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Elections Special

Are we really in control of our voting behaviour?

A behavioral insight on voting preferences and media influence

by Valentina Saponara and Enrico Grassi

The upcoming US election has the world holding its breath: soon American citizens will cast their vote and shape the future of one of the most relevant actors on the international stage. Statistical models have been developed to predict the final vote of individuals through filtering demographic data by ideology, age, class and geography. However, is that sufficient to draw a picture of how people will vote? Or is there more behind voters’ actual choice?  As we will see further in the article, people are not entirely in charge of their political preferences: there are some unconscious mechanisms that once triggered, influence their ultimate choice, and alter predictions. The article will also focus on the role of the media and, in particular, explore three ways in which they influence the electoral choice of people.


Voting behaviour has a huge emotional component which manifests in many ways: one of them is the party identification approach. Professor Campbell from University of Michigan claims that starting from our teenage years, we develop an emotional attachment to a certain party, based on our values or social environment, and we tend to maintain such affiliation or be affected by it through all our lives. Consequently, we might entertain some features of our favourite party that would otherwise have drawn our vote away – e.g. an unpleasant candidate or a program that does not reflect our view. This process, according to Festinger, is called theory of cognitive dissonance: people face a  “discomfort” when acting contrary to their own values or confronting information that go against their beliefs, so they have tendency to “bring things back into balance” by minimising the elements responsible for such dissonance or adjusting their original position by adding some extra ideas, proposed by the political party, they would otherwise be averse to.


Another way in which our instinct rather than rational side governs our decision-making is described by Samuel Popkin’s theory of candidate appeal. Especially in primaries, when most people do not know yet much about the candidates, voters tend to fulfill their lack of information by relying on the candidate’s way of presenting herself. The evaluation of such features is made in comparison with a specific prototype. For quite a few years, citizens seemed to respond particularly well to what is known as the “Kennedy schema”: J.F. Kennedy with his excellent rhetoric, good appearance, kindness, and  intelligence introduced the toolkit for the perfect candidate that every aspiring president  wished to have. However, in recent years these golden rules have been largely debated among researchers and they concluded that citizens’ standards about the prototype of a politician may change overtime according to the economic, social and political context at the time of elections. For this reason, we might easily shift from a need of closure and security, to inclusion and moderation – and vice versa.


A recent study conducted by Stanford University detected in voting behavior the presence of a bandwagon effect which has been for a long time debated by many scholars. This cognitive bias makes voters more prone to choose the candidate they expect to win or consider most popular. The reasoning behind this effect unfolds in different directions. Firstly, as mentioned before, in many cases, voters do not dispose of an amount of information that is sufficient for them to vote thoughtfully, so they tend to resort to mental short-cuts, called “heuristics”, that allow people to fast track their decision-making process. How does this work? – We adopt a safe solution: deciding according to what people around us do. There are two possible reasons that justify this choice: everyone feels the need to fit in and, sometimes, standing out or expressing a different idea might result in being ostracized by their community. Hence, to safeguard a certain level of social acceptance, we agree to conform to our peers. Secondly, people might follow the majority because they wish to be on the winning side and feel that following the majority will lead to this outcome. 

This was a glance of the unconscious mechanisms that transcend a rational voting behaviour and might bring about some unpredicted effects on the electoral results.

Role of Media: more than just a help in understanding the political race?

When speaking of influences on electoral outcome and voting behavior, the media is surely worth mentioning, as it represents a “frame” that guides people’s acknowledgement and interpretation of politics and current events. The presence of the media is so pervasive and affirmed that it led B. Boutros-Ghali, former UN Secretary General, to point out “the member states never take action on a problem unless the media take up the case.”

Concerning the communication process, the media have a key role as gatekeepers: they filter all the information available and channel what people think and how they will ultimately form their opinion.  The latter is obtained with the aid of three “tools”, namely: agenda setting, framing, and priming.

First, with agenda setting we refer to the ability to “decide” what people will talk about in the next few days; as perfectly defined by Prof. Ron Smith “Media do not tell us what to think, but rather what to think about”. If, for example, events A, B, and C have occurred in the last few days, but the main newspaper in the country has only mentioned B on the front page, then in the next few days the “agenda” would be focused on B, instead of the other two events. Even politicians themselves could lead people’s focus, leading the political debate to specific topics, exploiting the power of the well-known availability bias, the human tendency to rely on immediate examples that come in a person’s mind in evaluating topics or decisions, sticking information in people’s mind and making them easily recallable. Perfectly clear in everybody’s mind is the massive coverage that 9/11 had on the news at the time, fixing and implanted the presence of Islamic terrorism; having set the agenda, in every American citizen’s thoughts that became a problem in everyday life, something to be scared about.

