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The Psychology of Voting Behavior

A literature review on electoral decision-making factors and processes

Submitted by
Gabriela Victoria A. Timbancaya

Dr. Ma. Cecilia Gastardo-Conaco

in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for Psychology 180: Social Psychology

08 December 2014

The Psychology of Voting Behavior:
A literature review on electoral decision-making factors and processes
There is in place a very hierarchical power structure in every country that is mandated to
govern, that is to make and enact rules and policies that are for the betterment of the welfare of
the general populace. Every few years, there is one day in which ordinary citizens, with no
distinction in class, gender, or race, take part in establishing the people in power for the next
political term. They can reinstate an incumbent or they can elect a newcomer. The assumption of
elections is that those who win the majority vote are in the best position to lead the country. Of
course, the unfortunate reality is that even in large numbers, we are still often unable to make
sound judgments as to who should take up the cudgels of the government. More often than not,
we spend the years of the subsequent term groveling about the performance of the people whom
we had supported fervently in the weeks leading up to the casting of the vote.
To have a better grasp over why this happens to us over and over again, to increase
(however marginally) our chances of making the right choice next time, and to begin opening the
eyes of the rest of our fellow citizens, we must take a close look at electoral behavior. From the
rationale of voting to the models that try to explain how we make our decisions in terms of
certain factors, we will look at the dynamics of the social and the psychological and examine
how they interplay with each other to determine the names we write on the ballots we cast. At
the end of this paper, we shall also examine electoral behavior in the Philippine context.
Why do we vote?
Before we look at how we vote, we must look at why we vote in the first place. Here, we
discuss rational choice theory, voting as a habit, and voting as self-expression.

much higher than rational choice theory would predict using the aforementioned analysis. and no one should want to even bother voting. which includes but is not limited to the time spent lining up to register as a voter. 2008). If a person is rational. This analysis is laid out in an equation: R = (B)(P) – C + D where R represents the total reward a person gets from voting. and the hassle of the actual voting process. Are we then irrational in choosing to vote? . the money for obtaining forms and documents required for voting. but it is much. which is assumed by the theory. Conventional rational choice wisdom dictates that since the probability that one’s vote will be decisive in the election is infinitesimal. One must weigh this tiny possibility against the real and tangible costs of voting.. there is very little chance that one person’s vote will change the outcome. and D is the psychological satisfaction the person gets from the act of voting. the person’s candidate actually wins). This is because out of millions of voters. As rational actors. the more positive the value of R is. B is the benefit expected to accrue from the desired outcome (i.We vote because it is the rational thing to do According to Anthony Downs’ rational choice theory outlined in his book An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957). money and effort from searching for and processing information relevant to one’s selection of candidates. the value of R in any large-scale election should be negative. the opportunity cost in terms of time. P is the person’s belief that his vote will be decisive in the election.e. Voter turnout is never 100%. Even the closest races have a margin of a few hundred or thousand votes. we try to maximize utility. the more likely he is to vote (as cited in Hardner & Krosnick. C is the personal cost entailed by voting. we make a cost-benefit analysis of whether to vote or not.

For selfish voters. Gelman. by modifying the rational choice theory slightly to include a social motivation for voting. enough to offset the very low P. Here B. 2008). Citing data from the 2001 British Election Study (University of Essex 2002). the less benefit they get from voting. But voting can be rational in cases where the person cares about other people when he votes. We vote out of habit Voting once increases the probability that a person will vote again. (2008) share that 25% of respondents voted to get ‘benefits for me and my family’ while 66% voted to get ‘benefits for groups that people care about like pensioners and the disabled’. According to Melton (2014). there are two levels of explanation for this. because the entire population (N) is always bigger than the number of those who vote. & Kaplan. In this case. which is the inverse of P (Edlin. Fewer . 2014). There is a way to account for this. the higher the turnout.. in which case he employs social preferences. or the benefit expected to accrue. a is a discounting factor to represent the ration of Bsoc to Bself. The social-benefit model of rational choice theory posits that people make vote choices based on social goods and not selfish benefits. voting is not worth it. N is represented by the number of people in the population to be affected.Well. 2008). is constituted by the formula B = Bself + aNBsoc where the Bself is the expected benefit to the self. N is extremely large. Rational choice models often have the assumption that a voter operates on selfish preferences. It seeks to answer the question of why people still vote even when it seems like the trouble of voting is not worth it. and Bsoc is the expected benefit to the population. Edlin et al. the short answer is no. they incur a benefit no matter what the turnout is (Edlin et al. As for social voters. The first is that voting once makes it less costly to vote in the future because institutional barriers are eased (Melton. In large elections.

