The Strangest Things to Come Between Your Brain and the Ballot

What does it say about democracy when a bunch of schoolchildren in Switzerland can predict the outcome of the American presidential election just by looking at pictures of the candidates?

It could mean that elections—for all the money spent on them—are, at the end of the day, popularity contests. Or worse: beauty pageants.

But more likely it means that despite our best efforts to be rational, objective thinkers about politics, our minds are subconsciously and subtly influenced by factors that, well, seem a bit arbitrary. These factors, when extrapolated to the masses, have the power to swing or predict tight races.

Here are the weirdest things that can come between your brain and the ballot.

Lefties May Be Biased Toward the Left-Hand Side of the Ballot

As illustrated in the video above, people who write with their left hand tend to associate positive feelings with things that appear on the left sides of their bodies, while people who write with their right hand have a bias to like things that appear on the right.

This may come into play in the voting booth. In a recent experiment, candidates got a 15 percent boost among lefty voters when they were listed on the left-hand side of a ballot. It was a fake experiment in a fake election, so the results may be exaggerated. Here's how the researcher, University of Chicago's Daniel Casasanto, described it to me in March: "I don't expect that we would see anything like that enormous, ridiculous, percentage point difference in real elections." But, he said, "I think we have every reason to believe that these effects are and can be found in real elections."

Primacy Is Prime

The candidate listed first on the ballot, on average, receives a 0.5 percent bump in the polls, according to an analysis of all California state elections between 1976 and 2006. That may sound like a slim margin. But consider that former President George W. Bush won Florida in the 2000 election by .009 percent, and every ballot in Florida listed his name first.

In the analysis of California elections, researchers found that 82 percent of all candidates performed better when listed first compared with all other spots on the ballots. California rotates ballot order district by district, so it didn't affect election outcomes. But thanks to the primacy effect, a psychological bias that makes us think "first" means "best," being listed first can provide a slim advantage.

But it can be argued that in states that do not rotate candidate order on ballots, being listed first provides a very slim advantage. The phenomenon is called the primacy effect and it rests a simple psychological bias: We tend to think first is best.

Small Children Can Predict Elections

Here's how researchers got the Swiss kids to predict that President Obama would win in 2008: They showed them pictures of the candidates and asked, "Who would you rather be captain of your ship?"

That was all that it took for the children, aged 5 to 13, to guess the winner of this election to a degree greater than random chance. The kids also predicted the results of 2002 parliamentary elections in France and the 2008 Obama-Clinton presidential primary.

It isn't that Swiss schoolchildren have an extensive education in American political events. It's that they are doing what voting-age adults do when they pick a candidate: They are stereotyping. Faces that are deemed to look more competent (examples here) are more likely to win elections. In 2005, a study found that a one-second exposure to candidate photographs was all it took for study participants to guess the eventual winner.

Peer Pressure in the Voting Booth

Want to get out the vote? Shame people into it.

During the 2010 election, Facebook ran a mass experiment on its U.S. users. The social network wanted to determine whether knowing that Facebook friends had voted changed an individual user's voting behavior. And it did, with results published in the prestigious journal Nature.

On Election Day, 60 million U.S. Facebook users saw a news feed message reminding them of the day, a button to publicly declare "I voted," and a list of Facebook friends who had used the "I voted" button.

But for small segments of Facebook, none of those items appeared at the top of their feeds. Another group saw the Election Day notification and voting button, but no information about which friends had voted. In this design, Facebook could see if people's voting information pushed others to vote as well.

Here's what they found: the social message increased voter turnout nationally by 340,000 votes, or 0.14 percent of the total voting-age population. "This means it is possible that more of the 0.60 percent growth in turnout between 2006 and 2010 might have been caused by a single message on Facebook," the study's authors conclude.

So, who rocked the vote? You or your brain?