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  • Writer's pictureJulie de Vaan

Elections: do you determine your own vote, or are you guided by the situation?

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

It's election time. Time to vote, time to choose who will represent us in politics. The idea is simple: you choose the party that suits you best. The party that stands for what you stand for. The party that best fits your ideals and that represents your interests the most. But are we actually able to make that choice, or are we influenced by the situation? And how can we reduce that influence, so that people can vote for a party that really fits to their wants and needs?

How big is the influence of the situation on our voting behaviour?

Voting behaviour is the perfect example of behaviour where we assume that people are very capable of making considered choices. But unfortunately, that's not true. We are largely influenced by the situation. And that's not so surprising.

Around election time, we are overloaded with information. Each party has it's own election program, it's own opinion on many different topics, a unique message to convince you that they are the party to vote for. Party leaders do everything they can to get a little of your attention to get their message across. For example, by appearing in the media, with flyers and campaigns. But often, the more information we get, the more difficult it becomes for us to make a well considered decision. And the more we are guided by all kinds of things other than the content, such as marketing tricks, temporary influences such as Covid, our preference for confirmation and our previous voting behaviour.

Marketing tricks

In politics, all kinds of tricks are used with the aim of winning votes. For example, party leaders who think they mainly score with the content of their election program will wear a red tie, because red would ensure more attention for the content. While party leaders who are less sure of their content, will wear a blue tie to try to gain our trust. You will also never (again) see party leaders drinking from a straw, because that look does not fit a prime minister. And when designing an election poster, great thought is given to, among other things, the smile (from the corner of the mouth to the wings of the nose and all the muscles around it), eye contact, colour and font. The attempts to convince us and seduce us for a voice with these kinds of tricks come in all shapes and sizes.


But also consider the influence of, for example, the Covid crisis on our voting behaviour. Although we make a choice that will determine how our country is governed for four years, we make our choice largely based on things that temporarily have a lot of influence on our lives.

So Covid will also affect the election results. In these uncertain times we often tend to cling to the old familiar. So there is a good chance that many people will choose the party that has led us through the crisis so far. Just to be sure. Others may oppose, for example, by denying that there is a problem. They vote for the party that is against any Covid measures, against the former coalition and against the ruling order. People seem to completely forget to include what else this party has to say in their consideration.

Preference for confirmation

Fortunately, there are also voting guides to help us make our choice. In principle they work very well. But a pitfall is the preference people have for confirmation. Confirmation of their opinion, or confirmation of the expectations they have about themselves.

What often happens is the following: when the statements in the voting guide become too difficult, we take a look at what different parties have to say about this. At that moment, we start to confirm the image we have of ourselves. For example, if we see ourselves as fairly left-wing, we automatically align ourselves with the opinion of left-wing parties, and we oppose the opinion of the right.

So there is a good chance that the party you already had in mind will end up at the top of your voting guide. That gives people a good feeling, because we like confirmation. We pay more attention to the result of the voting guide if it confirms the feeling we already had. And does our preferred party not end up in first place? We tend to not take the result very seriously. For example, we will motivate why the party that finishes at the top is not the right one for us. This one, for example, is too small, or a bit too extreme. Sometimes we also manipulate the results to get the confirmation we are looking for. For example, by changing the answer to a few statements, so that our favourite party does end up on top. And then all of a sudden, we will take the advice. In this way we actually steer our own voting behaviour based on the expectations we have about ourselves.

Previous voting behaviour

Previous voting behaviour is therefore one of the biggest predictors of the choice we make. Quite logical, and nothing wrong with that of course, but be careful. Parties can change and shift, just like you. So always check whether your party actually still stands for what you stand for. And switch sides if not.

Switching sides can be very difficult for us. For example, if you used to be a fanatic supporter of a certain party, and you liked to share that with family and friends, voting for that party has then become part of your identity. This makes the barrier for switching parties very high, because you feel like you have to justify it to yourself and others. Therefore, we often choose the easiest option. We vote for the party we've always voted for. Regardless of how well that party actually is still a fit.

How do we reduce the influence of the situation, so that we really decide for ourselves what we vote?

So, the situation influences our voting behaviour more than we might think or want. The tricky part is: in every situation, there is always (unintentional) nudging. Because also the placement of billboards by the municipality, the announcement of the polls, the appearances of politicians that we accidentally see on TV (or through algorithms on social media), and the order of parties from left to right on the electoral list have influence. That is why it is important to be thoughtful about the situation we create. The only role that behavioural experts should have in this, is to arrange the situation in such a way that voting choices remain as free as possible, and as close to people's actual points of view as possible.

In practice, it probably means that you will have to counteract the influence of those who consciously or unconsciously nudge people towards to a certain party. For example, we could argue for less nudging via election posters, media appearances and algorithms on social media. This way there is more room for the content, and less for superficiality. Larger changes could be: no longer choosing for persons, but only of parties. Or no longer choosing for parties, but choosing based on themes and propositions.

Until then, however, I would like to emphasize: be aware of the influences of the situation on your voting behaviour. Don't be guided by a (temporary) situation, such as Covid, populistic rebellion against the ruling order, or just a catchy slogan or a nice smile.

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