Image management is usually associated with social media. because on such platforms we post pictures and statuses that we believe are consistent with our identity or the identity we want to project.requirements are needed to register again. how to locate one’s polling station. experiencing cognitive dissonance when we act in ways that are inconsistent with our attitudes. even how to fill out the ballot and cast the vote. How do we decide our vote? Numerous models have been constructed in the hopes of explaining why we vote the way we do. as well as the candidate or party we vote for. 2014). If we think that voting is an act that responsible and concerned citizens engage in. what documents to get. Self-expression also happens in the precincts. Starbucks shots. they increase their feelings of civic-mindedness and thereby modify their political orientation towards the specific behavior of voting (Melton. namely the sociological or Columbia model. and the like. selfies. and to think of the act of voting as “something that people like me do on election day”. The second explains habitual voting on a psychological level. However. Voting influences people to think of themselves more as voters. and being a good citizen is an important part of our identity. we will be motivated to participate and turn out on Election Day. We are motivated to behave in ways that affirm our identity with a group. We vote to express ourselves People go to great lengths to present themselves as a certain kind of person. The very act of voting. & Gerber. By turning out. may serve as a signal to ourselves and to others about who we are as citizens of a country (Rogers. and a person has a better understanding of how the process of registration and voting works. self-expression goes further than Instagram posts. 2012). the . Fox. There are three main schools of thought. so there is less cost in terms of seeking information on which offices to go to.

1996). showed otherwise. and the rational choice or Downsian model. which uses psychological mechanisms to explain electoral behavior. and this arises from three principles: first. and area of residence. It was the social groups they belonged to that determined whom they decided to vote (Antunes. Voting (1954) explained why this happens. The sociological model Also called the Columbia model (after the university from whence came the researchers). the sociological model of voting behavior was constructed with the intention of studying the effect of media on voting choice.psychological or Michigan model. people have frequent contact with people from the same social groups (social and physical proximity) (Antunes. Rosema. . Rosema. published in 1944 in their book The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign. people inherit political preferences from their families (transmission). Three were found to predict voters’ choices: socioeconomic status. 2010. 2010. 2004). second. Here we shall look at the three. with emphasis on the latter. and discuss one other model. and some of these characteristics are especially telling. While The People’s Choice showed that certain social characteristics influenced voters. Vote preferences come about because people interact with those with whom they share political interests and social characteristics. 2004). Their findings. These groups are fairly homogenous and encourage political conformity (Bartels. the heuristic-systematic model. It turns out that voters are influenced mainly by their social characteristics. religious affiliation. people belong to different groups that have different interests (social differentiation). They had initially thought that decision-making would be influenced most by personality and exposure to mass media. and third.

