After a seemingly endless campaign, Election Day 2012 has arrived. Meredith Professor of Psychology Cynthia Edwards asked students in her social psychology course to offer psychological explanations as to why this election cycle has been so divisive.
Here are some of their theories.
Caught in the middle
Voters today experience cognitive dissonance regularly, as they are bombarded with non-stop campaign advertisements. Oftentimes, one ad may be in direct response to another on the same subject. It seems like they are in the middle with the ball being passed over their heads.
When their minds holding two ideas simultaneously that are inconsistent with one another, they will be quick to discredit the source that seems most contradictory to their belief.
Once people make up their mind, they are likely to stick with their choice. At this point, individuals seek affirmation that they are making the right decision.
Voters then justify their choice with information that presents their choice as correct, and discount evidence that would suggest otherwise. Social psychologists refer to this phenomenon as confirmation bias.
Mirroring the candidates
During the debates, chivalry was largely abandoned between the initial handshake and the families mingling afterwards. The candidates were blatantly aggressive, at times yelling, interrupting, and using aggressive hand gestures and facial expressions.
Partisan viewers of the debate tend to agree with their candidate. If the candidate is being aggressive to the opposition, viewers learn it is acceptable to also be aggressive to the opposition and behave in a similar fashion.
Appeal to emotions
Candidates have a keen ability to tap into voters psyche on a very personal and emotional level. They relate their potential policies to aspects that are very personal in the every day lives of the electorate.
When a person feels they are emotionally attached to one of the candidates, they can act emotionally to someone who might put down their candidate, or disagree with them. In some instances, even becoming irritable because an attack on a candidate is perceived as also an attack on them personally.
This social psychology class project has earned coverage in The News & Observerís Under the Dome , StudentAdvisor.com and CollegeXpress.com.