Washington, August 22 : In the run-up to the U.S. presidential elections, a team of Canadian and Italian researchers has shown that a common psychological testing methodology called the 'implicit association test' can enable pollsters to determine how the undecided will vote, even before the voters know themselves.
Bertram Gawronski of The University of Western Ontario says that many times people have already made up their minds at an unconscious level, even when they consciously indicate they are undecided.
He says that using the implicit association test, his team could tap into such automatic mental associations of the participants in their study, and eventually predict their future decisions.
Wirking with Silvia Galdi and Luciano Arcuri in Vicenza, Italy, Gawronski interviewed 129 residents about the impending enlargement of a U.S. military base in their community.
He pointed out that the plans were controversial, and media reports showed strong polarization among residents.
The researcher revealed that the subjects were interviews twice, one week apart, and each time the participants were first asked if they were 'pro,' 'con' or 'undecided' about the expansion.
The participants were also questioned about their beliefs on environmental, political, economic and other consequences of the enlargement of the base.
Thereafter, the researchers gave the subjects a computer-based latency test of automatic mental associations, in which they were asked to categorize pictures of the base, and positive and negative words as quickly as possible.
The full questioning and testing was performed a second time a week later.
Gawronski says that automatic associations that undecided participants revealed in the first round significantly predicted their conscious beliefs and preferences, as expressed in the second round.
This enabled the researcher to predict future choices of the subjects who were still undecided in the first session, he says.
"This kind of testing has many applications, but certainly political polling at election time would be one. It can't give answers to all questions, but it could certainly help pollsters to get more information than people now share," Gawronski says.
The study has been published in the journal Science.