While the Columbia studies paint the average partisan voter as simply being swept back and forth by the forces of his social environment. issue orientation. Converse. Partisanship in the psychological model is defined as a psychological affinity with a political party that does not necessarily translate to behavior such as registration or consistent voting (Antunes. those who do not have a definite vote until late into the elections. any more favorably. 2010. The target audience of campaign propaganda is the same group of people who are not likely to read or listen to it in the first place.The researchers also found that the majority of voters stuck with their decision. Developed by scholars at the University of Michigan. the people they talked to on election day. which party they felt closer to. a black box (Rosema. Miller. election campaigns served more to reinforce people’s commitments to their respective party affiliations than to convert people from other political groups. and Stokes. Apparently. 2010). 2010). The psychological (or psychosocial) model concentrates on three motivational factors: partisanship or party identification. Rosema. It is determined not through the actual voting behavior of a person. i. They were just as influenced by social forces (e. pressure from social groups) as those who had made their decisions from the beginning (Antunes. 2004). and candidate orientation (Antunes. this model was presented in The American Voter (1960) by Campbell. 2004). The psychological model The trouble with the sociological model of voting was that it described the input (social characteristics) and the output (voters’ choice) but left the process in between a mystery. but his or her self-positioning in relation to the parties. the researchers do not describe independent voters. This is . with only 54 out of 600 subjects changing their vote over time.g.e. Those who do pay attention are the ones who are already convinced (Antunes. 2010).

A person is first influenced by his sociological environment. it is the other party who will receive the vote. It is a cognitive shortcut. if one decides to vote. The rational choice model The rational choice model encompasses two decisions made during elections: whether to vote or to abstain. rational voters try to imagine scenarios in which each party wins. If it is negative. which would then reflect on the general stand of that party. 2004). and leads him to pay attention to certain information and to ignore or reject others. Candidate orientation is. which determines his partisanship (Antunes. Issue orientation pertains to the extent to which individuals agree or disagree with policies implemented by a certain party incumbent. When faced with two or more options. The first was discussed earlier in this paper. If the difference is 0. This in turn influences the orientation he has towards issues and candidates. simply put. the appeal of a candidate that comes from personal attributes. rather than a social identity. then the vote will be cast in favor of the former. If the difference between two parties is positive. It is this selective attention that leads to biases in receiving and processing information and ultimately determines the vote. 2010).acquired through socialization. These three factors are tied together into a decision-making mechanism called the funnel of causality. this means that the parties are . and whom to vote. They then proceed to compare these possible outcomes and decide their actions from their personal appraisal of the differences between or among them. The two other motivational factors seen to affect choice are issue orientation and candidate orientation (Rosema. much like how we acquire religion. and so what remains to be tackled is the latter. a heuristic.

its use of and emphasis on psychological mechanisms merits discussion alongside the Columbia. This model makes use of a two-step process in which a different processing style is used for each stage. or if a voter is ambivalent. However. The heuristic-systematic model The heuristic-systematic model is not among the three main schools of thought when it comes to electoral studies. Political interest and knowledge may also play a role in determining the size of the choice set. in which the choice set is narrowed down further to one candidate.. The size of this choice set may be expanded if a voter is indifferent. In this case. Hangartner. The second stage is the choice stage. Michigan. and Downsian models of voting behavior. & de Vries. in which case he cannot readily choose between the two using heuristic processing. In this stage. they rely on long-standing heuristics such as partisanship and general ideology. or that he knows enough that his analysis comes as easily as a heuristic for a voter with average knowledge (Steenbergen et al. in which voters narrow down the full range of candidates to a preliminary choice set. 2011). Here. Similar to the psychological model. the heuristic-systematic model involves a paring down of choices from the full range of possible candidates down to one through a series of stages. The first stage is the consideration stage. voters use short-term cues such as information about specific.essentially the same. 2010). and this process would reduce cognitive effort (Steenbergen. 2011). with the assumption that humans are satisficers and not optimizers. the voter will not gain anything by voting and is better off abstaining (Antunes. contemporary . although it is not certain in which direction it would work: it may be that a person knows so much about the candidates that he cannot easily choose among them. in which case the candidates all look the same.

