If you’re “undecided,” you’re not paying attention

This post is part of an ongoing series looking at the level of conscious control humans have over their political thoughts and decisions.

It’s often said that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become a “master” at a skill.

While that principle isn’t scientific fact, the general idea of “practice makes perfect” applies in forming our political opinions over time.  Not that time necessarily hones our opinions towards being more correct.  Rather, it tends to codify our views, and make us increasingly certain of our position, right or wrong.

Earlier in this series, I argued that our genes provide a robust first draft for our political attitudes and behaviors. But genes can only go so far. Over time, this “first draft” is either hardened, broken or left untouched by political information that we may or may not receive along the way.

Take someone who is predisposed to having a liberal ideology and who grows up in rural Tennessee. Chances are, their first “more liberal” draft doesn’t get reinforced over time — their family and friends tend to be more conservative, and they are eventually socialized into being just as conservative as everyone else around them.

The same is true for a predisposed conservative growing up in Portland, Oregon. All things being equal, their natural predisposition may lead them to seek out, or be sympathetic to, confirming information, but only if it is available. Over enough time and with enough confirming information, ideology hardens into frames that accept or reject new information; colloquially, we become “set in our ways.”

This is exacerbated by the oft-discussed rise in echo-chamber news (e.g., partisan news channels like Fox or MSNBC, or partisan blogs). With broader, cheaper and easier access to confirming information, it becomes easier to harden political attitudes over time. Information consumers tend to seek out information that confirms what they already know; when that information is readily available we are able to tell ourselves that we are right, over and over again, and each successive piece of information further solidifies our particular set of neural networks (this is why priming “Democrat” with “bad” will have different effects on different people).

We like being right, we don’t like being wrong; and this is true beyond our conscious evaluations of correct and incorrect. One study showed that levels of testosterone in male voters were affected by whether or not their candidate won. As the New York Times reported:

…the male McCain voters “felt significantly more controlled, submissive, unhappy and unpleasant.” The testosterone effect was “as if they directly engaged head-to-head in a contest for dominance” and lost, one researcher told a reporter when the study was published in 2009. The men who voted for Obama fared better. The researchers speculated that there might be an Obama baby boom.

Politics is more than an individual pursuit. With high stakes and clearly-defined opponents, we place a high premium on being on the winning team, both in arguments and in elections. By arming ourselves with “correct” information and rejecting “incorrect” information, our political attitudes are socialized, or solidified, over time.

So what about moderates? With the increasing number of self-identified Independents, it would seem that there are a growing number of people who are lukewarm, or indifferent, on a wide range of issues.

Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, points out that while an increasing number of people self-report as Independents, less than ten percent of our population actually lacks a partisan lean, and a large portion of that group doesn’t vote. Moreover, when true Independents do vote, they tend to be uninformed:

While undecided voters are a tad more informed than that, the principle remains: In the heat of a presidential election, how the can you make it through months and months of information without forming an opinion, unless you either avoid/ignore such information, or are too confused by it to understand it? Given the amount of information available, and the stark differences both in ideology and tone of the information, how can one be both informed and neutral. In American politics, if you don’t have an opinion, you probably haven’t been paying very close attention.

Independent voter via Shutterstock

Independent voter via Shutterstock

This is further backed up by Abramowitz’s findings which show that political debates tend to confirm, rather than change, positions held by their viewers. Since partisans are more likely to engage in the political process by watching a debate, the debate is less likely to change minds. Instead, debates serve to educate partisans on their candidate’s positions. Moreover, the “winner” and “loser” are rarely declared based on facts or issues.

You’ll recall that after the first debate in the 2012 cycle, President Obama was declared the loser because he was “flat,” “moody” and “aloof,” but not because he was necessarily “wrong.” In fact, many on the left thought Mitt Romney outright lied during the first debate, but we still felt that Romney won and Obama lost (probably, in part, because many worry that anyone who’s independent that late in the race is seriously uninformed, and thus prone to believe the lies).

You can check out how strongly-held some of your own latent biases are at Project Implicit.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • Kihr

    The wood stein must be a self-obsessed person to continually refer to herself in the third person. I can’t even imagine the ego, anyway I would have to say that raising the minimum wage would do nothing for the average worker, prices would inflate and it would not matter any more about the wages. This guy only saw the immediate benefit without thinking about down the road things, but I
    guess that is indicative of someone who is willing to change their mind so easy. I heard a quote “Believe in something or you will fall for anything.” This seems to fit here. A business is not going to take a loss, they will raise their prices to be able to pay the extra for the wages. Any type of regulation will be met with increases in prices to pay for the regulation.

