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Our Brains at the Ballot Box

By Damon Circosta

RALEIGH - It’s a lesson I never will forget. In high school I had a teacher who would get the entire class to start chanting a word. The word, usually just one syllable, would be something like “Joke. Joke. Joke.” The whole class would join in and then, just as we were comfortable with the chant, the teacher would shout, “What is the white part of an egg called?” Without thinking, we would reply, “Yolk!”

Our brains at the ballot box

Of course, the white part of an egg is called an egg white, not a yolk, but the point of this exercise was to teach us the difference between a reflexive response and a more thought out, or reflective, response. The teacher would do a different iteration of the chant until eventually we would stop and think about our answer before we just shouted whatever first came to mind.

Modern neuroscience confirms what my high school teacher already knew. We go through broad swaths of our life on autopilot. We forget our keys and answer questions that weren’t even asked, like saying “Fine, thank you” when someone says “Hello.” MRI scans demonstrate that this reflexive system occupies very different parts of the brain than the reflective system. These two ways of thinking aren’t just a matter of varying degrees, it’s as if we have two different brains.

For the most part, having a reflexive system serves us well. It automates many processes and frees up brainpower for the times when we need to engage the more reflective parts of our brain. However, problems creep in when we use our reflexive system when we should be using our reflective system.

In a recent study from Princeton University, a psychologist could predict election results over 70 percent of the time by flashing photographs of the candidates and asking study participants whom they thought was more competent. With nothing more to go on than a brief glimpse of opposing candidates and no regard for policy differences, experience levels, etc., people were making up their minds on who should serve as our leaders.

Serving in elected office can be a tremendously complex endeavor. In choosing between candidates we need to take into account their positions on issues, their temperament, experience and policy expertise. In other words, we need to reflect on the various qualities a candidate brings to office and make a choice based on those qualities. The study from Princeton seems to indicate that our reflexive system might play a larger role than perhaps it should.

Modern political campaigns play to our reflex mode. It is very rare to see a political advertisement that makes you think. Instead, consultants actively try to cultivate a reflex. They use unflattering photographs of the opponent or flashy one-word descriptions that aim for an emotional reaction.

Political consultants are well aware of the research like the folks at Princeton did. They know that our reflexive system can play an outsized role in our election decisions and they seek to use that information to their advantage.

While inadvertently bellowing out “yolk” when someone asks you what the white part of an egg is called might make you feel a little silly, these little autopilot slip-ups aren’t the end of the world. On the other hand, letting the reflex portion of our brain decide who shall govern can have some serious repercussions. The difference between war and peace, wealth and ruin, sickness and health often reside in the hands of our elected officials.

As we enter another election year we must dedicate ourselves to going beyond the reflexive at the ballot box. Pulling our brain off autopilot takes some work, but when it comes to our elections we need to engage in some serious reflection. If we don’t, we will all have egg on our face.

Damon Circosta is the executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, dedicated to helping citizens more fully participate in democracy.