Here we look at influences under three categories: individual factors.issues to select their bet from the set of viable candidates with systematic and analytic reasoning (Steenbergen et al. Wealthier people vote more. People with higher educational attainment are likely to vote. which may be because informational costs are lower because they know more about the candidates and the intricacies of the bureaucracy involved in voting (Harder & Krosnick. People are also more likely to vote as they get older. Being informed also increases the propensity to participate in the electoral process (Lassen. which influences the decision to vote. 2005). 2008). . as cited in Harder & Krosnick. However. people who took more social science classes in college had more civic duty and were also more likely to turn out on Election Day (as cited in Harder & Krosnick. probably because people who are more financially stable are more free to search for and process information for decision-making. Individual factors Several factors make it more likely for us to turn out on Election Day. 2008).. 2011). According to Hillygus (2005). and puts people in a context where voting is normative (Harder & Krosnick. 2008). 2005. 2008). All of these contribute to political self-efficacy. the social environment. and the characteristics of the election and the campaign. What influences our vote? The decision to vote is mediated by countless influences. there is a social component to the effect of education on voting: comparative educational attainment (relative to other people in one’s neighborhood) is a better predictor of turnout than absolute educational attainment (Tenn. This is believed to be because education increases the sense of civic duty.

In fact. and Independents are somewhere in between the two on the continuum (Sweetser. Democrats and Independents have an external locus of control while Republicans have an internal locus of control. 2014). We also incur lower informational cost by voting for the same party. 2004). which says “vote for the party you always vote for (or did last time)” as one of six heuristics voters use when deciding whom to vote. First. .” (p. there is the election outcome preference. which states: “Vote such. Personality is also linked to partisanship. although contingent on outside events and people. We are more likely to vote if we have voted in the past election (Melton. which is summarized thus: “If you approve of the latest government. vote for them. Habit also plays a role in whether we vote and whom we vote for.Personality also contributes to political self-efficacy. if you disapprove. Rosema (2004) cites the voting habit heuristic. vote for the opposition. largely because we encounter fewer institutional barriers to the process than during our first few elections. 2014). which simply direct people to vote for the party or candidate they like best (Rosema. 2008).78) The third and fourth are the party preference and candidate preference heuristics. that what you want to happen becomes more likely.” (p. Openness and Extraversion have been shown to have an association with political self-efficacy.78) The second is the incumbent approval heuristic. Republicans are higher in conscientiousness than Democrats. and the latter is a significant predictor of adult political participation (Vecchione & Caprara. ultimately take their direction from the individual’s perceptions and valuations of these external factors. These heuristics. Four of the other heuristics discussed by Rosema (2004) also originate in the individual.

particularly when one feels that one has a different preference from everyone else (Harder & Krosnick. particularly those with civic participation such as scouts. As previously mentioned. & Dodson. still remaining significant after controlling for socioeconomic status and academic attainment (Frisco. predicts whether people will vote in the first elections they are eligible to participate in. as well as the more direct effects of the political behaviors they learn and the advantages they gain as a result of their social class (Plutzer. People in one treatment were given a social message at the top of their news feeds in which they were encouraged to vote and click an “I Voted” button. Parents with high socioeconomic status pass on their voting preferences to their children. The effect of scout groups is particularly robust. 2008). in Voting (1954) we inherit voting preferences from our family (as cited in Rosema 2004). This may be caused by social comparison that leads to feelings of being unusually qualified or unqualified to vote. Middle-school involvement in certain student organizations.Social environment The family plays a large role in voting behavior. 2002). Muller. Participation in civic organizations increases voter turnout. Engaging in cooperative work with others motivates people to cast their vote. educational attainment comparative to one’s neighbors predicts whether one turns out. 2004). religious youth groups. owing to the indirect effects of education. The neighborhood context also influences one’s vote. given . and non-school team sports. According to Lazarsfeld et al. The power of social messages in mobilizing voters in the age of the Internet was seen in an experiment involving 61 million people on Facebook. Both the sociological and psychosocial models of voting behavior explicitly recognize the effect of one’s social groups in determining voting preferences.

