• Julie de Vaan

Elections: do you represent yourself, or do you represent the situation?

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

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 matches your view of the world and that represents your interests in governing the country. But how well are we actually able to make that choice? How big is the influence of the situation? And how can we create a situation that helps people to make the right choice, the choice that really matches with where you stand for?

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 the right choices objectively. Yet, that is often not the case, which is not surprising. During the elections, we are overloaded with information. Beautiful slogans, passionate speeches, exaggerated discussions, personal stories and the enchanting smiles of party leaders on election posters. The attempts to convince and entice us to vote come in all shapes and sizes.

for example, we can mention all kinds of tricks that are used in politics with the aim of winning your vote. Consider, for example, the color of the tie, whether or not to drink with a straw, and the carefully composed election poster. It is suggested, among other things, that a red tie ensures more attention for the content of a party's message. A blue tie gives us a feeling of peace and thus ensures more reliability, regardless of the content. It is also claimed that drinking through a straw can cost you the election victory. That looks "prime minister-unworthy". And the endless theories about the effect of an election poster are about the smile (from the corner of the mouth to the nostrils and all the muscles around it), eye contact, font and the gaze.

But before we let ourselves be seduced by all kinds of tricks, we might still watch the debates on TV, check the website of our favorite parties or read a few election programs. Fortunately, there are also voting guides to help us make our choice. But yes, some statements are difficult. “No idea… Let's see what the parties say about this. I don't like that party, let's see how they think about it. And I usually like that party, what does it say about this? Hm, yes exactly, that's what I thought. I also choose yes.” Chances are that the party you had in mind will end at the top. That confirms what you already thought about yourself. That feels good; yes, this is my party, this is what I am going to vote for. And does your preferred party not end in first place after all? Then you take the results with a grain of salt. "Yes, but that party is too small, it is not going to rule anyway", or "that statement was quite strange, if I do not agree with it, it is better, then the party that I ended up with last time will be at the top".

Past voting behaviour is probably one of the biggest predictors of the choice you make. Quite logical and nothing wrong with that, of course, but pay attention. Parties are shifting. Do you occasionally check whether your party actually still stands for what you stand for? Or don't you care about that anymore due to the influence of the situation? For example, if you used to be a fanatic supporter of a particular party, and liked to share this with family and friends, the threshold for switching parties is much greater. Voting for a particular party has become part of your identity. That party really has to mess it up before they can no longer count on your vote.

And also consider the corona crisis. How does this affect our voting behaviour? In these uncertain times, we tend to cling to the old and the 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 make sure. Or otherwise we might fight this party. For example, denying that there is a problem, voting for the parties that are against measures to control the virus, against the former coalition and against the ruling order. We might forget everything else these parties have to say in our consideration to vote for them.

Reduce the influence of the situation and represent yourself

The situation may affect our voting behaviour more than we think or would like. The tricky part is: however we organise the situation, our behaviour is always (unintentionally) nudged. The placement of billboards by the municipality, the announcement of the polls, the appearances of politicians that we see on TV or on social media, the order of parties from left to right on the electoral list, and so on, also influence our behaviour. That is why it is important to be thoughtful when it comes to organising the situation. What behavioural experts should do is create a situation that makes voting as free and as close to the individual as possible.

In practice, it probably comes down to making small adjustments that counteract the influence of those who consciously or unconsciously nudge people towards a particular party. For example, we could argue for reduction of election posters, media appearances and algorithms on social media. Over the years, more and more politicians have appeared on election posters on the advice of their campaign teams. These can also disappear again under the influence of independent behavioural experts. Then there is more room for content, less for the show and the feeling.

Bigger changes would be: no more party leaders, only parties. Or no parties, but representation by voting on certain themes and topics. But until then I would like to emphasize: be aware of the influences of the situation on your voting behaviour. Don't be tempted by a vote that represents a (temporary) situation, such as the coronavirus, rebellion against the ruling order, or only a handsome smile.


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