'Hormones can influence decision-making while voting'

Study says Kadima, Labor voters more stressed than Likud, Israel Beiteinu counterparts in 2009.

By JUDY SIEGEL ITZKOVICH
July 5, 2011 06:02
4 minute read.
Waiting to vote Knesset

waiting to vote Knesset_311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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Just looking at haggard politicians running for office makes it clear that electioneering is a very stressful experience for them. But researchers have found that the simple act of casting one’s ballot in the voting booth and “deciding the nation’s fate” can affect physiological processes and be stressful – and also depends on one’s party of choice.

A joint University of Haifa and Ben-Gurion University team found recently that voting and its effect on one’s hormones can influence the decision- making process.

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Dr. Israel Waismel-Manor of the University of Haifa’s political science department, Dr. Gal Ifergane (the Haifa researcher’s brother-in-law) of BGU and Soroka University Medical Center’s neurology department and Prof. Hagit Cohen of the Health Ministry’s Beersheba Mental Health Center took saliva samples from 113 adult volunteers living in the Beersheba suburb of Omer. All the volunteers were about to step into the voting booth on Tuesday, February 10, 2009, the day of the most recent Knesset election that was a day off from work (for most people). They also asked the same voting group about their affective state, i.e. their emotions at the time.

The team retested 21 months later (at the same time of day they voted) on a calm Friday in their homes the people who participated in the election, as well as a much smaller control group of Omer voters the day after the election. The findings, the political scientist told The Jerusalem Post on Monday, will soon be published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology.

The team, in what they call the first study of its kind, found that voting affects the level of cortisol in the body.

Known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol is released when a person is under pressure, and helps the body cope with threats. Just before casting one’s vote in an election, cortisol levels were significantly higher than in the same individuals in similar non-voting conditions.



“It is important to understand that emotions can affect biological processes, which in turn can influence our decision- making processes,” said Waismel-Manor, who also found that Kadima and Labor Party voters were more stressed than Likud and Israel Beiteinu voters before casting their votes. Earlier studies have shown that when a person is under pressure, threat or emotional stress, the body releases a series of hormones that assist it in coping with the situation.

The results show that the level of cortisol in individuals immediately before voting was almost three times higher than in the following day control group, and almost twice these voters’ own cortisol levels almost two years after Election Day. The study also revealed that individuals about to cast a vote were emotionally aroused, both in terms of positive effect, such as sharpness and inspiration, and negative effect, such as nervousness or embarrassment.

People who said they would vote for a party that polls predicted would lose seats and might not serve in the next government had higher cortisol levels than those who intended to vote for a party that polls predicted were to gain seats and had a good chance of forming the new government.

Waismel-Manor said he and his team chose Omer, the well-off suburb in the South, because much of the rest of the country was due to have very wintry weather that could skew the results and because well-educated suburban residents were most likely to agree to participate and give a saliva sample. The voting queues at the Omarim School were not crowded or have anything that would otherwise cause stress, he said.

The researchers emphasized that their findings are just a first step in understanding the link between biological stress and voting. The study did not examine whether the high levels of cortisol affect the actual vote, but evidence linking the decision-making processes and biological processes should be examined in future studies. Waismel- Manor said he hopes to obtain funding to do a larger study on Election Day for the US presidential vote in November 2012.

Studies of decision-makers, stock traders and the general public have shown that higher levels of cortisol influence decision- making. Elevated cortisol leads to risk-taking behavior and at the same time impede memory retrieval. These findings, along with the results of the present study, bring into question the decision-making process among voters.

“Our study has found that voting is both exciting and stressful, psychologically and physiologically. It remains to be seen whether Election Day stress is capable of altering voting decisions and outcomes,” the political scientist concluded.


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