Penn Researchers Detail Polling-place Effect

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | jposey@upenn.edu | 215-898-6460May 22, 2012

Given how much time and money American political parties spend in redistricting, they may want to consider how voters are assigned to particular polling locations.

Two University of Pennsylvania professors maintain that where people vote could subconsciously influence how they vote.  Jonah Berger, assistant professor of marketing in Penn’s Wharton School, and Marc Meredith, assistant professor of political science in the School of Arts and Sciences, began researching the phenomenon while in grad school at Stanford University.  Both lived off campus.  They voted in different polling places.           

They studied an Arizona election during a school funding initiative.

“We called every precinct to get polling data, translated it into types of locations and looked at how people voted,” Berger says.

They found that voters were more likely to support the proposition if their polling place was in a school, underscoring “the subtle power of situational context to shape important real-world decisions.”

Berger’s prior work looking at subtle cues in social environment bears this out. 

He observes that at Halloween, people see more orange products, and they buy more orange-colored things. If subtle cues in what we see and hear, affect our choices, could they affect more consequential choices like how we chose our president?

Could President Obama’s “evolving” stance on gay marriage sway a fundamentalist Christian to vote for Obama’s opponent if that voter is casting a ballot in a church?

Perhaps, but Meredith says, “It is unlikely that voting in a church would affect all voters in the same way. For example, those voters who support gay marriage may be more likely to support Obama when primed about gay marriage, while those who oppose gay marriage may be less likely to support Obama when primed about gay marriage. As the public is split pretty evenly on the issue, these votes may largely cancel each other out in the aggregate.”

Berger and Meredith’s findings were first reported in a 2008 paper co-authored with S. Christian Wheeler of Stanford, “Contextual Priming: Where People Vote Affects How They Vote,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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