Identity Politics: How All Your Identities Sway Your Vote
People throw out the term “identity politics” as a way to say that someone is wrong, but the truth is, it’s something that affects the way all of us vote. Hosted by: …
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People like to throw out
the term “identity politics”
as a way of claiming their political opponents are
illogical or making bad decisions
for the country as a whole.
But, the truth is, identity politics has
nothing to do with the Left or the Right.
According to scientific
research on voter behavior,
t affects the way all of us vote,
no matter what politics we have.
And, consciously or not, all politicians try to
take advantage of that during their campaigns!
We often think of votes as
logical, position-based choices.
In psychological science, this is
known as rational choice theory—
it assumes voters study
each candidate’s positions,
and then select the one whose views and policies
they most agree with or which benefit them.
But research in the past few decades
has revealed that identity politics
play a huge role in voter behavior.
In other words, we all have a
tendency to vote for candidates
that most remind us of ourselves and
of aspects of our social identity.
We may vote this way even
if a candidate’s policies
are less aligned with us than the policies
of the candidate that we don’t identify with.
Identity-based voting stems from our deeply
ingrained patterns of social cognition:
the way we make sense of ourselves
and other people in a society.
One way this can happen is a cognitive
process known as spontaneous trait inference:
we automatically build up a model of someone’s
personality or beliefs based
on snippets of their behavior.
That person who cut you off on the freeway?
They’re clearly a rude, thoughtless person!—even
though you know nothing else about them.
Our brains make similar spontaneous assumptions
about candidates’ policies and beliefs.
Like, if the guy running for mayor doesn’t
mention the city’s homelessness rate in a speech,
that’s because he doesn’t care about
the residents experiencing homelessness—
even though it was one speech of many.
The thing is, we don’t always make the
same inferences for the same behavior—
influence how we fill in gaps.
If that mayoral candidate had been a woman,
we may have been more likely
to excuse the omission
and still believe she cares about
people experiencing homelessness.
That's because research shows
that women are judged to have
greater expertise in social welfare issues
simply by virtue of their gender identity.
This actually brings me to another
the false consensus effect.
That’s where we automatically assume
that people in a social group that we
identify with think the same way we do.
Like, I may believe that I consider
educational reform very important
because I’m a parent.
And if so, I may also assume that any candidate
who’s a parent will also
champion educational reform –
even if that candidate has never
actually said that they would.
We assume that a shared identity
tells us about their positions,
because of course people like us just
naturally agree with the things we support.
And research shows that even tiny,
superficial similarities can lead us to believe
that a politician thinks like
we do about important stuff.
Of course, it’s not like we’re just one thing.
We all have complex social identities.
So politicians often remind us of the ones
that might sway our vote towards them.
This is known as identity salience.
And we see it all over the place in politics.
For instance, questions designed to reinforce
a specific identity tend to skew people’s opinions
so that they fall in line with that identity.
So something like, “As a parent,
what do you think about this policy?”
might lead you to vote differently than asking
“As a resident of Montana, what
do you think about this policy?”
One study in South Korea even found that simply
asking people about their political party
and who they support can reinforce their identity
as a supporter of that candidate, and therefore,
potentially influence their voting choices.
Another way politicians can use identity
salience is to name-drop social groups
when talking about who will benefit after they
get elected, or refer to a policy, threat,
or solution in a way that
makes it identity-related.
For instance, a candidate giving a
talk at their alma mater could say,
I think of the college kids whose wings
are clipped by the looming specter of
doesn’t need to explain how, exactly,
their policies will benefit that group,
or any group voters might identify with.
They just need to subtly suggest
that they’re one of us, and our brains fill in
the gaps thanks to that false consensus effect.
Even ballot designs can reinforce
identification with a given group.
Like, ballots that emphasize parties using logos
lead people toward straight-ticket voting,
while de-emphasizing party affiliation
leads to more split-ticket voting.
Similarly, studies suggest using
candidate photos on ballots
may prime us to think about the races
or ethnicities we identify with,
and thereby nudge us to vote accordingly.
Aspects of the election itself can
also play a role.
Identity voting tends
to override rational choices
when specific details about a
candidate’s policies are not readily
available, like in primary elections.
It’s also more likely to happen in
elections with a huge number of candidates.
That’s probably because it’s harder to remember
and keep track of every candidate’s views and
policies, so we tend to rely on our
identities to guide our vote.
Identity politics is an inevitable byproduct
of our ancient social-cognitive machinery.
We will always make automatic assumptions
about others based on our shared identities.
But we can recognize this about
ourselves, and because of that,
we can make sure the votes we cast are for
the people and policies we actually want.
Basically, we can check to make sure our image
of a candidate matches what they’ve said
and done, rather than what we might have
assumed about them because of our identities.
Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow
Psych, which is produced by Complexly.
If you liked this foray into voting
psychology, I have some good news—
this is actually the last of four
videos we’ve put out on the topic!
The other three can be found on here
and on our main SciShow channel.
They run the gamut from how answering
questions can shape your opinions to
how psychology is taking negative
campaigning to the next level.
And if you’re a US citizen and all this talk has
gotten you excited about casting your ballot,
I have even more good news.
Since the rules for voting are
different depending on where you live,
we here at Complexly have made a whole series of
videos that explain how to vote in each state,
as well as some advice for special cases
like territories and overseas voters!
You can check out our 2020 guide at
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