Voting without Remembering: Insights from Patients with Amnesia

Imagine if on the next major Election Day, American voters woke up unable to remember any facts they had learned about the issue stances of political candidates. Could voters still pick their favored candidate? Or, are they up a creek without a paddle?

In fact, a form of this scenario happens every election day. It turns out, many voters show up at the ballot box remembering little about candidates’ issue stances. However, according to a study my colleagues and I conducted, this may not be as alarming as it might seem. Our results show that even voters who remember nothing about a candidate’s stances can often still select their favorable candidate.

In our study, we recruited four individuals with a rare form of amnesia that prevents them from forming new memories—a condition known as “anterograde amnesia.” We showed them photos of fictitious candidates linked to important political issues. It was always the case that one candidate held issue positions that were closest to the amnesics’ political views (which we knew from surveying them beforehand). After taking a memory distractor test, they “voted” for one of the candidates. Even though the amnesics could not remember the candidates’ issue positions, they were able to pick the candidate whose issues aligned best with their own.

How were the amnesics able to accomplish this? The key is “non-declarative memory.” When people think of memory, they usually think of the facts and events that they can consciously remember. That form of memory is called “declarative memory.” Answers to questions like “What did you have for dinner last night?”, “What is the capital of China?”, or “Did Obama order a military intervention in Ukraine?” are examples of declarative memory. But there is also “non-declarative memory.” These are memories that you cannot consciously remember or verbally express but they can still influence your behavior. Have you ever had a good or bad feeling about someone you’ve met, even though you couldn’t remember why? Or have you ever been able to type your password on a keyboard even though you couldn’t recite the exact numbers or letters? These types of skills, habits, and emotional memories are considered part of non-declarative memory.

Individuals with anterograde amnesia have brain damage that prevents them from forming new declarative memories, but they can still form non-declarative memories. So even though they might have forgotten candidates’ issue positions, they may still remember their emotional responses and use those to cast a favorable vote.

What then can amnesic patients tell us about the American electorate’s capacity to make reasonable voting decisions? Well, as I suggested earlier, the American public looks a lot like amnesic patients when it comes to reciting information about politics. Fifty years of survey data show that large portions of the electorate can remember very little about the issue positions of politicians. But, they may not necessarily have to. Our study suggests that, even if the voters cannot remember candidates’ policy stances, they may still be able to choose the person who shares their political views.

About the author: Jason C. Coronel is NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Communication Neuroscience Lab at University of Pennsylvania. Starting fall 2015, he will be an assistant professor in the School of Communication at The Ohio State University. His article “Remembering and Voting: Theory and Evidence from Amnesic Patients” was co-authored by Melissa C. Duff, David E. Warren, Kara D. Federmeier, Brian D. Gonsalves, Daniel Tranel and Neal J. Cohen and appeared in the October 2012 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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