Abortion. play a significant role in voting behavior (Bond et al. but were not shown any pictures of friends who clicked the button. is a particularly polarizing issue. 2005). and legal protection for the LGBT are increasingly important determinants of partisanship (as cited in Gibbs. which are reflected in online friendships. A second experimental treatment was shown an informational message in which they were also informed about polling places and encouraged to vote and click the button. Bush. pro-life voters chose George W.. The same study found that women are more liberal than men when it comes to these issues. 2005). Differences are also found across genders in terms of issue appreciation: Kaufmann (2000) found that issues such as reproductive health. Partisan women are also highly likely to cross party lines on election day to support a female candidate from another party: Democratic women candidates facing male Republican opponents benefit from the crossover support from female Republican party members (Brians. 2005) for women.information on polling places. These real-life ties may be with family and close friends. for example. 2012). and shown pictures of friends who had already clicked the button. 2002). Related to this is the heuristic summarized as “Vote for the party or candidate others say you should. Certain issues also determine voting preferences along social categories such as religion and gender. . & Huckfeldt. Greene. Dalton. suggesting that real-life ties. In the 2004 US presidential elections. gender equality. The social message was found to mobilize significantly more people than the informational message. but even co-workers with whom we do not have close relationships are significant contributors to our interpersonal discussion networks (Beck. while pro-choice people voted John Kerry (Gibbs.” the sixth of the heuristics discussed by Rosema (2004).

Jones. One salient factor is physical appearance. Chaiken. . 2009). are more desired in a politician in times of war. Motivation to vote increases as the election nears. However. Goren. and by mail (Harder & Krosnick. The 1993 National Voter Registration Act in the US. lowered the institutional cost of voting by allowing people to register for voting at the same time that they apply for or renew a driver’s licence.. 2007). & Todorov.Election and campaign characteristics Institutional barriers to voting can impede our turnout. also known as the Motor Voter Act. are preferred in times of peace (Little. which suggest dominance. Incumbent candidates have a strong advantage in races (Hall et al. and it makes people think that races are closer. negative campaigning might also stimulate other psychological mechanisms (for example. at all offices that provide public assistance geared towards persons with disabilities. to which people attribute prosociality. it could undermine political self-efficacy) that would impede other people from voting (Martin. competence being rated as the most important attribute a politician should have (Hall. 2008). while feminine features. Characteristics of the candidates may also influence voter preference. Negative campaigning can also affect mobilization. Voters make trait inferences from facial features. Burriss. and early registration deadlines prevent people from registering at precisely the time when they are most motivated to do so. Another candidate-related factor that affects voting preferences is incumbency. It stimulates problem awareness. 2004). 2009). and are likely to vote for candidates that they perceive to be competent. They also change their valuations of physical characteristics across contexts: masculine features. and these factors motivate people to turn out. & Roberts. anxiety about candidates.

and yet it continues to happen every time. cultivated a Robin Hood image with his roles in Asiong Salonga (1961) and Geron Busabos (1964). and necessitates additional explanation. What makes the Philippine political context conducive for crossing over from the celebrity sphere? We find that celebrities are usually film heroes or hosts of social documentary programs. a business. etc. The critical relationship of the celebrity and the viewer is established way before campaign season (Maniago. Aga Muhlach. as an example. 2007). 2007). A quick listing of the names of some of the politicians we have can very well be read as the cast for an upcoming star-studded movie: Joseph Estrada. these celebrities gain airtime without having to bother campaigning. Vilma Santos. Because show business is. Bong Revilla. He used this same image in his political campaign with the slogan “Erap para sa Mahirap” (Erap for the Poor). of course. Through constant spectatorship. This phenomenon of electing famous personalities who usually do not have any experience whatsoever in managing any level of a country is perennially bewailed by netizens every election. Lito Lapid. Many celebrities have crossed over from the entertainment industry into politics. They play roles with pro-masa narratives. .Voting: is it more fun in the Philippines? It is evident that in the Philippines there is unity of showbiz and state. this economic nature skews these programs towards broadcasting messages of hope and service. Joseph Estrada. because that is what people want to hear. and proceeded to win with six million votes more than his non-showbiz opponent Jose de Venecia (Maniago. It cannot be accounted for by any of the models on electoral behavior we have outlined thus far. Lucy Torres-Gomez.

