This research asks a simple, important question: Why do so many Americans not vote? The opportunity to participate is extended to the overwhelming majority of adult citizens. Yet even presidential elections, the most high-stimulus of contests, fail to bring nearly half of the eligible electorate to the polls. How should this fact be interpreted? Are people nonvoters due to contented apathy, or is it possible that many nonvoters are disgusted with politics? To be sure, the time and attention required to register, learn about the candidates, and get to the polls dissuade many from voting. But the second possibility drives this project: can some nonvoting be attributed to negative emotional reactions to the political system? A related question regards whether aversive emotions such as disgust diminish information-seeking during electoral campaigns.

To address these questions, the researcher will conduct a national survey experiment. Subjects will be asked to read a randomly assigned mock news article designed to elicit one of four emotional reactions to the political system: disgust, anger, anxiety or enthusiasm. A control group will receive a fact-based article about politics intended to elicit no emotion. After reading the article, subjects will be introduced to a simulated campaign between fictional candidates, complete with the opportunity to learn more about the candidates' personal histories and issue stances. After accessing as much, or as little, information as they wish, subjects will be given the opportunity to vote for their favored candidate. The researcher expects that subjects made to feel disgusted will access fewer pieces of information and refuse to take part in the mock vote. Consistent with prior work in both psychology and political science, the researcher expects anger to be associated with diminished information seeking but increased participation. Anxiety, meanwhile, should lead to increased information seeking.

This research will enhance understanding of political participation and political behavior. Political scientists usually define nonvoters in the negative sense?as lacking resources such as education, income and partisan affinity, which are believed to cause voting. These current explanations, however, fail to explain the presence of many nonvoters (perhaps about one-fourth) whose resources and interest should be sufficient to cast a ballot. This project also advances political psychologists' rapidly expanding inquiry into the effects of emotions on political behavior, extending it explicitly into the study of voter turnout.

The project also makes several broader contributions. The health of a democratic system hinges on the openness of elections, and its representativeness is called into question when large groups of the population exclude themselves from the electoral process. Uncovering the emotional underpinnings of nonvoting advances understanding and suggests a way forward for policymakers' efforts to boost civic engagement. This project challenges the assumptions underlying more than a quarter century of political reforms and mobilization efforts aimed at increasing turnout by lowering the costs of voting, as in reformed registration laws.

Project Report

Low voter turnout remains a troublesome problem in the American political system. Elections are the most inclusive and popularly supported American political institution, yet presidential contests routinely fail to bring nearly half of the eligible electorate to the polls. The health of a democratic system hinges on the openness of elections to all citizens, and its representativeness and legitimacy are undermined when large groups of the population exclude themselves. Elected officials can only guess about the policy desires of nonvoting citizens, and it is important to understand whether widespread abstention may signal disaffection and alienation. The possible explanation for nonvoting that I investigate is disgust with politics. Nonvoters frequently say they are disgusted by politics, but their complaints are often dismissed as excuses for being politically uninformed, disinterested, or too busy to vote. However, research in psychology shows that disgust influences a number of social behaviors; it helps us choose foods we eat, people we befriend or avoid, and how we react to politicians and political issues. Therefore, when people say they don't vote because the political system "makes them sick," "grosses them out," or "disgusts" them, maybe we should listen. Using this award, I conducted an experiment with 700 ordinary Americans from all 50 states. Using an internet questionnaire, these individuals were randomly assigned to recall feeling disgust, anger, anxiety, enthusiasm or no emotion at all about politics. (Prior work in psychology shows that thinking about emotions is a powerful way of making someone feel those same emotions.) The participants were then invited to take part in a simulated campaign for the U.S. Senate where they would have the opportunity to read as many as seven articles about the candidates before choosing to select a prefered candidate, or to not vote at all. Just like in real voting, the participants were warned they would have to wait before casting their online ballot and would not be paid extra. In other words, voting had real "costs," in terms of time, but with the only benefit being making one's voice heard. The results show that disgust did indeed reduce voter turnout and information-seeking. Seven percent fewer participants in the disgust group voted, compared to those who did not feel any emotion, and 12% fewer disgusted individuals voted compared to the enthusiastic group. Meanwhile, unemotional participants read about 4 articles, while the disgust group averaged 3.6 articles, a decrease of about 10%. Taken together, these results suggest that people who are truly disgusted with politics choose to inform themselves less, and participate less often

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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University of Texas Austin
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