.”

Another group of researchers in 2009 reported at an American Political Science Association conference that a sports team win before election day causes the incumbent to receive about 1 percentage point more of the vote, with the effect being larger for teams with stronger fan support.

Said authors Andrew Healy of Loyola Marymount University, Neil A. Malhotra of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and associate Cecilia Hyunjung Mo:

“Voters’ decisions and attitudes are thus shown to depend considerably on events that affect their personal level of happiness even when those events are entirely disconnected from government activity.”

An Association for Psychological Science report, called “The Emotional Citizen,” said “Emotions not only influence our candidate evaluations directly, they also influence our perceptions of risk and our responses to political policies, our attention to and learning of political information, and our political behavior.”

David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, perhaps stated the issue more clearly:

“The truth is that many of the theories we come up with are bogus. They are based on the assumption that voters make cold, rational decisions about who to vote for and can tell us why they decided as they did. This is false.”

An excerpt from Westen also provides a clear summary, even though there are hundreds of other works on this issue:

“People almost always vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not the one who presents the best arguments.”

This point of view is supported firmly by the two elections of Barrack Obama in the United States and surveys of Democratic voters.

The same will be true in Costa Rica Feb. 2. But the outcome is hard to guess. Many Costa Ricans are so put off by the presidential candidates, that they may not vote. Polls show that about a third of the 3,078,321 registered voters will not pick Johnny Araya of the Partido Liberación Nacional under any circumstance.

That explains why José María Villalta Florez-Estrada of Frente Amplio has surged in the polls. As one reader pointed out, Villalta has a clear-cut platform, somewhat moderated from the candidate’s leftist views. He provides an acceptable alternative to many.

The emotional nature of the voting will be seen when the Museo de los Niños releases the results of its Feb. 2 children’s poll. The children who vote most certainly have not read any of the documents that the election tribunal has on its Web site, but the vote will parallel, as usual, the real vote the same day.

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