But second, and most importantly talking about biases, we have framing. Let’s introduce this topic by saying that in decision-making processes, when individuals are faced with a problem, they are unable to factor all aspects of the choice presented to them. With the knowledge of the bounded rationality of the human mind, the media chooses what information to release to the public and what should be kept away from them. The limited information then frames the political issue in a particular way. Additionally, language is the most powerful frame tool, with the use of metaphors or specific words which can lead voters’ attention through a specific path: talking about 60% of success rather than 40% of failure could certainly give different point of views in electors’ opinions.

Talking about priming in psychology we refer to the “trigger effect” of association of ideas outside aware consciousness. The media not only can decide topics’ priority by setting the agenda, but also gets voters to evaluate problems and candidates based on that issue; this is not something that could just come out from the media: even politicians themselves could use this effective tool, by hitting on specific issues and triggering the evaluation process in voters’ minds: e.g. following what the Democrats Candidate for the White House, Joe Biden, stated “I am going to take care of those who voted against me as well as those who voted for me. For real. That’s what presidents do. We’ve got to heal this nation”, we can notice a very impressive strategy, the one of a comprehensive and inclusive figure, which highlights the divisive approach followed by his opponent Trump.


Besides the traditional media sources, in these last few years social media has become increasingly significant as one of the most powerful and influential information sources. In the US, we can describe the social media environment as dominated by two platforms, respectively YouTube and Facebook, which are checked out several times per day; further down, we find other media, such as Instagram, LinkedIn and Snapchat. Twitter rather represents a particular case of social media: largely considered among the journalistic and the academic world, it gets access just by 20% of ordinary Americans, being a form of elite communication.


As presented by Professor P.J. Egan in the New York Foreign Press Center, we can find some interesting characteristics about the role of SM. At first, social media have become a primary source for news in US politics. A little over half of Americans in 2019 use them to get their news, while television remains the most important source for the older population. Not only ease for information for the seekers, but also a way for politicians to communicate directly with their followers, with some messages that could never have been delivered on traditional media. As an easily observable example we can take the massive use of Twitter by the US President Trump, which focuses attention and leads people’s judgment, sometimes even directly attacking his opponents, with forms and words that definitely miss the gatekeeping role of the media. This could be seen from two opposite perspectives: the advantages of talking “directly” to the people is counterbalanced by leaping over the role of traditional media players as gatekeepers and filters, with the risk that something might be misunderstood or expressed in a wrong way, eventually leading even to a backfire for the candidate.

As seen above about the party identification approach, the advent of social media has dramatically increased this situation: people like to maintain common beliefs about things they believe in, while neglecting facts which are against the way to think, and this is generally known as confirmation bias. Therefore, the intensification of this process has been leading to a sort of “bubble creation”, with high entry barriers to protect the environment from information that falls outside the beliefs system of the group, and ending up with amplifying the already polarized political situation. We tend to be in touch with people that have a similar group identity, opening a vicious circle of getting partisan information shared among partisan people that will have partisan and common beliefs.

In conclusion, this article’s aim was to offer an overview about how our political decisions and our voting behavior can be led by some external forces, that not only may interfere with our judgment, but also,in some cases, might even change the way we take our decisions. In particular, we explored some general biases, shortcuts that we use, even unconsciously, to resolve our problems and set our preferences. Later on we examined the active role played by the media, with a focus on social media, which have the purpose of leading people along the political race and helping them to have a better comprehension of the political environment. But sometimes, even they could interfere in people’s perceptions, so we have to pay attention and be acknowledged while we get informed, in order to avoid focusing on a too narrow frame and having a misled voting behavior.


  • “Bandwagon Effect – Biases & Heuristics.” The Decision Lab, 24 Aug. 2020, 
  • Houghton, David Patrick. Political Psychology: Situations, Individuals, and Cases. Routledge, 2015. 
  • Kiss, Aron & Simonovits, Gábor. (2013). Identifying the bandwagon effect in two-round elections. Public Choice. 

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