3 ways we’ll be tricked during local elections


Sure what’s in a name?? A lot, if you’re up for election…

And it’s not just the names … we voters are about to be manipulated in several ways I’m afraid!!

Your choice – or is it??

With this upcoming election business there are three key things we need to watch out for – and it’s not what I recently heard referred to as “tweedle dum versus tweedle dee”! It’s our pesky, annoying and primitive unconscious minds. The trick is in predicting our own cognitive bias. 

What’s a cognitive bias? It’s a type of error in thinking that occurs when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them.

Kendra Cherry

And what can we predict?

That we’ll be manipulated AND that we won’t notice that we’ve been manipulated! #truth #sorry

That said, there are some tricks our brains play on us that if we’re wise to ourselves we might catch. Then we might be able to make better choices.

Tweedledums and tweedledees

And so:

There are three things that our brains will use to “help” us decide who to vote for in the upcoming elections – to be fair, our brains mean well, they do. We will most likely not be aware of this consciously though. Dang brains…

  • The Recognition Factor
  • Choice Fatigue and
  • The Primacy Effect.

1: Candidates target our Recognition Factor bias using posters and social media. This is where we find ourselves bombarded by images of our benign smiling hopefuls.  You might look at some posters and think “Aaaah – that person looks competent, intelligent, bright, friendly, like they might actually listen if you approach them. Other faces will turn you off, of you might hate the clothes, or the colours, or their hair – or just something you can’t quite pin down… But really, what seems to be happening is what in my trade we call “Transference” or “Projection”, and what in voting/ advertising psychology is called the Recognition Factor.

What is really happening, much as we hate to entertain this, is “that person looks like me (or like someone from my family, group, social class, neighbourhood) or someone I’m close to and whom I like”. It is the very basis of all advertising at dubious and at worst, it is the basis of all “ism”s and zenophobia.

Sometimes there is a sense of clash. For example, someone you know is canvassing for a party you have decided you hate, because that party appears to be not “like you” or they have policies or a history that don’t match your vision for your society, but this candidate has. Local elections are particularly problematic (for voters) in this way. This is why it’s a good idea for parties to occasionally mix it up a little and throw in a few surprise candidates to attract new voters. I’m currently experiencing such a clash, and it’s a very strange experience I must say… but it inspired me do some research. Including research for this article as it happens!

And so you’ll see party reliance on the Recognition Effect showing up in choice of clothing, make up, posture, colours, photograph background and language in the election paraphenalia. Some parties will use words like “fight”, others will use words like “together” or “work” – all deliberately chosen to resonate with the people they believe might vote for them. It’s clever, once you start paying attention it becomes fascinating. But, make no mistake, it’s a manipulation.

 2: Next up we have what’s called “Choice Fatigue”. The more information we are given, the more overwhelming it can be. It’s easier to choose between 4 desserts on a menu than between 10. At ballot paper stage we are offered too many desserts (wondering if desserts is working here as an analogy actually!?!) The more choices there are on a ballot paper, the more likely it is that people from the first four will get higher numbers of first preferences. This has been studied in several cultures, not just ours. It’s our brains, we like things to be slightly complicated, but not too much.

We are all a little responsibility averse. Knowing that is key to information bombardment too – the more information that is yelled at us from posters and social media, like policies, promises and so on, the less likely we are to go research the candidate and put some work into finding out if they are in fact, any good. We start to take short cuts and we vote for the simpler, punchier message. So we might make the wrong choice because the candidate has just given us too much information and they don’t seem “like us”. Even if that candidate in reality is vastly superior in ways that truly matter.  

3: The third pitfall to watch for is the Primacy Effect. This is a well established and psychological phenomenon whereby we are more likely choose what we see first. Like the Choice fatigue, we get bored of looking, but also we seem to believe that what is first on the list is best. Studies on voting behaviour are consistent with this one, and some indicate that it doesn’t effect first or second place preference, but people who are listed 3rd or 4th and so on down the list can be in real trouble because of this one.

You’re most likely to remember the yellow duck – but could they run the country?

This effect is so strong – and avoidable – that the case has been made for randomising ballot paper position. And yet, we in Ireland still list candidates alphabetically. So Xander Zimmerman from Killeagh may not do so well… but it you’re Aaron Aarhus from Midleton you’re in with a good shot!

As for me – I just hope that whoever gets in will have integrity and our collective best interests at heart. We are all in this together after all – because despite our primitive brains and ‘them and us’ style of cognition, the reality is that there is no them and us. It’s simply us.

Think consciously before you vote!






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