Undecided voters may not be undecided after all

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By Communications Staff
Thursday, August 21, 2008
As the American Presidential election approaches, and talks of a fall federal election in Canada swirl about, pollsters are scrambling to predict who will win.
 
And while some voters say they’re undecided as to whom they’ll vote for, a University of Western Ontario professor tends to think otherwise.
 

Bertram Gawronski
 
A new study by psychologist Bertram Gawronski suggests a new way to read the minds of undecided voters.
 
His research suggests automatic association between words and images flashed before them - reactions measured in milliseconds - could predict the future preferences of close to 70 per cent of undecided respondents.

While the technique is not yet refined enough use in a federal election, Gawronski says the work has important implications for improving predictions of people's future decisions.

“One of the most intriguing examples being predictions of voting decisions,” he says.

The Western study, which partnered with the University of Padova (Italy), may give pollsters a new way to determine how the undecided will vote, even before the voters know themselves.
 
"Automatic Mental Associations Predict Future Choices of Undecided Decision Makers," will be published in the August 22nd issue of the journal Science.
 
Gawronski, a Canada Research Chair in Social Psychology, explains that sometimes people have already made up their minds at an unconscious level, even when they consciously indicate they are undecided.

Using a common psychological testing methodology, called 'the implicit association test,' his research team was able to tap into automatic mental associations of participants who reported to be undecided about a controversial political issue, and these associations ultimately predicted their future decisions.

Using subjects in Vicenza, Italy, the researchers interviewed 129 residents about the impending enlargement of a U.S. military base in their community. The plans were controversial, and media reports showed strong polarization among residents.

The researchers interviewed each subject twice, one week apart. Each time the participants were first asked if they were 'pro,' 'con' or 'undecided' about the expansion. They then were asked to answer questions about their beliefs on environmental, political, economic and other consequences of the enlargement of the base.

Finally, they were given a computer-based latency test of automatic mental associations, in which they were asked to categorize pictures of the base, and positive and negative words as quickly as possible. The full questioning and testing was performed a second time a week later.
 
Automatic associations that undecided participants revealed in the first round significantly predicted their conscious beliefs and preferences as expressed in the second round.

In other words, the researchers could predict future choices of participants who were still undecided in the first session.

"This kind of testing has many applications, but certainly political polling at election time would be one,” says Gawronski. “It can't give answers to all questions, but it could certainly help pollsters to get more information than people now share."

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