Professor examines what influences voting behavior

Assistant Professor of Psychology Jarret Crawford ’03

Assistant professor Jarret Crawford ’03 knows the 24-hour news cycle has made it nearly impossible to find a political campaign without a micromanaged candidate. The proof is out there. Go on Facebook. Talk to your friends and neighbors—if you dare. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have high-concept personas that supporters and opponents will carry with them into the voting booths next month.

Between the sound bite-ready speeches and headline-worthy accusations lie shades of gray in ideology, ones voters actually respond to. In fact, the social psychology professor and his students at TCNJ’s Attitudes and Social Cognition Laboratory have published a paper arguing just that.

“Framing Political Messages to Appeal to Voters High and Low in Right Wing Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation” examines voting behavior not via conservative or liberal beliefs but through a long-established framework that “cleaves” ideology into two dimensions, says Crawford. One dimension examines people’s beliefs through a social conformity spectrum. The lower you go, the more you believe people should be free to make their own choices.

The second dimension looks at group status. The higher on the spectrum, the more you want your ethnic, political, or religious group to be the dominant one in society. Head in the opposite direction and you favor equality.

“That’s the general framework we work out of in the research lab and we try to take that model and test it in new domains,” says Crawford, whose research has long focused on political psychology. “One domain we came up with was voting decisions and candidate support. This model has been around for 10 to 12 years, but not one has looked at how these two dimensions influence voting behavior [in a political primary].”

Research on a total of 300 subjects—tested for where they fell on the social conformity and group status spectra—began last fall. Initially, 100 subjects read a “debate” between two Republican candidates who both opposed same-sex marriage. Candidate A said it threatened traditional marriage—an approach targeting voters wanting social conformity. Candidate B believed that gay marriage would take benefits away from heterosexual couples, an argument that would sway voters with a high sense of group status. People testing high in social conformity preferred Candidate A.  Those who favored group status sided with Candidate B. The effect was duplicated in another Republican debate on immigration featuring 100 participants.

This behavior not only held for the GOP. Crawford and his researchers conducted a third debate featuring two Democratic candidates supporting same-sex marriage. One argued that people should be free to marry whomever they choose; the other justified the arrangement as a tenet of equal rights. As expected, subjects on the low end of the social conformity spectrum—people can make their own choices—favored the first candidate. And the second candidate appealed to subjects who cared little for group dominance.

“There is a nuance that we really do lose when we don’t think about ideology in these more complex and more nuanced ways,” Crawford says.

As of publication, the paper is scheduled to go under peer review. Crawford and four of his students presented a research poster at the Eastern Psychology Association Conference in March. Crawford’s students combed the Internet for arguments, put together questionnaires, and analyzed and cleaned up data.

Three, including senior psychology major Jane Pilanski, are listed as co-authors.

“This is the work that grad students do, “ says Pilanksi, who joined Crawford’s lab as a freshman. Pilanski added that her time with Crawford has enhanced her speaking, writing, and analytical skills—all of which, like the research, has relevance beyond the academic world.

As primaries grow longer and more heated, how does a candidate shine amidst the competition aside from being tall, dark, and handsome? “Rhetorical style and the kind of values that you make salient to particular voters is part of it,” Crawford answers.
He says applying the study’s principles could motivate eligible, indifferent voters—“If you can frame an issue in a way that appeals to them, you can mobilize them and get them to vote”—a possibility he finds enticing. The skeptic in him knows that a political operative could use the study for a more manipulative purpose.

The optimist quickly surfaces. “I don’t think it means we can’t have a genuine candidate,” Crawford says. “It might mean that the candidates and their campaigns genuinely take the position. But there might be a way to convince voters to vote for you that are more appealing to them.”

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