such as personality and family background.68% in 2007. her popularity during the elections was boosted by her father’s popularity among the masses.98% and 84.10% in 2010 and 2004. Voters tend to prefer candidates from their home province. and candidates who speak the same language (Montiel & Macapagal. 2007). and parties are virtually indistinguishable from each other on the level of principle and platform. as the structure of Philippine society is largely based on family ties. Voter turnout in the Philippines is generally higher than voter turnout in the United States. respectively in the United States.33% for 2012 and 2008. This leads voters to evaluate candidates based on other characteristics.70% in 2013 and 63. This may in part explain why Corazon Aquino’s death swept her son into power despite his lack of any political achievements in his track record as a senator. And here we touch on another phenomenon in the Philippines: kinship-based politics. The past two midterm elections in the Philippines.The Philippines has a weak political party system.65% and 70. as her campaign emphasized her being the daughter of Fernando Poe. . Turnout in US midterm elections was 41. For presidential elections.52% in 2010 and 2006.59% and 47. 2000). (Although she did prove her competence during her term. Politicians often change sides.) A separate but related feature of Philippine politics is that regionalism and language influences electoral behavior. and 66. for example. This may also account for the tremendous support Grace Poe received. A candidate is always seen in the context of his or her family (Maniago. in the Philippines it was 74. Kinship is especially important to the Philippine politician. saw a turnout of 60. respectively. Jr. no data is yet available for voter turnout in the 2014 US midterm election on the IDEA website). respectively (as of this writing. which are valued highly.

one must consider that a large part of this turnout may be accounted for vote buying and patronage politics. . The psychological model places emphasis on a person’s evaluations of candidates and parties without elaborating the factors that change these evaluations and to what extent and in which direction they are affected by external influences. these models of voting behavior leave much to be desired. over several stages. but its rigid two-step process does not account for multi-level decision-making where heuristic processing and systematic processing are used several times. Much more research is needed to closely examine the political dynamics of the country in terms of psychological mechanisms. and not because the candidate they voted for had political platforms or principles that they perceive to be for the good of the country. or because they stand to receive benefits for themselves and their family if a certain politician wins (especially in local elections). when in reality many of us are easily swayed by peripheral cues and social factors instead of logical and analytical processes of decision-making. The Philippine context is riddled with cultural nuances that make it impossible to understand electoral behavior within the framework of the models outlined in this paper.While it is a good thing that Filipinos are highly participative in elections. these models may augment each other in that the strengths of one can be used to cover up the weakness of another. and maybe even together. When viewed together. Conclusion Taken individually. The heuristic-systematic model makes space for heuristics. The rational choice model assumes that voters are rational. The sociological model leaves psychological mechanisms unknown in a black box. A lot of people may only be voting because they receive money after leaving the polls.

The influences of these factors were studied and documented in the context of a different political climate.The factors affecting electoral behavior that were outlined here are by no means exhaustive. it would still not do much in the way of helping us understand our own voting behavior as Filipinos. and for us to be better able to understand the Philippines. we have to look at how these factors work on our own turf. To address this. We obviously have no problem getting out to vote. One way to do this is to reduce institutional barriers to accessing information relevant to decision-making by forwarding the Freedom of Information Bill. Another way we can improve our electoral choices is to control and reduce corruption. at least compared to the United States where party lines are better defined and choices may seem more distinct from each other. we should continue to study the psychology behind social phenomena. there are far too many possible influences in the literature that it would be extremely impractical to put them all in one paper. We must also continue to seek ways to make it easier for people to vote by cutting up red tape and cleaning out the bureaucracy to make it more efficient and less of a hassle to deal with. so that we may reach a certain level of understanding of these situations that will allow us to create solutions to the problems that we face as a nation. practices that hinder us from exercising our political will and our systematic processing. Even if we did. we must raise political self-efficacy even more by keeping the electorate informed and empowered. Finally. Our turnout is relatively high. which sustains and perpetuates vote-buying and patronage politics. But our unsatisfactory track record of choosing the people who lead our country still stands. .

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