Voter Motivations

Political Psychology course encourages students to challenge easy explanations.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

By Blake Cole
Photos by Brooke Sietinsons

Michele Margolis, assisant professor of political science

The 2016 presidential election has come to an end and most would agree it was one for the record books. From vitriolic rhetoric and unorthodox debates to a swath of scandals that enveloped each candidate, the election redefined the modern political landscape. This past semester the stars aligned for a group of undergrad students in PSCI 436-301—more affectionately referred to as Political Psychology—as they learned to see past the 24-hour news cycle, the deluge of tweets, and conventional polling in order to analyze the psychological underpinnings of voter motivation.

“You can’t understand politics without understanding psychology,” says Assistant Professor of Political Science Michele Margolis, the instructor for the course. “We’re not robots who behave completely rationally. And that’s what this course is about: understanding our own inherent biases, our implicit attitudes, our prejudices, and how the world around us can affect how we interpret new information.”

The class thrives on participation. To facilitate this, students submit discussion topics ahead of each lecture. The election provided a unique backdrop for examining various political psychology theories. “One question revolved around the prospect theory, which describes a decision-making process driven by an analysis of losses and gains,” Margolis says. “We asked questions like, ‘Could this theory explain the thought process of Republicans that wanted to vote for Hillary Clinton because they were afraid of the damage a Donald Trump presidency could cause?’ The consensus in this case was yes.”

Similarly, some students believed that Bernie Sanders was the correct primary candidate choice from an ideological standpoint, but conceded support to Clinton because they considered her more likely to win a general election. “It was a common theme during the election that voters needed to go through some sort of mental gymnastics in order to choose a candidate,” says Margolis. “It’s very difficult to measure whether someone makes a ‘good’ or ‘right’ political decision. Scholars try through various strategies, but the 2016 election represented a case in which this didn’t necessarily occur.”

A lack of political knowledge often impacts voter decisions, Margolis says. Most people tend to receive all their news from a single—often biased—source. This leads to cognitive shortcuts, called heuristics, which enable Americans to act as if they are fully informed, even if they have knowledge gaps. When Gallup polls show trust in government is low, for instance, voters might shift their reliance to other heuristics, like unconventional endorsements.

In order to challenge students’ beliefs about their own objectivity, and bolster interactions once in the classroom, Margolis employs a unique tool called implicit association tests, which are designed to expose subconscious ethnic, religious, gender, and other biases. Often these tests have a timed component in order to force an organic reaction from participants. One such test presents a positive and a negative image to the test taker—a flower and a scorpion, for instance. These symbols are then coupled with people of different backgrounds. Test takers are instructed to categorize paired symbols and groups as quickly as possible. Reaction time is much faster if the positive symbol is paired with a group they feel positively toward. 

Students in a Political Psychology lecture. 

“We are forced to ask ourselves what role do these stereotypes play in the political arena and in the formation of our political behavior,” says Karina Miranda, C’18. “Professor Margolis has a way of making the uncomfortable interesting and the controversial thought-provoking.”

Margolis says many students assume that since they’ve received a top-notch education, they are more likely to make better decisions. “Ultimately it doesn’t matter where you go to college or how smart you are, this is just how humans work,” she says. “It’s like holding a mirror up, and having them think about the world around them and how we often don’t talk about our own biases openly.” 

Another crucial aspect of the course is the students’ final papers. One of the main objectives of the course is to teach students how scientific theory influences the social sciences. “Political science today is quantitative and rigorous,” says Margolis, whose newest book examines political and religious socialization, arguing against established theory that people select in and out of religion based on their political identities. “You’re expected to be able to replicate things, so being able to understand basic scientific information about research, about reading articles, and being able to be really critical of them is essential.”

Iman Charania, C’17, echoes this sentiment. “One of the things I really appreciate about the class is how Professor Margolis highlights the data side of political science,” she says. “Being able to see why and how a study is flawed makes discussions much more interesting because we’re not taking all the research as it’s given to us.” Charania, who has also done work in Penn’s Program for Opinion Research and Election Studies (PORES), says the course has helped her better analyze political polling data. “Being able to understand campaigns from a psychological standpoint provides valuable insight into those results.”

In their papers, students are tasked with designing a survey or experiment in which they need to be very explicit in what they’re testing and what the experimental stimuli are. One student tackled the impact of various emotions on individuals’ political leanings, particularly anxiety versus anger. “Take terrorism, for instance,” Margolis says. “Does being anxious about it versus being scared about it affect how you respond to news reports?” Another paper tested political knowledge recall, a subject particularly relevant in the age of social media. “On one hand you’re getting these little snippets from tweets or your newsfeed, but on the other hand, you’re potentially being exposed to things you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to,” explains Margolis.

In the end it’s about not falling prey to snap judgments, and maintaining a healthy skepticism about simplistic explanations of complex political scenarios, Margolis says. “When the New York Times claims that this policy caused this, or so-and-so political ad caused this, I want my students to think very carefully about it,” she says. “I encourage them to come up with alternative explanations. Maybe there’s a reason the people you think are politically crazy think the way they do. This is a skill that transfers to any class at Penn, and to outside the classroom, as well.”