Just 57 percent of eligible Americans voted in the 2012 presidential election. For many who did not, voting may just stress them out.
UNL political science research shows that people who vote less frequently, or not at all, are more likely to have a higher physiological response to stress. This research may lead to new ways to increase voter turnout and strengthen the political system.
“If politics is as stressful as it seems to be, it makes sense that people who are predisposed to higher stress levels would not want to be involved in another thing that’s going to cause them stress,” said John Hibbing, Foundation Regents University Professor of Political Science.
A groundbreaking researcher on the role of biology in shaping people’s political temperaments, Hibbing won a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship in 2013 to broaden his research into variations in political participation.
“This knowledge might help us understand
things we could do … to increase turnout
and improve democracy.”
– John Hibbing
Early indications are that chronic non-voters tend to have high levels of cortisol, a hormone commonly associated with stress, and other physiological indicators of emotional strain. But does the stress stem from the decision-making itself, or from being in an unfamiliar or public situation?
A preliminary study by Hibbing and UNL political science colleague Kevin Smith found that voting at the polls caused higher cortisol levels than mailing ballots from home, indicating it’s possible to make voting less stressful. The U.S. political system, which is more adversarial and winner-take-all than other systems, also may trigger greater stress and therefore less participation.
“This knowledge might help us understand things we could do either with regard to the political system as a whole or the specific act of voting to increase turnout and improve democracy,” Hibbing said.
Hibbing is a member of UNL’s new Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior. He said the center’s interdisciplinary focus gives him greater opportunity to collaborate with colleagues across a range of expertise and having laboratories in one location facilitates his research projects.