From the Los Angeles Times


Undecided voter? There may be no such thing

Researchers find that many people who think they are uncertain have 
unconsciously made up their minds based on deep-seated beliefs.

By Denise Gellene
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

August 22, 2008

Can't decide between Barack Obama and John McCain? Chances are your 
brain already has.

Using a simple word association test to look inside voters' heads, 
Canadian and Italian researchers found that many voters who thought 
they were undecided had unconsciously made up their minds.

Their decisions arise less from careful deliberation of the facts 
than from deep-seated attitudes that they have little awareness of, 
the study found.

Inside their brains, undecideds are often partisans, although "they 
do not know it yet," said Bertram Gawronski, a University of Western 
Ontario psychologist and senior author of the study.

The researchers said it was all part of an unconscious decisiveness 
that manifests itself in the hundreds of mundane and snap decisions 
people make every day, such as choosing which shoe to put on first or 
which seat to take on an empty bus.

The study focused on a minor political debate in Italy, but the 
method is being used in an Internet experiment peering into the minds 
of undecided American voters. Those voters -- about 10% of the 
electorate -- could decide the outcome of what is expected to be a 
close presidential election.

The research, to be published today in the journal Science, used a 
computerized test in which participants were asked to react as 
quickly as possible to images arbitrarily deemed "good" or "bad." The 
test measured how long it took to respond.

Scientists selected 33 residents of Vicenza, Italy, who stated they 
were undecided about a controversial proposal to expand a nearby U.S. 
military base.

They were instructed to press the letter D when they saw a picture of 
a military base or one of five positive words, such as joy, pleasure 
or happiness, and the letter K when they saw one of the negative 
words, which included pain, ugly or danger.

The researchers then reversed the test so that the image of the 
military base was linked to the negative words.

The theory behind the test is that people will hesitate when required 
to perform actions incompatible with their unconscious attitudes. So 
subjects who unconsciously favored the base expansion took more time 
to react when it was associated with negative words, and subjects 
against the expansion delayed when it was associated with positive 

The lag in reaction time averaged between 100 and 200 milliseconds, 
said Gawronski, who collaborated on the project with scientists from 
the University of Padova in Italy.

One week after the test was administered, nine previously undecided 
subjects said they now favored the base, 10 said they had decided 
against it and 14 remained undecided. Participants' responses on the 
week-earlier computerized test and an accompanying opinion survey 
were about 70% accurate in predicting their decisions, researchers 

The test hasn't been adopted by political consultants, although one, 
TargetPoint Consulting Inc. in Virginia, experimented with it during 
the Republican presidential primary campaign.

A research team from the University of Virginia, the University of 
Washington and Harvard University is offering an of the 
test, tracking reactions to the presidential candidates.

Brian A. Nosek, a University of Virginia assistant professor of 
psychology who is working on the project, said some undecided voters 
were demonstrating subconscious support for Obama or McCain, but it 
was too soon to decide what that might mean.

"We don't know yet if that will translate into actual support later," 
he said. "We shall see."

[log in to unmask]