  • Jon Green

    I mean that’s all fair, I’m just not sure it throws out anything I’ve written. Yeah, more qualifiers and more detail would be useful…but this is a blog; being that I’m in college, I’ve got another venue to write the super-detailed academic stuff that the average reader would tl;dr.

    But yeah, as long as your comments are slightly more constructive than “rawr, I’m drunk and you don’t have a degree” like they were the other night I’m more than happy to engage. That’s the point, right? ;)

  • hollywoodstein

    Ok, so on that note, miss hollywoodstein should get some sleep, doctors’ orders. Besides she promised the girls to put away the computer after the fifth bottle, and we are well beyond that.
    But I must say, bully for you, young man, for engaging. The woodstein is an acquired taste. When she stirs one never knows whether they’ll get the bathroom scene from the Shining or the Nutty Professor. So well done young man well done. That took some guts.
    And though the world is for the young, as woodstein knows all too well, respect your elders, they may still yet have something to say. Remember, they were once young too, and with any luck you will be an elder someday.

  • hollywoodstein

    And as for the conservative liberal thing, let me just paraphrase Lana Wachowski and say I reject your binary designations.

    I am old enough to remember when it didn’t used to be this way. We were Americans first and we used a common set of facts. But that was back when we all read the same paper, had three channels, and had Walter Cronkite and not Sean Hannity and went to the moon. But all you know is the polarized world you have lived in so these tribal constructs seem the natural order of things.

    I cannot tell you how many expensive plasma screens miss woodstein has thrown her shoe through because a mr. sabato was on it telling me America is a center right nation.

    Most conservatives are liberals with bad information.

    Do you really think conservatives would be conservatives if they knew the truth behind income inequality, that foreign aid is not half of our governments budget, that Social Security is not going broke and could be made solvent forever with one little change in the tax code and the truth behind climate change?

    Some folks make a hobby of turning straights. I make a hobby of turning conservatives. A few weeks ago I gave the example of an older pizza delivery guy who had Romney/Rush/NRA stickers plastered on his pickup truck who was complaining about working three jobs just to make the ends meet. When I tipped him I told him Obama wanted to raise the minimum wage and Romney didn’t. He stood in the yard in the same place, agog, gobsmacked, for what must have been 5 minutes. Today the stickers are off the truck. When I asked him why he said he looked up what I said and thought I would be wrong. Instead he said and I quote, I have been being given bad information. He is even on the great orange satan. Old guy, three weeks, and a 180 and all it took was one fact.

    When the term cyberspace was originally coined it was not about the tubez, it was about the mental space of the culture and the media from billboards to magazines to television to advertising. I think It would be better to focus on the information being fed into the information processor than the genes behind the processor at this point.

    There is a corporate protection racket out there manipulating the cyberspace to make folks be polarized and believe wrong headed thoughts by associating things like no regulations with freedom, and going to war with God, Mom, and apple pie. A good place to start would be Bernays (sp) seminal work on Propaganda. Fun fact, it inspired the tv series Mad Men. It’s a classic, and a quick read, and probably at a college used bookstore near you. You can draw a straight line from that book to Goebbels, Attwater, Ailes, and Rove. And to the reason why nobody really self identified with the tribal, binary designations of conservatives and liberals a generation ago, but today it is written about as if it were the Natural Order of things.

  • hollywoodstein

    You probably don’t know the history of why you are being taught to say things like Predisposition =/= determinism, and genes are a first draft, we are not robots, even though genetic predispositions can be determinative, eg we have a genetic predisposition to eat. They want to have the cake and eat it too. You probably don’t know the history of why the field of psychology fiercely fought, but ultimately adopted sociobiology, but rebranded it evolutionary psychology, and social psychology.
    You should learn the history.

  • hollywoodstein

    Now someone seeing this science might think this is the natural order.
    Someone who believes in God might think this is God’s will.
    Someone seeing this might think that a women’s place is in the home having babies
    Someone else seeing this might thinks gays are evolutionary dead ends, and need to be marginalized.
    Doesn’t mean the science is wrong, but you have to be careful with it.

  • hollywoodstein

    let’s try another.
    let’s say our genes merely predispose us to like foods with sugar, fat, and salt in them.
    What percentage of people like foods with sugar, fat and salt. Everybody.
    Sounds like our genes are pretty determinative to me.
    I’ll repeat, When you said our genes merely predispose us to certain behaviors they do no determine them, you really said genes determine our behavior even though you didn’t know it.

  • hollywoodstein

    Let’s soften it by positing that genes do not determine our reproductive behavior they merely predispose to want to reproduce.

