Why do we vote as we do?


In a democracy, voting is a big deal. Whom we elect to political office affects the life of every individual, the environment and the life of the entire planet.

So, if voting is so important, why is it that voters seemingly vote against their own self-interest? Why do many lower and middle socioeconomic class voters vote for conservative candidates whose economic policies favor corporations and the wealthy rather than for liberal candidates whose policies support higher taxes on wealth and more social services, including education and medical care, for the lower and middle classes?

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “The Righteous Mind,” writes that people do not primarily vote based on their “self-interest,” they vote based on their “values.” Therefore, the question becomes, what are our values and why do we have them?

The answer lies in our personalities, but is it nature or is it nurture? Actually, it’s both. Psychologists have been researching this question for over 70 years. University of Minnesota psychologist Thomas Burchard’s twin studies show that “…all psychological traits are heritable.” That is, genetics, our DNA, accounts for about 50 percent of our personality traits. This research shows that our genes and our “unshared” environment has a greater effect on our personality traits than the nurturing environment we “share” with parents and siblings.

So, if you want to know why we vote as we do, first look at our personality traits, which were instilled in us long before we were born. Edmund Burke, founder of modern conservatism, believed we are born with “prejudice,” the wisdom of all preceding generations.


Evolutionary psychology reveals that not only are our personality traits shared by other humans, the same traits, such as affinity for our group members and fear of other groups, can be seen in other animals. If we have a genetically influenced fear of people different than ourselves, that value will induce us to vote for a political ideology that supports that fear. If we fear the uncertainty of change, we support candidates who want to maintain the status quo, even though that may not be in our own self-interest.

That is not to say that we lack free will. Genetics and environment influence, but do not determine our beliefs, thoughts and actions. To exercise free will, we need to reason and not just react to this instinctive, evolutionarily selected “prejudice.” “Prejudice” by itself is not sufficient. Burke also admonished politicians to exercise “prudence” and act for the good of the entire nation.

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