Is Our Vote Determined By Our Biology?

Brandon Ferdig discusses Jonathan Haidt’s ideas of openness within a moral matrix to look at how we vote.

Many of us voters were never really on the fence. We’ve been decidedly decided on who/what we’re voting for on this election months ago, before the first debates, and only hardened our choice as this day arrived. Though not with all these voters, it is within this population that there exists a tendency to allow something deep within ourselves to decide our choice in vote, and oftentimes, our entire politics and morals.

The video below barks up this tree–er, plateau–by addressing the influence our physiology has on our morality. It’s very insightful–and freeing–for two reasons…

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt starts his presentation by telling a story of two friends–Adam and Bill–going to Italy and seeing Michelangelo’s David:


These two guys have quite different responses to this image: Adam enjoys the artistic expression; Bill is distracted by the nudity. Haidt then asks his audience: which of these two men is more likely to vote liberal and which conservative? Stereotypes tell us the answer; science reveals their truth.

Human personality is divided into five major areas of measurement. These areas all make up the acronym: OCEAN. “O” stands for “openness”–as in one’s  ”openness” to try new things, to have new experiences. People who rate lower on this trait like things consistent and dependable. Those who rate higher like new ideas, diversity, etc. Not surprisingly, those more socially liberal tend to score higher on this personality trait.

It seems basic enough, yet few appreciate or are aware of its influence. As a result, we simply feel how we do, assume we’re right and more easily dismiss those who feel differently than us as “wrong” or “stupid”. Haidt shows a map of the U.S. with a derogatory label over Red States to demonstrate this judgmental tendency and then invites his audience to “step outside the moral matrix”. Rather than letting this trait lead our judgments astray, we can observe it and keep it in check.

Haidt continues by digging into the innateness of high/low openness, and in turn, how it comes to determine our morality. He says we’re not born with a clean slate. In fact, he says, that is the “worst idea” in all of psychology. Nature gives us a “first draft” and we go from there. And Haidt goes on from there, addressing his take on morality based on research, history, and his original insight. It’s an amazing talk, and I highly suggest a watch below.

But first let’s wrap things up here by relating this theory to something closer to home…

This is an ideal topic for election day, and it also happens to apply particularly well this year because of an added debate in Minnesota: the marriage amendment. (I need to first say that I’m not here to claim that everyone who votes a certain way–on this amendment or any other ballot measure–invariably has high or low openness. But I believe it is a factor for some.) 

Following the lead of Haidt’s video, we can observe how different people view the marriage amendment and homosexuality. Some are totally comfortable with it and, barring no other social factors such as religion, see no reason why marriage between gay people should be prohibited. Others, though, react to homosexuality in an unfavorable manner. Haidt would argue that an element of these responses are part our personality make-up. In other words, some simply just find homosexuality “gross”, and they use this as support for their moral disagreement with it.

I mentioned at the top two reasons why this insight is freeing. The first is that a conscious understanding of this tendency can allow us to stop being automatically led by these unconscious reactions. On one end of the spectrum, this means a negative reaction to something new or nontraditional and then assuming that that behavior, person, art or what have you in question is “bad”. On the other end, we can see how our high openness toward a new idea or movement can allow us to be okay with them, but also perhaps lead us to crave change and believe that new is always right, that change is always good. In either case, we can see a propensity in ourselves to let biological reactions determine what we think is right or wrong.

This can be overcome; it’s not hard-wired. One might be turned off or even repulsed by homosexuality, but one can also separate themselves from their reaction so as to allow thoughtful insight to win out.

The second freedom of this knowledge is that we can increase our patience with one another. Looking at the marriage amendment again, opponents of the proposition might look at a proponent as taking away equal rights, being bigoted–in short, simply being a “bad” person. But when you appreciate that lower openness can lead to a literal, physical reaction which you don’t have, it might not have you siding with your opponent, but at least you’re allowed to better understand the impetus for their stance.

