Harvard Mental Health Letter

Commentary: How undecideds decide

Commentary

How undecideds decide

November is election time in the United States, the time when wavering voters must leave indecision behind and mark their ballots. In the 2008 presidential election, where issues of gender and race have been in play as never before, commentators suggest that many voters may say they're undecided when they are actually keeping their preferences secret. An Italian study published in an August 2008 issue of the journal Science suggests, however, that many undecided voters are not just keeping their thoughts to themselves. They are also keeping their thoughts from themselves.

Research by Dr. Silvia Galdi and colleagues at the University of Padova builds on social psychology research about unconscious decision making. In the June 2006 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, we wrote about evidence that shopping decisions, especially complicated ones, are made largely outside the awareness of the shopper. Voting decisions may follow a related pattern.

Election watchers may assume that undecided voters, when they do their job seriously, spend time carefully reviewing the positions of the candidates. They ultimately make up their minds through a conscious process, comparing what they learn with what they value.

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