    So the important question is how much do they affect our desire to breed. Well one way to try to solve these questions would be to do some pretty unethical experiments. So let’s try something else.

    Lets add up all the women who have had children, who have tried to have children, and who have thought about having children. What percentage do you think that is 75-80% maybe.

    Now since genes can be sneaky and act in indirect ways like making sexytime feel good, because back in the day when this genome was laid down there was no birth control so having sex usually meant having a baby, so let’s add in all of the women who have ever had sex, who have ever wanted to have sex.

    Where do you think we are now. In the nineties, maybe?

    You know what that sounds to me. That sounds to me like genes are pretty damn determinative. At the very least, that sounds like a pretty darn determinative constraint on our will.
    So when you were saying that our genes merely predispose us to certain behaviors, you were actually saying genes determine our behavior even though you didn’t know it.

  • hollywoodstein

    One way out would to say fine we are hard wired to breed. After all, there is 7 billion of us. Everybody’s doing it, and if genes control anything they make us want to breed.
    Of course, you are now saying every woman wants to have a baby,even though she says she doesn’t her genes want her too. Go post that over at Jezebel and see how things work out.
    But just because an idea isn’t popular doesn’t mean it’s wrong. So let’s try to salvage this.

  • hollywoodstein

    Ah, so where do you put the needle on the dial? How much influence do you give the genes?

    And I have read your text. Here let’s choose a line.

    We like being right, we don’t like being wrong; and this is true beyond our conscious evaluations of correct and incorrect.

    For starters, I like being wrong. A lot of my friends do to. You know who else likes being wrong. Real scientists. They love to be proven wrong, because it means they’ve been wasting their time going down the wrong path, and now they can back up and look for the right one. That’s why physicists get jazzed when they come across something that doesn’t fit their model. It means there is a puzzle to solve.

    So the line, like much of the writing, lacks necessary qualifiers. It should read Some people like or Most people like. I know added the qualifiers tends to bog the copy, and the style is not as clean and punchy, but on a subject as complex as human nature they need to be there. And this problem runs straight through the content, even if we grant the first order assumptions you assume.
    I once had an editor take out all of the qualifiers in a piece I wrote. He put them back in when I told him they were the most important part.

  • hollywoodstein

    Okay, lets go that way.

    Why aren’t we robots when it comes to reproduction? Every other animal is hard wired for it. Some of them fly around the world or swim across the ocean to make sure it happens.
    Why would we only have a predisposition for it? Why aren’t we hard wired for it?
    Even if you start with the proposition that a gene predisposed you to think about reproduction more or less, there would be variability over time and selection would tend to favor the more over the less. If there was only a tiny differential in the rates of reproduction between a gene that hard wired for reproduction it would propagate very quickly throughout the population.
    As in the Eve example above. Why would selection leave breeding up to a predisposition, that might result in someone not breeding?

  • Jon Green

    Like I said, many times, genes are a first draft. We aren’t robots.

  • Jon Green

    The fact that genes play a role doesn’t mean that genes have to be some be-all-end-all. I think you’ve missed the text for the titles on a lot of my posts. Predisposition =/= determinism.

  • hollywoodstein

    Let’s do a simple thought experiment.

    Let’s say there are three sisters in the first generation of sapiens.
    One of them, let’s call her Eve, has a gene that hardwires her to WANT A BABY NOW. I think we all have known an Eve.
    The other sister, Eva, has a softwired genetic predisposition to be 50/50 maybe/maybe not kind of wishy washy on the idea of having a kid.
    The third sister, Evie, has a gene that hardwired a genetic predisposition to feel that she definitely does not want a child at all.

    So Evie’s gene dies out with her in one generation.
    Eva has a kid, but her child does not, so they’re gone.
    And Eve’s children inherit the Earth.

    This project fails to explain why we are all not hardwired to reproduce.

  • hollywoodstein

    Or better yet how about overnight conversions. I know people who have changed their lives by reading a book.

  • hollywoodstein

    And how does this theory explain a child born and raised in a conservative household who becomes a flaming commie pinko after a semester of college? Sure peer pressure, but is that really enough genetic predispositions and nearly two decades of intense indoctrination.

  • hollywoodstein

    If not, why not?

  • hollywoodstein

    If we are wired for something as as meaningless to evolution as to whether we are a conservative or a liberal, then why has evolution not hardwired us for the most important thing of all, passing on our genes.

  • hollywoodstein

    In fact, I think this theory of the influence of templates of genes on the structure of the brain and the resulting mentality would need to account why the brain is not hardwired for reproduction.

