The Brain and the Ballot Box

By Abigail Kendal (’22)

As the most important election of our lives approaches quickly, many emotions are slowly starting to bubble to the surface. Our parents are worried about their crippling debt, our neighbors are pleading for racial justice, our grandparents are anxious about the future of our healthcare system, and our friends are fighting ceaselessly to restore our planet. We are all aware of these feelings which linger within us as we approach the ballot box or complete an absentee ballot from our bedroom. However, there are certain underlying emotions, ones which inherently define who we are as people, that play a more prominent role in our decisions come November 3rd. 

In fact, according to leading psychologists, our voting decisions may not even be our own. Jon Krosnick, a political science professor at Stanford, has dedicated his career to studying the unconscious thought processes which impact whether we swing left or right, red or blue. He remarks that “all decision making is unconscious”, despite our most valiant efforts to control how we think. The mind is such a mysterious and powerful machine, which causes all other physical senses to fade away. For example, many claim that they vote based on issues and policies. However, even during a televised debate, our opinions about the candidates seem to dominate our minds and these same views overthrow all logic and reason once we reach the ballot box. Of course, when reflecting on unconscious mannerisms, Krosnick and his team discovered that race and racial prejudice permeate the decisions of nearly all voters. In 2008, voters surveyed with higher levels or implicit bias and racist tendencies were far less likely to cast their ballot in favor of Barack Obama, despite their past voting records or political affiliations.  

Furthermore, these implicit biases conquer more than our views on race. In fact, it is not uncommon for a voting decision to be rooted in sexism, ableism, homophobia, ageism, islamophobia, antisemitism, or other social prejudices. Despite the magnitude that these labels entail, each and every one of us is subservient to our thoughts, and implicit biases lie at the core of these beliefs. While we certainly haven’t developed technology to change the structure of our musings, we certainly can challenge, protest, and resist thoughts which we recognize as harmful or prejudicial. Try this: next time you detect a pattern of thinking rooted in a harmful narrative, don’t suppress or ignore it. Instead, honor the fact that you are dedicated to growth and recognize that you absolutely cannot control your first thought, rather, you are certainly capable of controlling your first action. And often, our first action begins at the ballot box.

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