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
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
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
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
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.
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
https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/selectatest.html 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."