Thursday, March 03, 2016

How Different Polling Locations Subconsciously Influence Voters

By Ben Pryor
February 29, 2016


a score of recent studies highlight how the building where you vote—whether it’s a church or a school—can subconsciously influence which boxes you check on the ballot.


The method by which a polling location can influence someone’s decision is known as priming. Priming is a subconscious form of memory, based on identification of ideas and objects. This effect happens when external stimuli “manipulate” internal thoughts, feelings or behaviors. After becoming activated by stimuli, priming triggers these associations in our memory. For example, one study showed that a store playing traditional French or German music can prime shoppers to buy French or German products.

Most states prohibit campaigning within 100 feet of a polling place, and others ban wearing campaign buttons or t-shirts while voting. While these laws were passed to prevent voter intimidation, subtle exposure to campaign paraphernalia could result in priming. During the Nevada caucuses, some voters complained that caucus volunteers—not so subtly—were wearing Donald Trump paraphernalia.

But even if banning campaigning near polling sites were strictly enforced, research confirms that locations themselves can serve as contextual primes that influence specific attitudes and behaviors.

For example, simply being in a church can change our attitudes. A 2012 study found that religious locations prime significantly higher conservative attitudes—and negative attitudes toward gay men and lesbians—than nonreligious locations.

Other studies also observed that being exposed to churches and clerical images can promote someone’s Christian identity, making them more likely to back political initiatives aligned with Christian values and philosophies.

For these reasons, it’s plausible to suspect that churches could cause religious priming in voters, unfairly biasing voters to vote for more conservative candidates and take more conservative stances on ballot issues such as same-sex marriage.

The use of schools as polling places has also been called into question, and social scientists have examined whether schools can unfairly bias vote choice on education-related ballot measures.


At this time, there are six published studies on the issue of whether or not polling location can subtly influence our vote. And all of them, to a varying degree, conclude that the priming of polling places is a real phenomenon.

In 2008, professors Jonah Berger, Marc Meredith and S. Christian Wheeler were the first to investigate this matter, finding that individuals voting in Arizona schools were more likely to support a ballot measure that increased the state’s sale tax to finance education.

Two years later, psychologist Abraham Rutchick discovered that voters in South Carolina churches were more likely to support a conservative Republican challenger, and more likely to oppose a same-sex marriage ballot measure.


Most recently, a study on polling sites was replicated for the first time outside the U.S. In October 2015, political scientist Matthias Fatke published his work concluding that polling places in Germany could influence vote choice.


tags: influence

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