Michael Bruter

Michael Bruter

Professor of European Politics, London School of Economics, UK

What do citizens think about when they stand in the polling booth? In spite of the latest technological innovations in the electoral methods, what goes on in people's minds while voting has been neglected by academia until now. Michael Bruter, who published widely in the fields of political behaviour, political psychology, identity, public opinion, extremism, and social science research methods, aims to fill this gap with his current project funded by the European Research Council. Bruter, who joined the LSE in 2001, explores the voters' mind in 15 countries combining surveys, interviews, experiments, and direct observation including innovative techniques such as "election diaries", "polling station observers" and "emotional" questions on favorite animal, colour or drink or how they would rank the seven 'deadly sins' or '10 commandments' - in an attempt to understand more about the role of personality and emotions in the vote. The expectation is that the project will have a significant impact on our understanding of political identity and electoral decisions including specific topics like psychology of extremism, voters' identity, and young people's participation.

Breaking the Wall of the Polling Booth. How Electoral Psychology Enlightens Democratic Citizenship


Ladies and gentlemen, I am very proud to have been invited by the organisers of the Falling Walls Conference. As one of the social scientists who, together with you, is going to break the Wall of the Polling Booth, or, at the very least, in a slightly more environmentally friendly way, take a pick for the curtain.

The results I am representing to you today are the results of the ECREP initiative, which is the world’s only initiative solely dedicated to understanding what goes on in the mind of voters, and it is supported by a European Research Council Grant called, “Inside the Mind of a Voter”. What we are doing for the current five years is that we try to understand what is the power of emotions, personality, and memory on the way people vote.

Why do we do it? We do it, because, as we found out from one of our recent surveys, 29% of Americans, and 40% of French people, tell us that they have already changed their mind on how to vote on the very day of an election. In fact, if you think of the recent presidential election, which took place on Tuesday, 25%, one in four voters, either changed their minds or made up their minds between the first of November and the day of the election itself. So, what we are trying to do is understand: what is happening? What is there about the atmosphere of elections, about the specific context of the election, which triggers some psychological reactions, which are such that people do not end up voting in the way they were actually predicting?

There is one thing that I am not going to talk to you about today, which is the impact of personality on the vote. I am not going to talk to you about it, because it is just too long and complicated. But so that you know, in addition to exploring the impact of a certain number of personality traits, such as aversion to risk, or self-confidence in the way people vote, we have got a number of things, which are actually a little bit unusual about the research it has, associating people’s favourite colour, or the animal they would compare themselves to, or how you would rank the ten commandments, or the seven deadly sins, and they way they vote. That is the part, which I am not going to talk to you about.

Instead, I am going to focus on the impact of memory, emotion, personality on the one hand, and secondly, the way they interact with the electoral system design to trigger some specific reactions. In terms of the methodology, the project is extremely ambitious. We conducted it in over 15 countries already. We include some panel study mass surveys, which mean that we re-interview the same people, thousands of people, over several years. We conduct some in-depth interviews; we conduct some spot interviews, where we ask people to tell us, in just one sentence: what went through your mind when you were in the polling booth? We recruit some people to keep some election diary for a full month. They will actually record all their thoughts, or the discussion about the election.

In addition to all these ways of people telling us about how they feel, we actually partner with election observers, who can actually tell us in the day of a polling station, how do people dress when they go to vote? How many come on their own, how many come with children? Do they look worried, do they look excited, what sort of questions do they ask? Finally, we conduct a number of experiments, one of which took place today, which actually enabled us to characterise a certain number of psychological mechanisms, which lead people to whatever they do.

One of the important elements that we use, is that we have got a model of electoral identity, which we continue to prove, test after test, which shows that voters are really made of two different types of people. If you think of an election as a sort of competition between alternative parties or candidates, some people behave like referees, who actually arbitrate between the different people and the different offers that they can judge. Some people really behave like supporters. Supporters and referees are almost equally shared, but they will have very different types of emotions, which are triggered at a time when they actually participate.

If I can now ask the people up there to actually show the first clip: we are going to start talking about emotions. As we talk about emotions, we are going to show you footage from the experiment, which took place today—thanks to some of you—in which people were actually asked to vote using three of the most common types of ballot: either paper or electronic types of ballots. They were actually filmed through the curtain so that without being able to recognise them, we are able to identify, if you want, a certain number of reactions. Now, you will recognise the person. This first clip is actually made with actors. The second one, you will see a little bit later is made of real voters who didn’t know what was taking place.

What are the emotions that people feel when they are in a polling booth? There are four main types of emotions. The first one is excitement. 79% of people tell us that voting is important to them, and 60% that they are actually excited when they vote. The second major emotion is pride. 74% of voters feel proud when they are in the polling booth. The third, which is very much related with excitement, is being worried: 53% of voters tell us that when they vote, they are actually worried. When you actually think of this mixture of emotions, this mixture of pride, excitement, and worry, and you think about the different ways in which they can be combined, what you actually find is a certain set up, which is going to recall some memories, which we have accumulated over the course of our lifetime, but which suddenly, even though we didn’t think that we had them in the back of our mind, will make people behave in specific ways.

