Why do some people vote badly? It’s a question psychologists and psephologists have been asking for over a century. Sadly, progress for them without our contemporary computer grunt has proved to be painfully slow and frustratingly inconsistent. However, this desperate state of affairs, I’m pleased to announce, has now changed. Using all the latest tools and insights from behavioural and cognitive neuroscience, plus enough computing horsepower to get us to the moon and back on a napkin moped, we’re finally making some serious, solid inroads into this puzzling question. At the Hillside Science Centre finding out why people vote against their own interests was made a top-priority project from day one. Now on day five preliminary results are already in (pending peer-review), an astonishing project turnaround which, with the deeply worrying results in the Euro elections announced only last week, I feel obliged to add may just be in the nick of time!
I’ll get onto our (their) new findings at Hillside in a moment. Before that let’s look at how far previous research, patchy and inconsistent as it was, managed to get using 486 PCs and later iterations of the pentium and intel processors.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND VOTING UP TO THIS POINT
1. The ‘dumber’ the ‘righter’.
A mainstay over the decades has been the observation that low levels of education play a significant role in voting badly. A basic rule of thumb was the dumber the voter, the more conservative his voting will be. Psychology identifies something called the ‘need for closure’ – the desire to have clear, quick answers to uncomfortable and ambiguous problems – as something more pronounced the lower down the educational scale you go. So, low education = quick, simple, satisfying but fattening right-wing solutions.
2. Epi-genetic changes to the brain leave a psephological footprint
A largely concurrent discovery (mainly on Pentium 3s) was that liberal attitudes (and the lack of them) carry over the generations through genes. Specifically, through gene DRD4 – a transmitter in the brain connected to dopamine which rewards the brain when it meets other brains from other cultures with different lifegoals and head orientations/colours.
3. We vote for the faces that please us most (according to evolutionary precepts).
Just as babies respond to softer, maternal facial features so we too have deep, evolutionary, instinctive triggers that other peoples’ noses and ears can pull. A process completed in the first few split seconds we see a face, it’s as automatic as the gag reflex, the knee reflex and the gag and knee reflex together if you suffer from the very rare condition of recursive knee-reflex disgust.
Further reference: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/308/5728/1623.full (registration required) For a discussion of the above: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/11/on-the-face-of-it-the-psychology-of-voting.html
Hopefully you can see, then, just from this little bundle of insights that a lot of circles needed to be squared if we (they) were to get to the core truth of why inadvisable voting sometimes takes place. Genes, education and evolutionarily determined psychological triggers all possess some explanatory power. But equally, they all possess some dis-explanatory power: they have the potential to rub out entirely their competitor explanations. Our research – ‘their’ research if you like – began therefore by identifying what conflicts the three competing ideas had with one another in order to reveal what solid connections are left to fuse them seamlessly together. We did this on a Jugene superprocessor with operating speeds of 1 petaflop/second on IBM’s Blue Gene architecture.
THE RESULTS FROM HILLSIDE
Our – i.e. Hillside’s – conclusion after all this was that there are ideologically distinct face shapes that appeal to specific genetically-coded educational attainment levels. In other words – astonishingly – there are left-wing shaped faces and right-wing shaped faces, with specific feature attractors appealing to sympathetically co-evolved brain architectures, some of which are necessarily stunted by fear of learning, change, fear of learning about the fear of change (and even ‘changing fears about change and the meta-fear of that’). Distance between, and co-relative height of the eyes, we found, advertises positions on public vs private ownership; more specific economic considerations concerning market freedoms are mapped in the areas around the upper nose and inner eye where the frown response terminates; squinting shows a fondness for (and intimate experience of) private schooling. All of which ‘markers’ are graded by a brain either with an enlarged amygdala, or a shrunken amygdala replaced in part by localised fat content responding to generations of epigenetic, behavioural and environmental forcings like loud, clipped language, horse-riding and public humiliation (or the opposite of these things). In even more other words, the whole thing is a fascinating and complex mix of multifarious genetic and environmental factors, all coming together to make you like Nick Clegg (or quite like Nick Clegg/feel no particular way about Nick Clegg/dislike Nick Clegg/loathe Nick Clegg/hate Nick Clegg and so on).
THE MYSTERY OF THE EUROPEAN ELECTIONS
You might wonder how this relates to the fact that so many extreme right wing parties won at the same time in this year’s European elections. Surely there was more going on to produce such a co-ordinated Europe-wide shift?
The guys at Hillside (and I) found this absolutely confounding (my)theirselves – until we (they) did a little digging into the personal histories of all the leaders who won. And then a startling, universal set of circumstances was detected. Every leader had been involved in an accident around the same time in the mid to late 2000s that had an effect on the shape of their faces. France’s Front National leader Marine Le Pen fell from an apple tree in 2004 badly slashing the left side of her face; in 2007, Morten Messerschmidt of the Danish People’s Party was clipped by the falling canopy of a Focke-Wulf Flugzeugbau, breaking his right cheekbone; in 2010, of course, Nigel Farage was badly injured in a plane crash… the list goes on, through Italy’s Beppe Grillo to Greece’s Alexis Tsipras – all uncanny victims of facial wounds that had an effect on their eventual face shape. On the face of it, if you’ll pardon the pun, this looks like a recipe for despair. After all, if accidents are the cause of this group of politicians’ rise to power, then surely there’s very little that can be done about it?
However, dig deeper still and there are hints of a solution. Beppe Grillo’s tanning accident happened because of unusually strong sun; Marine Le Pen fell because the tree she was up was weak from poor soil; Messerschmidt was clipped because the winds that blew over the canopy were unprecedentedly strong. It looks, howsoever indirectly, like climate change had a hand in the spectacular and unfortunate results we witnessed on May 25th, and provides yet more evidence that not acting to stop it is not only irresponsible but dangerous.
One caveat. In a warmer world Farage’s plane would likely have benefited from increased thermals, significantly lowering the chances of his having an accident. As with all risk analyses, however – and all problems in life too – it’s a question of balancing the costs with the benefits and making the appropriate choice of action, using, of course, as much processing power as you have to hand.