People Vote their Party, not their Personal Beliefs

People vote on an issue based on the facts and their ideology, or personal beliefs, but they disregard both the facts and their personal beliefs when they are aware of their political party’s position, according to a Yale study.

Moreover, people are not cognizant that they are influenced by their party’s position and believe that their stance stems from an objective assessment of the policy’s merits.

“This research suggests that people base consequential attitudes about important social problems largely upon the attitude of party leaders and peers,” said Geoffrey Cohen, assistant professor of psychology and author of the study published in the November issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “And they do so while remaining convinced that they have formed their beliefs autonomously and objectively.”

One of Cohen’s studies included 48 individuals earlier identified as liberals and 31 identified as conservatives. They voted on two hypothetical welfare policies – one very generous and the other very stringent.

When they did not know the position of their party, people voted consistent with their personal ideology and the objective content of the policy. Liberals preferred the generous policy, conservatives the stringent one. However, when informed of their political party’s position on the issue, they disregarded the content of the policy and assumed the party’s position. They even backed up their position by writing editorials that they thought would be reviewed by real policy makers at a political institute. In addition, individuals thought that votes contrary to their own were based on partisanship and political biases.

“To the extent that people remain blind to group influence on themselves, they may feel that they alone have based their beliefs on a rational assessment of the facts, while their adversaries, and even their allies, are biased,” Cohen said.

He now is examining intervention strategies to encourage a more rational, even-handed examination of information relevant to political issues.

Citation: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 85: pp. 808-822; (November 2003)

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