Going to the polls stresses voters, study finds

Chicago Tribune
It may be a privilege, but voting at the polls stresses people out.

Public speaking, new relationships, an upcoming exam, money issues and moving: All of these situations can cause stress. But a new study out of the University of Nebraska adds yet another stressor to the list: voting at the polls.

The study sought to answer the question "How do people react to political environments?"

John Hibbing and Kevin Smith are political science professors at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and are known for their work on how biology plays a role in political behavior. The recent study on voting and stress was penned by Hibbing and Smith along with Jeff French, director of the neuroscience program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, in addition to their graduate students and many others.

The research involved random groups of people from Lancaster County, Nebraska, over six elections. The researchers found that those who went to the polls had significantly higher levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, than those who voted from home or didn't vote at all.

The study found that those with highly reactive stress systems were less likely to vote.

"Politics, it's social stress. It's all about conflict, (and) it's all about winning or losing," Smith said. "And when you go to the polls, it's all about going to a place and maybe running into someone who disagrees with you, standing in line and declaring an allegiance."

The conflict involved in voting, even if it's not vocal conflict, can intimidate those who registered higher cortisol levels — a reaction similar to the way someone may feel while speaking in public or attending uncomfortable social events. Cortisol helps regulate responses to threatening or challenging stimuli. People with high levels or dysfunctioning cortisol are more prone to have depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, social withdrawal or social avoidance. French said people with high levels of the hormone are 50 percent less likely to vote.

The researchers did two separate studies to come to these conclusions. They first gathered voting records from the Nebraska secretary of state and found a significant relationship between turning out to vote and base-line cortisol levels, which are the innate amounts of the stress hormone each person carries. Because of this perplexing relationship, they did a field experiment to get causal evidence during the 2012 presidential election.

This second experiment randomly assigned how different groups voted and again found that the cortisol levels were higher for those who went to the polls in comparison with those who voted from home and those who voted how they normally would but then went to a store to make a small purchase. This third group, the store group, was the control group and was included to show that making a decision in a different location (i.e.: buying something small from a store) isn't a stress inducer; it's the polling place that causes stress.

With this research in mind, it's no wonder that many eligible voters don't turn up to vote, including the estimated 42.5 percent of people registered to vote for the 2012 presidential election. While reasons for not showing up to vote include bad weather, registration issues, inconvenient polling locations, disinterest, disdain for the issues or politicians, it's safe to add "stress avoidance" to the list of deterrents.

But the research doesn't aim to dissuade stress-prone people from voting; rather, researchers Smith and French agree that e-ballots and absentee ballots are healthy ways to contribute.

"The punch line of this paper is that if you provide people with alternatives, you ensure (voting by) people who may be stress-prone and tend to avoid voting when it requires a trip to the polls," French said.

The paper was published last year in Physiology and Behavior.

Ingrid Holmquist is a freelance reporter.

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