The rising number of non-voters: Too much stress hormone, too little love hormone?

If you live here in Manitoba, there is a good chance that you returned home this week to find a “Sorry we missed you!” message hanging from your door knob courtesy of Elections Manitoba, whose enumerators have been out preparing the voters list for the April 19 provincial election.

As that date approaches, there will be not just plenty of discussion about the parties and the candidates, but also about the turnout. In the 2011 election, 56 percent of enumerated voters ended up casting a ballot, representing 46 percent of the province’s adult population.

Much of the discussion about the decline in voting has focused on voter apathy, busy modern lives and the possibility that more people would vote if they could do so more conveniently. But last May, this blog looked at a new angle unearthed by some accidentally obtained evidence: that making people think about politics is nearly as bad as unemployment in terms of making those people feel worse about their lives. To recap the findings of Angus Deaton from Princeton University’s Center for Health and Well-Being:

“People appear to dislike politics and politicians so much that prompting them to think about them has a very large downward effect on their assessment of their own lives . . . [T]he effect of asking the political questions on well-being is only a little less than the effect of someone becoming unemployed, so that to get the same effect on average well-being, three-quarters of the population would have to lose their jobs.”

More recently, I came across additional research that suggested that feelings of stress and of being under threat, either directly from others’ political activities or as part of life in general, could be a factor in lower voter turnout.

When people feel happy, secure and relaxed, their bodies are under the effect of a chemical called oxytocin, not to be confused with the similarly named drug oxycontin. Oxytocin is known as “the love hormone” for the role it plays in mood improvement and human bonding.

When they feel miserable, threatened and defensive, their bodies are conversely being flooded with cortisol. Cortisol is known as “the stress hormone” for its role in preparing the body for either a fight or to flee the situation.

Several years ago, five researchers from the University of Nebraska and Rice University performed an experiment to test the hypothesis that people with higher levels of cortisol in their system — the “fight or flight” chemical — were less likely to vote.

To do this, they collected saliva samples from more than 100 people before and after being put into a stressful situation, and then compared their cortisol levels to their actual (not just self-reported) involvement in political activities. Indeed, they found that people with higher levels of cortisol in their bodies were less likely to be voters:

“These analyses provide strong confirmation of our prediction that cortisol is inversely related with political participation . . . [and] that people with high levels of cortisol in non-political situations are significantly less likely to vote in elections. This effect is over and above the effects of standard demographic variables such as age, education, gender, and income, of political variables such as strength of partisanship, and of personality variables such as self-reported neuroticism.”

Thus, instead of “simply telling them that it is their civic duty to vote or browbeating them into joining civic organizations”, the authors suggest a “nuanced and targeted” approach:

“For some individuals, a lack of involvement in politics is traceable to insufficient resources (Verba, Scholzman, and Brady 1995) but for others the cause may be a physiological constitution that makes politics appear pointless and undeserving of the stress that is likely to accompany it.”

[. . .]

“To take a specific example, consider the intriguing finding that, on average, voter turnout increases if it is made likely that neighbors will find out whether an individual voted (Gerber, Green, and Larimer 2008). It may be that high cortisol individuals would be less easily shamed into going to the polls since their reason for not voting is unrelated to social shame—or a lack of resources, for that matter. The more general point is that specific strategies for enhancing turnout are likely to be differentially successful depending upon cortisol levels and other physiological data.”

But at the same time, they caution against trying to tamper with the human body:

“Politics is only one part of life and taking extreme steps to get people involved in politics may not be worth it if medical and psychological welfare is adversely affected . . . Cortisol levels are part of a complex, interrelating package of physiological variables. Altering one of these variables without considering the implications for physiology generally is likely to be a source of disruption and potential problems.”

Part of the puzzle of voter turnout might be to figure out a way to take the stress and sense of alarm out of politics; though this won’t be easy, as fear and pressure have long been vital (and shamelessly used) tools for politicians of all ideological stripes. But another possibility worth considering is the possibility that the level of voluntary voter turnout might be a partial indicator of whether a city, province, state or country is predominantly a snug-and-happy oxytocin-driven one, or a vulnerable-and-threatened cortisol-driven one.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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