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The Politics of Indecision: Undecided voters face challenges as Nov. 2 election approaches, professor says

“The Politics of Indecision” is the final story in Think Democracy, a six-part series that has focused on the upcoming presidential election. Experts from The University of Texas at Austin have offered their perspectives on a range of issues and topics, from foreign policy and the youth vote to Social Security and the influence of media on presidential politics. You can access those features through links at the bottom of the page. This month’s feature focuses on undecided voters and the decision-making process. A voter resource guide accompanies the story. See you at the polls on Nov. 2.

What does a LEGO game have to do with the presidential election?

Plenty, for Dr. Arthur Markman, a professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. Markman’s research, including one study using LEGO pieces, looks at how individuals process information and make decisions. And it might give us an idea of what’s going on inside the heads of voters who have yet to choose who they’ll vote for on Nov. 2.

If the candidates actually engaged in a discussion, one of the things they'd be forced to do by the end is to align their points of view, to find points of correspondence. If you're engaged in conversation, you can't spit back a series of non sequiturs. Dr. Arthur MarkmanMarkman runs the Similarity and Cognition Lab, which investigates the ways people see things to be similar to each other and the processes that people use to choose among a set of alternatives. Interestingly, looking at the election season, he sees as many obstacles to making a choice as aids to it.

First, however, the LEGO game.

Markman and his colleagues sought to evaluate how people categorize through having study participants build a LEGO model collaboratively. One participant had instructions for the model and one had the pieces, but neither had access to the other. The two had to rely on discussion to create the model.

What they found is that the discussion led the participants to create a number of categories for the LEGO pieces to aid them in construction.

“People didn’t walk in with a whole bunch of categories for LEGO pieces,” Markman says. “The act of communicating, of having to refer to things in common, made us more similar in how we thought about this domain.

“More generally, the act of communicating has the influence of making our categories more similar.”

To think about this in political terms, in order to choose between the candidates for president, people need to be able to compare the candidates. They look to the candidates to talk about issues with similar frames, or categories, to allow for comparison. When the candidates aren’t talking to each other, they are keeping their categories very separate.

'I Voted' stickers

“The candidates have actually tried very hard not to engage in discussion,” says Markman. “They tend to stick to their own talking points. What this does is allow the candidates to keep this disparate framing on the issues. The influence this has on everyone else is that if the candidates don’t talk to each other, partisans don’t talk to each other either.

“You end up conceptualizing the issues very differently, and you end up with a situation where you just can’t understand how it is the other side can possibly vote the way they do.”

This may be fine with the voter who entered the campaign season already sure whom they would vote for. But for the undecided voter, it presents a real obstacle to choosing. From a psychological perspective, it’s very hard for them to compare candidates.

“If the candidates actually engaged in a discussion, one of the things they’d be forced to do by the end is to align their points of view, to find points of correspondence,” Markman says. “If you’re engaged in conversation, you can’t spit back a series of non sequiturs.”

Aligning their views does not mean the candidates will agree on the issues. It means they will talk about their positions using language and framing that allows for comparison.

Markman’s research into decision-making has found that when making comparisons, points of correspondence of information become critical. The corresponding information may be very different, but it must provide a point of correspondence. In simple terms, being told that ice cream is available in chocolate or strawberry allows for a point of correspondence for flavor. Being told that it’s available in chocolate or a one-gallon size does not.

The disclaimer [in polls], 'These results are unscientific,' is actually a euphemism for 'These results are inaccurate.' Dr. Arthur MarkmanWhen making more complicated decisions, individuals seek as many points of correspondence as they can factor into the decision. Presidential campaigns may seem to be interested in offering a means of comparing the candidates, but what they actually do is lay on only the information they are interested in emphasizing. Voters are left with all these disconnected pieces of knowledge about the candidates. They may be unable to compare.

The candidates may want it that way.

“Other research I’ve done on decision-making suggests that people overemphasize points of correspondence in their decision making,” Markman says.

In a study asking individuals to choose between two fictional universities, participants would emphasize the academic reputation of the schools only if they had information about the reputation of both schools. Absent that point of correspondence, another feature of the schools that they could directly compare would be emphasized.

“If you think about this in the political context, it is to your advantage to make your potential weaknesses non-corresponding,” Markman says, “because the easiest way to get people to discount them is to have them not thinking about them when they make the choice.”

Student takes advantage of early voting on campus

Ashley Francis, a junior in Water Resources Engineering, takes advantage of early voting at the Undergraduate Library on campus.

The undecided voter is likely to be grappling with a way of comparing the candidates, and to do so, he or she needs to go beyond the easily accessible campaign rhetoric and determine which issues are most important and where each candidate stands. Markman says this may be the ideal, but it’s psychologically quite hard to do.

“Psychologically you want to emphasize those points of correspondence. But each of the candidates has gone out of his way to make certain aspects of his campaign non-comparable,” Markman says. “What happens is you have these gaps in your knowledge, and you don’t know how to compare positions, so the things you don’t know how to compare fall out of your attention.”

Another challenge for the undecided voter is being bombarded with information about how all the other voters will be voting. The prevalence of political polls in this election may have an impact—and not necessarily a good one—on a voter’s ability to make a decision.

One thing that voters may do when looking at polls is try to gauge which candidate is going to win, and whether they can essentially vote themselves onto the winning team.

“It’s very hard to motivate yourself to vote for a candidate you believe will lose,” says Markman. “How are you going to make an assessment about whether a candidate is going to win or not? Polls are an accessible way to do this.”

Markman considers this reason for concern. At their best, polls are a measure of how a sample of voters feel at this particular time, not how they are going to feel when they step into the voting booth. At their worst, they may be completely erroneous.

The environment of an election is an unfriendly environment in which to make a decision. Dr. Arthur MarkmanThe Internet has made it possible to collect the opinions of large numbers of people in a short period of time. By 8 a.m. on the day after the first presidential debate, more than 350,000 votes has been cast in a CNN Web site poll asking people to rate who had won the debate. The results were available, with the disclaimer, “Of course, these results are unscientific.”

Markman takes it further.

“The disclaimer, ‘These results are unscientific,’ is actually a euphemism for ‘These results are inaccurate,’” he says.

A true poll is taken by generating an unbiased, representative sample of the population it is trying to represent. That sample is used to project out to the population as a whole. The sample for an Internet poll, however, is whoever visited the Web site and spent a few seconds completing the poll. It isn’t meant to represent the voting population as a whole. More important, it may represent a biased portion of the voting population because campaigns are encouraging their supporters to take the polls.

Students participate in early voting on campus

Early voting began Monday, Oct. 18 in the Undergraduate Library. Hours are 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-6 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 29.

Why? They know that even if the results of such polls aren’t accurate, they will become part of public discourse. And as such, they will factor into how voters make their choices.

“If you hear that a candidate came out in a poll 67 percent to 33 percent, and you heard that the poll was a straw poll on the CNN Web site, at some point what sticks in your head is 67 percent,” Markman says.

The psychology of human judgment demonstrates that when people make a judgment about a topic with which they are not expert, they will seek an anchor, such as a poll number, and then adjust their beliefs to fit that anchor. If the anchor is not accurate, then their judgment risks being flawed.

In the end, the factors that may go into a voters’ decisions are all a variation on a theme, Markman says.

“You base your decision on comparable information rather than non-comparable information because it’s accessible,” he says. “You focus on a poll number because it’s accessible. The other factors aren’t accessible.”

The undecided voter, then, must go past what is easily accessible and be very systematic. Amid a deluge of information and plenty of spin, this is no child’s game.

“The environment of an election is an unfriendly environment in which to make a decision,” Markman says. “The information is provided by people who have a vested interest in the outcome. You as a voter have to do more work.”

More information about how to vote in the Nov. 2 election can be found below.

Verify Voter Registration

Verify your voter registration information at the Travis County Tax Office Web site. Check out the Travis County Voter FAQ’s for more voter information and ballot by mail information for Travis County.

Information about state voter registration deadlines is available from the Election Assistance Commission Web site.

Travis County electronic voting booth

Travis County electronic voting booth.

Vote Early

In Travis County, early voting runs from Oct. 18-29. Information on how to vote early can be found on the Early Voting page of the Travis County Tax Office Web site.

As a special service to university students, faculty and staff, Human Resource Services has compiled early voting information for residents of several counties in the Austin area, including Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis and Williamson counties. For more information regarding early voting and the university’s Time Off to Vote policy, visit the Human Resource Services Web site.

Find Your Election Day Polling Location

Vote by Mail

The Texas Secretary of State Office has information for Student Voters, including how to obtain a ballot by mail. Students from out of state should check with the elections board in their home state.

Learn more about ballot by mail in Williamson County.

Learn More About Polls and Debates

Gallup Organization

Vivé Griffith

Photos: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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