Now, what elections do people remember? People remember elections going back all the way to their childhood. 70% of voters actually remember one of their childhood elections, for instance going to the polling station with their parents. 82% of American voters remember the first time they voted. In terms of what people remember, and that is perhaps even more important—even though people do remember things such as: who won the election, how they voted themselves—the main memories, which actually have an impact on the way people vote, are memories of either discussions or arguments that we have.

When you actually look at these things together, I am presenting you a memory cloud, which is made of the open-ended long interviews on electoral memory, which we conducted with American people. What you can immediately see is that some of the things, which actually have a tremendous presence in people’s minds, are references to the family, school, first—as in the first election—and these are the type of things that people actually associate with elections at the time when they go to vote.

Now, to move on from there, there is the question of: what happens, which is going to trigger, if you want, the specific emotions, the specific personality trait, which I didn’t tell you about, and the specific memories to result in some specific aspects of voting behaviour. What is really important here is to introduce the concept of what I call “electoral ergonomy”. If you think of ergonomy, the ergonomic design of a pen, for instance, many people think it means designing a pen in such a way that it is easy to handle, considering the shape of a human hand. But, that is not really the case. When people design an ergonomic pen, they design a pen, which is easy to handle by the human hand, considering its function, which is to write. What is missing very much in the current debate on electoral design is that people actually say that we should introduce e-voting, for instance, or we should introduce postal voting, because this is what corresponds to the way in which people live. What is missing is a reflection on the function of elections. What happens is that even though there is, if you want, a systemic function of election, which is to allow people to appoint their representatives, there is also democratic representative function of election, and that is the function, which consists of giving people the impression that they actually matter in a democracy, organising a very unique moment of civic communion between voters and the political systems.

In order to actually understand the role of electoral ergonomy on the way people vote, we conducted these numbers of experiments, which I told you about. With the second clip, we will actually be able to relate to some of the things, which I mentioned. The first element, and that is something, which we tested today, is that the way in which you organise elections will have an influence on the amount of time people spend thinking about the way they vote. Again, as I mentioned, we had three different types of ballot: one electronic and two paper ballots. On average, the people who voted using the electronic ballot spent 20 seconds in the polling booth. The people who used the French type of ballot, when you have different types, or different names on individual pieces of paper, spent one full minute in the polling booth: three times longer. Think about all the things that can actually happen in the minds when they spend these extra 40 seconds in the polling booth.

The second aspect is that voting doesn’t only affect the time people spend thinking about how they vote; it also affects whom they vote for. One of the field experiments, which we conducted during the U.K. general elections in 2010, is that we compared the way in which people voted, depending on whether they went to the polling station and the polling booth, which is a traditional way of voting, or whether they used postal ballots. The nice thing with our panel study design is that we can control for everything, including the way in which people intended to vote three weeks before the election, the demographic and sociological backgrounds. When you control for all these things, the people who actually use postal ballots, were 25% more likely to vote for an extremist party than people who went to the polling station.

This means that there is something about the atmosphere of the polling station, which makes people behave in a different way, which makes people think about their vote and take a sense of responsibility, which is actually of tantamount importance. In terms of the e-voting experiments, which we conducted this time in labs, we found that not only do people who vote remotely from home are more likely to vote for extremist party, but they also feel less efficacious. They feel that they don’t really matter in the democracy, and they are less satisfied with democracy, which means that ultimately they feel more cynical. And if they feel more cynical, they are also less likely to participate in elections in the future; which means that the main reason why you would want to introduce e-voting, supposedly because it will increase the level of turnout is, in fact, counterproductive over time, because the people who actually use this method of voting, end up feeling that it doesn’t actually serve any purpose.

Now to conclude, I actually want to go back to the notion of breaking the wall of emotion, if you want, in the polling booth. I want to be serious again for a second. What is really important about the moment when people are in the polling station and in the polling booth is that the level of emotion, the level of anxiety, is heightened in such a way that they are in a very specific predisposition to relate to others and relate to the political systems in a way which they do not experience in their everyday life. The people, who actually vote in the polling station, vote in a way, which is significantly more socio-tropic than the people who vote from home using postal voting or electronic voting. Which means that when they vote they don’t actually think of what is good for them, but of actually what is good for the society. When you actually look at that, and think of it in terms of the opportunities it gives political systems to reconcile themselves with voters who are increasingly cynical, increasingly dissatisfied with the organisation of politics, you think that there is something to do, to put together the conditions of reconciliation between voters under a political system. I will leave you with one final thought, one final finding, which is that 50% of the people whom we interviewed told us that one of the main emotions they feel when they are in the polling booth, which is something that people never feel when they vote electronically or postally, is that they feel happy. Thank you very much.