Actually, they’re not that unsure

Times Staff Writer

Can’t decide between Barack Obama and John McCain? Chances are your brain already has.

Using a simple word association test to look inside voters’ heads, Canadian and Italian researchers found that many voters who thought they were undecided had unconsciously made up their minds.

Their decisions arise less from careful deliberation of the facts than from deep-seated attitudes that they have little awareness of, the study found.


Inside their brains, undecideds are often partisans, although “they do not know it yet,” said Bertram Gawronski, a University of Western Ontario psychologist and senior author of the study.

The researchers said it was all part of an unconscious decisiveness that manifests itself in the hundreds of mundane and snap decisions people make every day, such as choosing which shoe to put on first or which seat to take on an empty bus.

The study focused on a minor political debate in Italy, but the method is being used in an Internet experiment peering into the minds of undecided American voters. Those voters -- about 10% of the electorate -- could decide the outcome of what is expected to be a close presidential election.

The research, to be published today in the journal Science, used a computerized test in which participants were asked to react as quickly as possible to images arbitrarily deemed “good” or “bad.” The test measured how long it took to respond.

Scientists selected 33 residents of Vicenza, Italy, who stated they were undecided about a controversial proposal to expand a nearby U.S. military base.

They were instructed to press the letter D when they saw a picture of a military base or one of five positive words, such as joy, pleasure or happiness, and the letter K when they saw one of the negative words, which included pain, ugly or danger.

The researchers then reversed the test so that the image of the military base was linked to the negative words.

The theory behind the test is that people will hesitate when required to perform actions incompatible with their unconscious attitudes. So subjects who unconsciously favored the base expansion took more time to react when it was associated with negative words, and subjects against the expansion delayed when it was associated with positive words.

The lag in reaction time averaged between 100 and 200 milliseconds, said Gawronski, who collaborated on the project with scientists from the University of Padova in Italy.

One week after the test was administered, nine previously undecided subjects said they now favored the base, 10 said they had decided against it and 14 remained undecided. Participants’ responses on the week-earlier computerized test and an accompanying opinion survey were about 70% accurate in predicting their decisions, researchers said.

The test hasn’t been adopted by political consultants, although one, TargetPoint Consulting Inc. in Virginia, experimented with it during the Republican presidential primary campaign.

A research team from the University of Virginia, the University of Washington and Harvard University is offering an of the test, tracking reactions to the presidential candidates.

Brian A. Nosek, a University of Virginia assistant professor of psychology who is working on the project, said some undecided voters were demonstrating subconscious support for Obama or McCain, but it was too soon to decide what that might mean.

“We don’t know yet if that will translate into actual support later,” he said. “We shall see.”