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People throw out the term "identity politics" as a way to say that someone is wrong, but the truth is, it's something that affects the way all of us vote.

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[ intro ].

People like to throw out  the term “identity politics” as a way of claiming their political opponents are   illogical or making bad decisions  for the country as a whole. But, the truth is, identity politics has  nothing to do with the Left or the Right.

According to scientific  research on voter behavior, t affects the way all of us vote,  no matter what politics we have. And, consciously or not, all politicians try to  take advantage of that during their campaigns! We often think of votes as  logical, position-based choices.

In psychological science, this is  known as rational choice theory— it assumes voters study  each candidate’s positions, and then select the one whose views and policies  they most agree with or which benefit them. But research in the past few decades   has revealed that identity politics  play a huge role in voter behavior. In other words, we all have a  tendency to vote for candidates that most remind us of ourselves and  of aspects of our social identity.

We may vote this way even  if a candidate’s policies are less aligned with us than the policies  of the candidate that we don’t identify with. Identity-based voting stems from our deeply  ingrained patterns of social cognition: the way we make sense of ourselves  and other people in a society. One way this can happen is a cognitive  process known as spontaneous trait inference: we automatically build up a model of someone’s   personality or beliefs based  on snippets of their behavior.

That person who cut you off on the freeway? They’re clearly a rude, thoughtless person!—even  though you know nothing else about them. Our brains make similar spontaneous assumptions about candidates’ policies and beliefs.

Like, if the guy running for mayor doesn’t  mention the city’s homelessness rate in a speech,   that’s because he doesn’t care about  the residents experiencing homelessness— even though it was one speech of many. The thing is, we don’t always make the  same inferences for the same behavior— identity-related stereotypes  influence how we fill in gaps. If that mayoral candidate had been a woman, we may have been more likely  to excuse the omission   and still believe she cares about  people experiencing homelessness.

That's because research shows  that women are judged to have   greater expertise in social welfare issues simply by virtue of their gender identity. This actually brings me to another  social-cognitive phenomenon: the false consensus effect. That’s where we automatically assume that people in a social group that we  identify with think the same way we do.

Like, I may believe that I consider  educational reform very important because I’m a parent. And if so, I may also assume that any candidate who’s a parent will also  champion educational reform – even if that candidate has never  actually said that they would.   We assume that a shared identity  tells us about their positions,   because of course people like us just  naturally agree with the things we support. And research shows that even tiny, superficial similarities can lead us to believe   that a politician thinks like  we do about important stuff.

Of course, it’s not like we’re just one thing. We all have complex social identities.   So politicians often remind us of the ones  that might sway our vote towards them.   This is known as identity salience. And we see it all over the place in politics.   For instance, questions designed to reinforce

a specific identity tend to skew people’s opinions   so that they fall in line with that identity.

So something like, “As a parent,   what do you think about this policy?”

might lead you to vote differently than asking   “As a resident of Montana, what  do you think about this policy?”   One study in South Korea even found that simply  asking people about their political party   and who they support can reinforce their identity  as a supporter of that candidate, and therefore,   potentially influence their voting choices.   Another way politicians can use identity  salience is to name-drop social groups   when talking about who will benefit after they  get elected, or refer to a policy, threat,   or solution in a way that  makes it identity-related.   For instance, a candidate giving a  talk at their alma mater could say,  . I think of the college kids whose wings  are clipped by the looming specter of   crippling debt.”

The candidate   doesn’t need to explain how, exactly,

their policies will benefit that group,   or any group voters might identify with. They just need to subtly suggest   that they’re one of us, and our brains fill in  the gaps thanks to that false consensus effect.   Even ballot designs can reinforce  identification with a given group.   Like, ballots that emphasize parties using logos  lead people toward straight-ticket voting,   while de-emphasizing party affiliation  leads to more split-ticket voting.   Similarly, studies suggest using  candidate photos on ballots   may prime us to think about the races  or ethnicities we identify with,   and thereby nudge us to vote accordingly.

Aspects of the election itself can   also play a role. Identity voting tends   to override rational choices

when specific details about a   candidate’s policies are not readily  available, like in primary elections.   It’s also more likely to happen in  elections with a huge number of candidates.   That’s probably because it’s harder to remember

and keep track of every candidate’s views and   policies, so we tend to rely on our  identities to guide our vote.   Identity politics is an inevitable byproduct  of our ancient social-cognitive machinery.   We will always make automatic assumptions  about others based on our shared identities.   But we can recognize this about  ourselves, and because of that,   we can make sure the votes we cast are for  the people and policies we actually want.   Basically, we can check to make sure our image  of a candidate matches what they’ve said   and done, rather than what we might have  assumed about them because of our identities. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow  Psych, which is produced by Complexly.

If you liked this foray into voting  psychology, I have some good news— this is actually the last of four  videos we’ve put out on the topic! The other three can be found on here  and on our main SciShow channel. They run the gamut from how answering  questions can shape your opinions to   how psychology is taking negative  campaigning to the next level.

And if you’re a US citizen and all this talk has  gotten you excited about casting your ballot,  . I have even more good news. Since the rules for voting are  different depending on where you live, we here at Complexly have made a whole series of  videos that explain how to vote in each state, as well as some advice for special cases  like territories and overseas voters!

You can check out our 2020 guide at [ outro ].