Aug. 21, 2008 -- As the November elections approach, Barack Obama and John McCain are both spending much of their time wooing voters who say they haven't made up their minds about which candidate to support.
Now a new study examining the psychology of the undecided voter suggests the candidates and their campaigns may be wasting their time and money.
In Thursday's issue of Science, researchers report that people who think they are undecided about an issue often have made up their mind at an unconscious level.
So while the latest national polls show that between 5% and 15% of Americans still don't know who they will be voting for in November, the percentage of voters who truly are undecided may actually be much smaller, social psychologist Bertram Gawronski, PhD, of the University of Western Ontario tells WebMD.
"It's not that people are lying to the pollsters," Gawronski tells WebMD. "It's that they may not consciously recognize the automatic associations that influence their decisions."
Voters Not So 'Undecided'
Gawronski and colleagues Silvia Galdi and Luciano Arcuri studied this in a group of 129 residents of Vincenza, Italy, late in 2007, during a time when the community was divided about the proposed expansion of a U.S. military base.
Using a computer-based psychological tool called "the implicit association test," the researchers were able to predict with a high degree of accuracy whether study participants who considered themselves undecided about the expansion would later be for or against it.
In one part of the study, the participants were asked to respond as quickly as possible to word cues on a computer screen such as "happy," "sad," "good," or "bad" by pressing one key on the keyboard for positive words and another for negative words.
Images of the military base were shown throughout the test, and the participants were told which key to press when they saw the image. Sometimes they were told to press the negative key and at other times they were told to press the positive key.
The testing showed a very slight, but measurable, hesitation in reaction times when a participant was asked to press the key that was opposite of the position they eventually chose.
"The difference [in reaction time] was typically very small -- usually about 100 to 200 milliseconds," Gawronski says. "But these millisecond differences were informative enough for us to predict their future decisions."
He adds that while the people in the study genuinely believed they were undecided on the issue, at a subconscious level many appeared to have biases that ended up predicting their eventual positions.
Pollsters and Politicians
Gawronski says a version of the automatic mental association test could prove useful to political pollsters for probing the unconscious biases of voters who declare themselves "undecided."
And since many voters who say they are undecided may not be, candidates for elective office may be better off focusing on keeping their declared supporters energized, University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy D. Wilson, PhD, tells WebMD.
"The lore in politics is that campaigns need to target undecided voters," he says. "But this research suggests that it may be much more effective to focus on your base by registering as many people as you can and getting them to vote on Election Day."