The Mere Sight of an American Flag Can Shift Voters Republican

Photo: wellohorld

As if we needed more evidence that people often fail to practice rational, thoughtful analysis in making a decision: a new study by Travis Carter at the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago’s Booth School finds that people who are briefly exposed to the American flag shift toward Republican beliefs.

Abstract below; full version here.

There is scant evidence that incidental cues in the environment significantly alter people’s political judgments and behavior in a durable way. We report that a brief exposure to the American flag led to a shift toward Republican beliefs, attitudes, and voting behavior among both Republican and Democratic participants, despite their overwhelming belief that exposure to the flag would not influence their behavior. In Experiment 1, which was conducted online during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, a single exposure to an American flag resulted in a significant increase in participants’ Republican voting intentions, voting behavior, political beliefs, and implicit and explicit attitudes, with some effects lasting 8 months after the exposure to the prime. In Experiment 2, we replicated the findings more than a year into the current Democratic presidential term. These results constitute the first evidence that nonconscious priming effects from exposure to a national flag can bias the citizenry toward one political party and can have considerable durability.

Social scientists have long speculated that national flags exert some unnoticed influence on political behavior, but empirical data has been hard to come by until 2007, when Israeli researchers found that subliminal exposure to a national flag leads voters to support politically moderate views. Carter argues (and seems to prove) that in countries dominated by a two-party system, the national flag instead moves people toward one end of the spectrum rather than to the middle.

Results of both experiments found that a single exposure to a small American flag during deliberation about voting intentions led to “significant and robust changes in participants’ voting intentions, voting behavior, and political attitudes, all in the politically conservative direction.”

Does this mean Obama should take off his flag lapel pin?

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  1. Michael E Piston says:

    Apparently people are offended by the sight of American flags and therefore seeing one causes them to vote for the party intent on destroying America.

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  2. Adam says:

    Every time I see this type of phrase – “a single exposure to an American flag resulted in a significant increase in participants’ Republican voting intentions…” – it never provides the actual percentage. I’m not saying it’s not true, however if a study comes out that significantly affects anything (positively, negatively, increase, or decrease), I along with most would normally like to have a quantifiable value in place of the word “significant”.

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  3. rossdavidh says:

    Hmmmm…seems hard to believe. EVERY election has a plethora, a veritable sea of U.S. flags, almost anywhere you look as you approach Election Day. If this were really a significant effect, and it lasted for 8 months after a single priming, then why don’t the Republicans win every election? Of the last four elections, the Democrats won two (2006 and 2008) and the Republicans had one big victory (2010) and one squeaker (2004). If you counted the number of flag-sightings which the average U.S. voter had in the 8 months running up to any of these elections, it must be at least into the hundreds, perhaps thousands. The evidence suggests that there’s something wrong with the study design, or they’re overstating their results.

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  4. jblog says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  5. m3kw says:

    Between the time when they saw the flag and when they made a hard decision is where the battle is won.

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  6. Clifton Griffin says:

    I think this is less a PR problem and more of a psychological effect.

    (This is going to be really hard to describe in a neutral fashion, but here goes :-) )

    It is my observation that there are certain personality traits that compliment or correlate to the most politically left of center. Examples:

    - Slight to moderate distrust of “patriotism” as something virtuous or important
    - Low estimation of historical documents’, quotes’, and events’ value in modern political discussions

    This may seem harsh, but it’s something I’ve encountered frequently. (margin of error, unlimited)

    This manifests itself in comments such as “the Constitution is an antiquated, racist document”. Or “America is no better than any other nation”.

    I won’t belabor the point because I’ve possibly already taken it too far.

    The point is, I think there is a connection between this type of outlook and a more liberal political position. So, it could be said that anything that might effectively stir up conscious or unconscious feelings of patriotism (something that one might rationally say is more valued quality in right of center circles) could exert a right leaning bias on exposed voters. (though I would guess this would be extremely slight)

    Most people have experiences they associate with flags and other patriotic imagery. 9/11. First 4th of July parade. Operation Dessert Storm. Moments of national unity that are part of their makeup now, even if suppressed. Perhaps seeing a flag involuntarily taps into those experiences and temporarily effects a person’s decision making?

    All of this being said, there is probably a branding/PR aspect here too. :)

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    • M says:

      I think you’re on to something. I typically vote Democrat in major elections, but I do agree that the past Democratic candidates have spent more time than Republicans complaining about problems with our country rather than acknowledging our successes. I think this was particularly true with Gore and Kerry, who came across as rather negative and dogmatic on America, instead of positive and inspirational. For example, Kerry referred referred to US military allies as the “coalition of the coerced and the bribed.” Regardless of how one felt about the goals of the Iraq war (I did not agree with it), that is not a very patriotic or productive way to describe US allies.

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  7. Zach says:

    Hmmmm. This study in multiple-party countries produces moderation when the flag is shown. In two-party countries, the study favors one party.

    Are the studies always carried out by students? What if two-party countries have schools that favor one party. For example, colleges in the U.S. usually have a liberal atmosphere. If the students are designing the experiments and interpreting the results, a move toward moderation may appear in their eyes as a shift toward the view they don’t share.

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  8. denim says:

    The premise is flawed. I have read the questionaire and find there is no way that answers to it could define a Republican from a Democrat, a conservative from a liberal, a rabid right winger from a rabid left winger. The closeness of the 2008 popular vote of McCain vs. Obama should show that American ideology is pretty much a toss up…and the “wingers” don’t have the numbers, just the press coverage.
    http://cornellpsych.org/people/travis/materials/Carter-etal-Flag%202008%20Election.pdf

    Obama and the Democrats should wear the flag pins as they like. An “Old Glory” flag painting hung in my childhood bedroom…that turned me into an FDR, LBJ Democrat.

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