Just How Independent Are Independent Voters?

The American electorate is more divided today than ever, cable news pundit wisdom informs us. With entrenched battle lines separating the two major parties, everything comes down to Independent voters, the story goes. So pick your election topic du jour -- a vice presidential selection, new campaign ads, debate performance -- and the big question of the day inevitably becomes WWID? As in, what will independents do? How might these unaffiliated and presumably more objective voters react to the nominee, controversy, statement, or gaffe?

But who are these Independents? And just how independent are they anyway?

OK, so they're not as mysterious a group as the supposedly undecided voters who still haven't made up their minds by the first week of November. You know, the ones who get themselves on post-debate TV focus groups and, after an interminable year-plus of campaigning, still claim that they're hoping to hear a bit more before making a decision. But if our electorate is more polarized now than ever, how exactly have these Independents managed to remain above the fray and maintain objectivity?

New research just published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that Independents may not be quite as independent as they claim they are. Across a series of studies, researchers at the University of Virginia presented respondents with different policies to evaluate and examined the extent to which political affiliation colored their perceptions.

For example, in a finding that will surprise very few who have ever read the paper or watched the news, self-identified Democrats evaluated a hypothetical policy more positively when they were told it had been proposed by Democrats as opposed to by Republicans. And Republican respondents were similarly biased, rating the exact same policy as better when it was proposed by Republicans versus Democrats.

This is the very type of top-down opinion formation we've come to expect in politics, with voters (and politicians) allowing affiliation to color their perception as opposed to conducting an objective evaluation of policies based on merit. It's little different from the processes by which fans of opposing sports teams manage to see the same plays (or referee calls) very differently.

What about the Independents, though? Indeed, when researchers just came out and asked why they identified as Independent, the most common responses were sentiments like I prefer to think for myself; I vote for the person, not the party; and I say 'independent' because I come to my political positions by thinking objectively. And when Independents were asked to what extent their policy evaluations in the study were driven by the party that had proposed it, 62 percent said not at all (compared to rates of 37 percent among Democrats and 44 percent among Republicans).

But the Independents were influenced by party affiliation. It's just that this influence wasn't something they were consciously aware of.

You see, in addition to simply asking respondents about their political affiliation, the researchers also had participants in these studies complete a measure of unconscious or implicit political identity. The test worked by measuring respondents' reaction times as they used a computer keyboard to categorize words on two different dimensions.

One categorization set involved political affiliation. In this task, participants had to categorize words -- as quickly and accurately as possible -- as being relevant to either Democrats (e.g., left-wing, liberal, Obama) or Republicans (e.g., right-wing, conservative, Bush). In the other task, participants categorized words as being either related to the self (e.g., my, I, myself) or related to other people (e.g., their, them, they).

The critical trials came when the respondents were faced with both tasks at once, the idea being that those respondents who were quicker when the Democratic and self-related words shared the same button on the keyboard must have an implicit Democratic identity. And those participants who had an easier time when Republican and self-related words were paired on the same keystroke must harbor implicit Republican leanings.

Now, before some of you condemn the very idea of unconscious political affiliation (or basing conclusions about voters on computer response times) as psychological mumbo jumbo, take a look at what these implicit party affiliations end up predicting. Those self-described Independents who, according to the test, implicitly identify with Democrats? They gave higher ratings to a policy when they had been told it was proposed by the Democrats. And the implicit Republican Independents did much the same, preferring the policy when they believed it was a Republican proposal.

None of this is to suggest that there's something wrong with being an Independent. If anything, the motivation to "call it like it is" and evaluate policies on their merits (and candidates on their qualifications) is a noble one, especially when compared to party hacks who have long since abandoned any pretense of objectivity. But the research also indicates that there's nothing magical about the label "Independent" that frees the person who adopts it from falling victim to the same biases that other voters exhibit.

In short, Independents aren't as Independent as they think they are.

Interested in testing your own implicit attitudes, regarding politics or other social issues? Check out the Project Implicit website here.

Like this post? Then see the website for Sam's new book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, (now available!). You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here. Catch Sam's recent TEDx talk on the power of context below: