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Undecided? Think again!

Who ya gonna vote for?

Still undecided? Feel guilty: The undecided are the bane of political pollsters, who earn their keep by telling us what's going to happen before it does. Now, an international group of social psychologists has turned a simple test into a periscope for peeking inside the mind to predict how people will vote -- before they even know it.

Writing in this week's Science magazine, Bertram Gawronski, Canada Research Chair in Social Psychology at the University of Western Ontario, described a way to plumb what he calls "automatic mental associations," which are those that "come to mind unintentionally, that are difficult to control once they are activated, and that may not necessarily be endorsed at a conscious level."

A dozen protesters are swarmed by police in blue riot gear hats with face shields
Photo: Wikipedia
A recent experiment in social psychology tested attitudes toward the U.S. Army's controversial expansion in Vicenza, Italy, which will almost double the number of U.S. soldiers, to 5,000.

Working with Italian co-authors Silvia Galdi and Luciano Arcuri, Gawronski used a quick psychological test to examine views about the controversial expansion of a U.S. military base near Venice.

The responses to the test enabled the researchers to predict what position many of the "undecided" citizens would hold on the issue one week later.

Instead of using truth serum or hypnosis, the researchers relied on a test called speeded categorization tasks. Here's how it worked: You, as a subject, are asked to quickly press keys as words appear on a computer screen; one key if you have a positive response to the word, and a different key for a negative response. You are also instructed to press one button (positive or negative, depending on the phase of the test) if a photo of the military base appears on the screen.

Man in camouflage fatigues embraces woman in grassy park, she holds a sign that says 'Welcome home, Tony!'
Photo: US Army
Sgt. Anthony Testa returns to base in Vicenza, Italy, after 15 months in Afghanistan.

Reading your mind

Then we start the test, and time how quickly and accurately you press the proper key, paying particular attention to your response to photos of the base. A quick response during the phase when you must press the positive key after seeing a photo reveals that you have a positive view of the base -- even if you don't know that just yet.

"The assumption is that those who have positive associations with the military base will find it easier to respond quickly and accurately when the military base is matched with the positive key," Gawronski says. In contrast, a slow response indicates a negative feeling about the base, because it takes time and energy to countermand your natural instinct to link positive with positive.

It's all in the delays, Gawronski says. "Our measure of automatic mental associations was able to tell us, with quite some accuracy, not 100 percent prediction, whether the undecided would be in favor, against, or still undecided" about the base at the retest one week later. (Italy has decided to permit the expansion, Gawronski says.)

And why would undecided people suddenly develop a conscious opinion about the base? Probably because automatic mental associations "often bias our perception of ambiguous information" that we observe during the one-week interval, Gawronski says. In other words, if you've revealed a positive, unconscious attitude toward the base, "even though you haven't made up your mind, you will interpret ambiguous information about the base in more favorable fashion." Eventually, your conscious mind will track your unconscious attitudes.

The situation was reversed, however, for people who already held an opinion about the base at the first test: At the second test, their expressed attitude was unchanged, but their automatic associations had changed to conform to that attitude. "Once you've made up your mind, the conscious beliefs can produce some consolidation process," says Gawronski. He speculates that once we've decided on the issue, we may "selectively expose ourselves to people and media that agree with our position, and that causes it to solidify."

 Elderly gentleman sits at voter registration table hands ballot to young man approaching, wearing red sweatshirt
November 2, 2004, photo by Michael Forster Rothbart, UW-Madison
Can scientists predict how a person will vote, using a simple psychological test?

Silver lining?

More than a century after Sigmund Freud made the unconscious a focus of psychoanalysis, not-conscious processes are making a comeback in psychology. We may picture the mind as a rational arena, where ideas fight it out for primacy, but "Lots of research in social psychology shows that people have a propensity to think very quickly, automatically, often without awareness," says Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. "We size up the world, make assumptions about people, and this is generally very good; we can navigate our lives without having to stop and ponder every single decision."

Dapper gentleman in dark suit with white beard holds cigar and looks toward camera
Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, was a firm believer in the power of the unconscious mind, which he traced to experiences during infancy. The new focus on "automatic mental associations" concentrates more on effects than causes.

Wilson says these immediate responses are a helpful guide to how we really think. "If our goal is to predict how we will feel about something in the future, sometimes the gut reaction is the best predictor. If we spend too much time pondering, we may end up confusing ourselves."

But automatic mental associations also sustain stereotypes, Wilson adds, a process that has particular significance as an African-American runs for president of the United States.

Indeed, the same kind of quick-reaction tests prove that some people "who are strongly convinced that racial bias is a bad thing show a negative association with regard to African-Americans," Gawronski says, and these associations could sway undecided voters away from Obama.

We had other reasons to express a negative attitude about Gawronski's results, which, as he admits, show that we can be "slaves of unconscious processes" that are immune to evidence and argument.

But Gawronski sees a benefit to knowing how the mind works. If our conscious opinions are indeed reinforced by a tendency to seek out information that confirms to our unconscious assumptions, he suggests reading a broader range of opinions. "If you don't want to become a slave to automatic mental associations, if you want to consciously override this influence, try to expose yourself to balanced information, not just look at the stuff that confirms your immediate gut response."

-- David Tenenbaum

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• Automatic Mental Associations Predict Future Choices of Undecided Decision-Makers," by Silvia Galdi; L. Arcuri and Bertram Gawronski, Science, Aug. 22, 2008.

• The Unseen Mind, Timothy D. Wilson and Yoav Bar-Anan, Science, Aug. 22, 2008.

• Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson, Harvard University Press, 2002.

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