  • hollywoodstein

    Reproduction is the end all be all of evolution. If the mind is wired by the genes not only should we not see these behaviors, but people shouldn’t be even able to think about them.

  • hollywoodstein

    If the mind is hard wired by the genes the way you say it is why do we see human behaviors like
    throwing oneself on a grenade,
    or choosing to be celibate
    or choosing not to have kids
    or being gay?
    Differential rates of reproduction is the ne plus ultra prime mover of evolution. It should have weeded out any possibility of these things even occurring a eons ago.

  • Paying attention to details requires effort some people are not willing to expend energy on.

  • Mike Meyer

    Undecided or just plain DISGUSTED? How could one vote for either of the two major parties in GOOD conscience?
    Third Party, Folks.

  • Could it be something as simple as some people are so disgusted with congress that they no longer care, assuming that they once did?

    In today’s toxic political environment, there is no way anyone with more than two brain cells can be neutral on the issues.

    After all, ain’t ignorance supposed to be bliss?

  • Bill_Perdue


    There are few significant differences between Democrats and Republicans and both parties are so odious that choosing one or the other is self destructive.

    They agree on the necessity to squeeze wealth from workers to the extent that it pauperizes us and creates Depressions, which they don’t always see as a bad thing. The stock market is a measure of their success. And so are the lowest wages in decades.

    They agree on gutting Bill of Rights, with Democrats doing most of the damage for the last four years.

    The agree on the necessity (from their point of view) of wars of aggression and the use of mass murder (Afghanistan, Palestine, Pakistan, Panama, etc.) and even genocide (Vietnam, Iraq) to get economic and military hegemony.

    The agree on measures to limit unions and to bust unions. Again, Democrats have done most of the damage in the last four years.

    They pretend to be for women’s rights but both parties oppose the concept of free abortions on demand. They pretend to be for GLBT rights but both pigheadedly refuse to pass ENDA or repeal Democrat Bill Clinton’s DOMA.

  • Jafafa Hots

    Independent is not the same thing as undecided.

    I have to choose either racism or drones?

  • victoreador

    David Sedaris, in a hilarious piece in The New Yorker back in 2008 had the best take on the incomprehensible pathology of the undecided voter. It still makes me choke from laughter and cry at the same time.

  • Excellent example! And an example that largely explains the ossified state of the funny pages: get rid of some stiflingly unfunny and decrepit old comic like “Beetle Bailey” and a hundred Abraham Simpsons write nasty letters to the editor, so nothing ever changes.

  • nicho

    Exactly. People tell pollsters what they think makes them look good. Years ago, I worked for a newspaper that did reader polls.m What did readers read? If you believed the polls, it was page one, followed by the editorial page, then foreign news, national news, local news, and then sports. Other things came in dead last. Some days, due to space limitations, we would run without foreign news — not a peep. One day, due to an error in the composing room, we ran with the previous day’s editorial page. One phone call. However, if we left “Blondie” off the comics page, the phone would ring non-stop. If we left out the horoscope, they would be marching on the newspaper office with torches and pitchforks. People told the pollsters what they thought made them look smart.

  • Surely there’s no big mystery to this? Way back in the ’50s Vance Packard wrote about the phenomenon of people saying they liked one product and then actually choosing another when given a free choice. When polled, people tend to say whatever they imagine makes them look more intelligent or discerning in the eyes of the pollster. Claiming to be “independent” or “undecided” makes you look above the fray, as though you were still weighing the difference between parties and policies with Solomonic detachment.

  • Krusher

    I am independent. I am not undecided. It’s true that in the past several years I’ve only voted for Democrats (well, and one socialist), but that’s because the Democrats suck less than the GOP currently, but that may not always be the case. I can’t see right now how I could ever vote for a Republican, but things do change. In any case, I am definitely not undecided.

  • evodevo

    This is about people who actually take the trouble to register and vote, right? Because several of my conservative co-workers haven’t voted in ANY election for the last decade. I don’t know and I don’t care pretty much sums up their attitude. Others are devoted fans of Rush and a fact wouldn’t penetrate their brains with a jack hammer. I occasionally throw one out there, just to observe the confusion. It’s an emotional thing, not a rational thing. I like MSNBC, but I recognize bullshit when it is served up, and reject it. My co-workers seem unable to. It may have to do with the fact that I am a free thinker, not fundie religious, like most of them. And I know almost NO actual “leftists/socialists/Commies, etc.” That tame programs like SS and Medicare are now not considered “socialist” by the ranting Teabaggers (whereas they were so considered by the opposition to their founders) says it all about their state of mental confusion.

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