Brains and ballot boxes
Mark Sergeant (Nottingham Trent University) on coverage of the US presidential election
Barack Obama has just been re-elected as the President of the United States of America. Understandably, this event has caused a storm of media reporting with commentators debating everything from the implications for future US foreign and domestic policy through to the extreme amounts of money that were spent on the election.
Regarding psychology-related aspects of the election, there have been a number of recent articles commenting on topics such as the voting process (tinyurl.com/cgl4bgt), why some people don’t vote (tinyurl.com/d9h8fa5), and the power of advertising during election campaigns (tinyurl.com/bskyfv3).
One issue that attracted comment was the characteristics of the candidates themselves. For example, a number of commentators have focused on the height of both Barack Obama (6'1") and Mitt Romney (6'2") based on the fact that taller candidates have won 67 per cent
of all US presidential elections (tinyurl.com/cn4pbzg). It appears this statistic now needs lowering slightly.
Similarly, a number of commentators have drawn attention to the effects of candidate attractiveness in securing victory (tinyurl.com/dxkye2r). For example, in USA Today (tinyurl.com/cy2lqmp) Texas Governor Rick Perry, another presidential candidate, was described in the following way by Torin Archbold, a member of the Austin Tea Party: ‘Rick Perry is strong. He’s the quintessential Texan, he’s got great hair, he’s a good-looking guy, he stands tall, and he talks directly.’ Such remarks have led commentators to consider whether or not the presidential election could actually be considered to be a beauty contest (tinyurl.com/cc32y87).
A number of articles have also examined the psychological characteristics of voters. Kristina Durante, an assistant professor of marketing at University of Texas San Antonio, examined the effect that menstrual cycle phase can have on women’s likelihood to vote for certain candidates. The research involved two studies, with the second of these using a between-subjects design to look at the voting preferences of 502 women at different stages of the menstrual cycle.
Durante and colleagues state in the abstract for their research that ‘Ovulation led single women to become more liberal, less religious, and more likely to vote for Barack Obama. In contrast, ovulation led married women to become more conservative, more religious, and more likely to vote for Mitt Romney. In addition, ovulatory induced changes in political orientation mediated women’s voting behavior. Overall, the ovulatory cycle not only influences women’s politics, but appears to do so differently for single versus married women.’
The article, entitled ‘The fluctuating female vote: Politics, religion, and the ovulatory cycle’, is listed on Durante’s website as being forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science. Although the study was reported as being removed from Durante’s website around the time of the election, a PDF of the article could be accessed at the time this article went to press (tinyurl.com/c7v7nk9).
A media report on the research was originally posted on the CNN website but, following apparent concern by readers, the post has now been withdrawn and replaced with a statement that:
‘A post previously published in this space regarding a study about how hormones may influence voting choices has been removed. After further review it was determined that some elements of the story did not meet the editorial standards of CNN.’
The article itself, compounded by the decision of CNN to withdraw the article, drew considerable attention in the media (e.g. tinyurl.com/ch427u5 and tinyurl.com/cb6lsgf). Some commentators in the popular press did, perhaps, show a slightly simplistic interpretation of the study such as the article on Jezebel entitled ‘CNN Thinks Crazy Ladies Can’t Help Voting With Their Vaginas Instead of Their Brains’ (tinyurl.com/8o7rytl).
Academics, particularly in the political sciences, were also keen to comment on the implications of this research. Paul Kellstedt, an associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University, indicated that the article only addressed the influence of hormone levels on female voters, despite the fact that hormone levels effect both males and females. As a result, ‘the reader may be left with the impression that women are unstable and moody in ways that extend to their political preferences, but that men are comparative Rocks of Gibraltar.’
Susan Carroll, professor of political science and women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University, wrote: ‘There is absolutely no reason to expect that women’s hormones affect how they vote any more than there is a reason to suggest that variations in testosterone levels are responsible for variations in the debate performances of Obama and Romney.’ Furthermore, Carroll suggested that Durante’s article added to a history of research that employed women’s hormone levels as rationale to exclude them from high-ranking positions in society.
This is contrasted with an article in the popular press (tinyurl.com/bo4vld5) stating that ‘there is absolutely nothing
in the CNN piece on Kristina Durante’s study on voting and ovulation that suggests that women are weak little creatures who need to be protected from themselves, or that they are slave to all that estrogen coursing through their silly brainplaces. It doesn’t say their ovulation makes them change their minds about their political beliefs or leanings.’
