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Are Hormones a Key Factor in Voter Turnout?

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Originally posted on July 10, 2014.

Why don’t people vote? This question puzzles pollsters, political candidates, and people who cherish the right to choose their elected officials. To predict voter turnout, all you might need is a test tube, a willing participant, and a little saliva.

So says a group of University of Nebraska-Omaha researchers, who tested the hypothesis that the stress hormone cortisol would predict voting behavior. Stress often leads people to avoid high pressure situations. If people have high cortisol levels, voting might only increase their stress. They might fear that their chosen candidate would lose the election, or that the candidate would underperform if elected. As a result, stressful souls might avoid the polls.

In the study, people spit in a tube to provide a measurement of their cortisol levels. Next, the researchers collected the study participants’ actual voting behavior in six U.S. national elections. Sure enough, the most stressed out people voted about half as often as their more relaxed counterparts.

To get people to vote, politicians might frame voting as a relaxing activity. “Take a break from work, relax, and make a difference in your community,” might help get even the most stressed out people to visit the polls.

About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”