Voters Aren’t Very Bright

There’s bad news for those hoping technology would soon allow voters to make informed and unbiased decisions. A new paper in PLoS examined how a live “worm” — a line measuring the emotional reaction of undecided voters — influenced perceptions during a 2010 UK Prime Ministerial debate.  The results are not pretty.

Unbeknown to the participants, the researchers doctored the broadcast, overlaying their own version of the worm. Half the participants saw a version in which the worm was biased in favour of Brown, the other half saw a version in which it was biased in favour of Clegg.

The killer finding is that the participants’ own subsequent perception of the debate was influenced by the manipulated worm. In the Brown-biased group, 47 per cent felt Brown had won (vs. 35 per cent who thought Clegg and 13 per cent who thought Cameron). In contrast, in the Clegg-biased group, 79 per cent felt he’d won (vs. 9 per cent for Brown and 4 per cent for Cameron).

Perhaps most worryingly, the biased worm also affected participants’ subsequent claims about who was their preferred prime minister. A related further detail is that the worm’s influence exceeded participants’ perceptions of the worm’s movement.

The paper is subtitled “A Potential Distortion of Democracy.” One of many.

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