Likewise, a couple of summer’s back in Bemidji, MN, the annual decorated beaver statues were displayed around town. One artist painted hers as a six foot display of female genitalia. Conservatives were upset; liberals came to the artist’s defense. Liberals won, and in their quest for openness, they were rewarded with a giant vagina in their downtown. I, myself, had a tough time empathizing with their desire for such art on a downtown sidewalk, but I could see how a factor such as described above could influence their perspective.

The main point is to see that much of what we feel and believe is a product of our knee jerk reactions, and sometimes we should take a step back. In the spirit of this idea, and by the concepts brought up in the video, we can take a little more insight with us to the voting booth. It all has one asking themselves why they vote the way they do: is it because it’s right?–or because you’re simply being led by your reaction or lack thereof to determine your ideas of what “right” is.

This is a plateau of actualization and patience.

About Brandon Ferdig

Brandon Ferdig is writer from Minneapolis, MN. He shares his personal growth pieces, human interest stories, and commentary at his blog. He is currently writing a book titled New Plateaus in China, a compilation of travelogue, personal experience, human interest, and social observations from China. You can follow Brandon on Twitter @brandonferdig.


  1. Interesting video.

    Marx was one fellow who tried to incorporate both visions with his famous phrase:

    “From each according to his ability to each according to his need”

    “… the genuine resolution of antagonism between man and nature and man and man; it is the true resolution of the conflict between existence and essence, objectification and self-affirmation, freedom and necessity, individuals and species. It is the riddle of history solved.”

    The tug of war between conservative “existence” and liberal “essence” is the PowerPoint version of modern politics. The new twist is that some of the leaning to one side or the other is more a personality trait than something that one adopts. Religion does not turn one more conservative. A conservative mind is drawn to the structure of religion to satisfy its own personality.

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  3. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Maybe some of this is true. If so, it’s unfortunate. I score something like 89 on a scale of liberalness, but still believe in personal libertarianism as opposed to increasing social control around language, etc. My liberalness is about getting the rich out of the business of controlling the polity and economy.

    A couple of generations ago, I bet many of the change resisters were labor Democrats. It’s unfortunate that Republicans were able to split them away from the Democratic side because they felt that the Reps had more of their values. This is probably the main thing that allowed the economy to be killed by globalization. We liberals were to blame too– because we wanted to get away from these folks and work on race and gender only.

  4. Brandon,

    I really enjoyed this Ted Talk, and I liked your article on it. Thank you for sharing both.

    My parents are very conservative, and I have disagreed with them since I was a teenager (that’s when most of us begin to disagree with our parents, isn’t it?). But I cannot deny that they are thoughtful and intelligent people. My father’s a chemical engineer for goodness sakes! How could I possibly make pretend that he’s ignorant?

    This led me to the undeniable conclusion that, just because I disagree with someone, that doesn’t mean their view isn’t based upon thoughtful, reasoned argument. It took me years to make this realization (I actually did think my father was a moron from when I was 15 until I was 22 or so, but this is all too common as well, isn’t it?), but it’s really changed my life ever since I got there.

    I’ve tried to share this with friends and colleagues, but I’ve had mixed success at best. Mr. Haidt’s descriptions are welcome for giving me a richer vocabulary to describe my views, and for helping me to share them with others. Hopefully, I’ll have more luck in the future.

  5. AnonymousDog says:

    You try to connect “openness” with liberalism, but I would suggest that many people support liberal politicians because those voters are afraid, not open to, economic changes that they think would happen if government did not continue to exercise the same amount of control over the economy. Similarly, the ‘liberal’ side of many issues is about resisting certain changes, and the ‘conservative’ side is about promoting certain changes. I think your attempt to connect ‘openness’ to certain kinds of political affiliation is mostly cherry picking, and everybody has some kind of change which they are not ‘open’ to, regardless of their political affiliations.

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