The reporter for CNN who wrote the original article, Elizabeth Landau, has herself come in for considerable criticism for writing the story. From a journalistic perspective, I would agree with her recent tweet: ‘For the record, I was reporting on a study to be published in a peer-reviewed journal & included skepticism. I did not conduct the study’. Landau also offered the following disclaimer in her original article: ‘Please continue reading with caution. Although the study will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science, several political scientists who read the study have expressed skepticism about its conclusions.’
Durante has responded to some of the comments and criticisms about the research (tinyurl.com/copb4hg), although commentators feel that substantive methodological issues remain.
As a final thought, it’s worth remembering that while the presidential election was capturing all the attention, a number of psychologically interesting local referendums on social issues were held (see tinyurl.com/bd2cugp). Same-sex marriages were approved by a popular vote in the state of Maine, while attempts to repeal existing laws supporting same-sex marriages in Maryland and Washington were unsuccessful. In Colorado and Washington voters decided to approve the possession and use of marijuana for personal and recreational reasons. Voters in California elected not to abolish the death penalty. Finally, in Los Angeles County, a measure requiring performers in the pornography industry to use condoms while filming was approved by voters, with the rationale being similar to that requiring construction workers to wear hardhats. Each of these new initiatives have the potential to impact fields of psychological research and practice.
Media prime cuts
Advice from William James to his unhappy 13-yr-old daughter: http://t.co/f1cgWW9g
Here’s @paulbloomatyale introducing the science of psychology in 48 minutes http://t.co/ZpvK90jR
Neuroscience in the courtroom http://t.co/S4tG1db9
What do autistic people want from science? http://t.co/qYPEawJh
Simon Baron-Cohen chooses five books http://t.co/dlWajiVA
‘There is no way to write a science article well’ http://t.co/ZZTNVx4L
Problem solving in the community
Throughout life, we all face difficult decisions that leave us feeling confused about the best possible path forward. But how many of us would consider putting our dilemma to a group of 50 strangers, and asking them to make the decision for us?
The Audience is an entertaining, yet surprisingly thought-provoking series on Channel 4, of which the premise is precisely that: a person with a life-changing decision such as ‘Should I abandon the family farm?’ or ‘Should I send my daughter to live in Devon?’ is followed and observed by a group of 50 strangers, who must then come to a unified decision as to what the individual should do.
Despite its light-hearted feel, The Audience promotes the power of a community influence on an individual’s ability to problem-solve and cope with complex dilemmas. In our society, the traditional conceptualisation of a community is becoming harder to find.
In larger cities, in particular, it is common not to know anything about our neighbours, let alone go to them for help with our problems. Research suggests that people who live in Western, more individualistic societies may be more likely to develop mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, compared to those who live more collectively, and so this programme encourages viewers to consider the psychological benefits of turning to a wider network of support.
The Audience demographic is rich in its diversity, representing all walks of life and ranging in age, race and breadth of experience. Seeking support from such a broad spectrum of people seems to have its advantages. If we consider our own support networks, to what extent do the people we approach for advice share similar values and approaches to solving a problem? In addition, the influence of friends and family may bring with it unavoidable judgement or bias, further burdening us with guilt and interfering with our decision making. An uninvolved, unobligated stranger might provide us with a more objective perspective on our problem. In this way, there is a valuable argument for the benefit of online forums, where you are able to seek advice from a potentially limitless community of strangers. Members of ‘the audience’ model successful problem-solving approaches that allow us to reflect on how we approach our own problems and how we support our clients. By engaging compassionately with the person and their dilemma on a logical and emotional level, members of the audience are able to get to the root of the problem. Supportive strategies such as empathic listening and reframing unhelpful thoughts are similar to some techniques psychologists may adopt in therapeutic settings.
Connecting with people that we wouldn’t normally interact with could offer new and welcome perspectives on solving difficult decisions. While we may never find a group of advisers quite like the audience, the programme reminds us of the potential that community support could have in boosting problem solving, confidence and social experiences, and even in reducing the development of depression and anxiety in individuals coping with a stressful dilemma.
Institute of Psychiatry
King's College London
Media prime cuts
Psy-Ops: ‘we’re not psychologists’ and ‘it has never involved staring at goats’ http://t.co/ExTuxPNp
Brilliant piece by @borisk on @jonahlehrer – ‘a terrifically sad situation’ with important implications http://t.co/HihmIFcQ
‘Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain? No offense to anyone’ http://t.co/UBMNZaRG
A day in the life of… a clinical psychologist http://t.co/ZXElDCXh
@DrPeteEtchells on Aric Sigman’s ‘cherry picking’ over TV/kids http://t.co/Or3pWAF3
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