Undecided Voters: Smarter than You Think?


AS we enter the final week of a seemingly endless election campaign, opinion polls continue to identify a substantial fraction of voters who consider themselves “undecided.” Although their numbers are dwindling, they could still determine the outcome of the race in some states. Comedians and other commentators have portrayed these people as fools, unable to choose even when confronted with the starkest of contrasts.

Recent research in neuroscience and psychology, however, suggests that most undecided voters may be smarter than you think. They’re not indifferent or unable to make clear comparisons between the candidates. They may be more willing than others to take their time — or else just unaware that they have essentially already made a choice.

I’ve always assumed that people who were undecided this late in presidential races were, how shall I delicately state this?

Um, idiots?

Maybe I’ll have to cut them a little more slack in the future.

Neuroscientists have begun to tease out the brain systems that make decisions. Even when it takes no more than a second, decision-making is thought to involve two parts, gathering evidence and committing to a choice. In tasks as simple as deciding whether a shifting pattern of dots is moving to the left or to the right, brain activity in the parietal cortex rises as evidence is gathered, eventually reaching a tipping point (though it’s not yet known which brain regions drive the final choice).

Inherent to this process is a trade-off between speed and accuracy. Commit early and you can get on with your life. Take more time and you might make a wiser or more accurate decision.

I’m not sure it’s as easy as this writer sees it. I committed to Obama over a year ago. If I had taken more time, I might have decided on Clinton or Dodd, or maybe even Gravel. But get on with my life? Nah, I’m a political obessive who can never get on with life during a campaign even after making a choice.

Since a commitment to John McCain or Barack Obama is not required until Nov. 4, for the greatest accuracy, one should gather evidence until that date.

Um, no. If a voter is paying attention, he or she knows where the candidate stands on issues important to  her well before election day. She also has a good idea of the candidates’ tempraments, and how they might govern.

So then why aren’t there even more undecided voters? In measurements of decision-related neural activity, after there is enough evidence to reach a person’s decision threshold, his brain can ignore further input even when it might improve accuracy. The brain goes ahead and decides, freeing up mental resources to deal with other problems.

This logic suggests that undecided voters might simply require a higher degree of confidence before they commit. Pollsters know this, and so push “uncommitted” voters to state a preference. Although this approach may seem heavy-handed, it gives a fairly accurate reading of a candidate’s support. In psychological studies, people who describe themselves as undecided often reveal a pronounced preference when they are forced to choose. When someone reports being only “moderately sure” of a decision like whether to accept a new job, his eventual choice is all but certain.

So in other words, undecided voters probably subconsciously know how they are going to vote, but are still unable to commit. They may not be aware of that commitment, but just can’t state how they feel.

So is the real answer about uncommitted voters that though they might not be stupid, they’re incredibly unable to listen to their guts to figure out how they are going to vote?

I don’t know the answer. Are they stupid, slow, or unable to process their internal decision-making factors? I don’t think I know any undecideds, but if I did, I might cause shaken baby syndrome in an adult.

The choice between Barack Obama and John McCain seems quite clear to me. One can either embrace the future or cling to the politics of the last 20 years that hasn’t served us all that well.

What’s so fucking hard about that choice?


2 responses to “Undecided Voters: Smarter than You Think?

  1. I would give the undecided voters some slack. Different people have different ways on making decisions. I think we should be understanding of other people’s point of view.

    Some people take their vote very seriously and they cannot just decide early on and need to see all of the data before making their choices. I can say that I am this way for the governor race. I don’t really care for any of the candidates. So, I am going to think about it some more.

    As for the presidential election, if the democrat nominee was Hillary, I would be in the ranks of the undecided (assuming that McCain would have ran his campaign as he is running it now). In the way that things worked out, it is now a no-brainer for me.

  2. Terrant, I’m with you. I think if Clinton had been the nominee, I’d be voting for her with some reservations, assuming that McCain’s campaign would have been as incompetent against her as it has been against Obama.

    But we have a lot of information on the presidential race, so it’s easy to make a choice.

    And on the governor’s race, I don’t know what to do. Mitch isn’t evil and I think many of his policies have been good for Indiana’s economy. He doesn’t pursue a fundie agenda. I still don’t know why Jill wants to be governor. What would she do?

    Part of me wants to vote for Jill to repudiate all Republicans. Another part of me wants to vote for Mitch for being reasonably competent.

    I’ll probably make up my mind on that one in the voting booth.

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