Can People with Amnesia Form Sound Political Opinions?

Should people with amnesia vote? If someone can’t remember a candidate’s political positions, is that person able to make an informed choice between them? New research reveals that even with extreme memory impairment, people form consistent preferences that reflect their personal issue stances.

Memory and Political Opinions

dementia-595638_640There’s plenty of election talk in the U.S. these days as people talk about Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and others. When you get to the polling booth next year, though, are you likely to even remember each candidate’s policy positions or will you just have a general preference for a candidate?

Political scientists have long been interested in whether there is a politically informed public or whether people just pick a favorite without following any of the candidates’ actual positions. One way to test that question has been to ask voters about who’s going to get their vote and what they remember about each candidate’s position on important issues.

A lot of times, people aren’t able to remember the candidates’ positions, and they report that those positions didn’t shape their votes. Some political scientists have taken this as evidence that American voters aren’t good at choosing candidates for their issue positions.

This may not be the right conclusion, though. Milton Lodge and his colleagues have proposed an alternative: voters form impressions based on important policy issues and hold onto their general candidate preferences even if they forget the details. In this sense, people are basing their decisions on the issues but may not be able to recall those specific issues on election day.

The Critical Test: Amnesia Patients  

The difficulty in testing Milton Lodge’s theory is that people might still remember the issues pretty well despite what they can think of at the moment. A strong test of this idea would be to examine the opinions developed by people who can’t remember the facts they learned.

In a recent study, a team of researchers examined the development of political preferences in four patients with anterograde amnesia and seven control participants who were demographically similar but suffered no memory impairment. The amnesic patients had experienced damage to their hippocampus, leaving them with severe impairments to their ability to remember facts and discrete events.

ballot-box-32384_640webAll of the participants learned about two (fake) political candidates, and the information about each candidate was tailored to each participants’ own political opinions. One of the candidate’s positions were more consistent with the participants’ than the other. As a result, based on the policy issues, there was a “right” answer for each participant—the candidate that the person should prefer.

After learning all of this information, everyone was asked who they would vote for between the two candidates. They were also given a memory test for the core issues. Not surprisingly, the amnesic patients couldn’t remember any of the candidates’ issue positions whereas the non-clinical participants could remember those details easily.

Nevertheless, like the non-clinical participants, amnesic patients still voted for the candidate whose issue positions matched their own political opinions. Even though they had no memory for the information, it still affected their vote.

How Did They Justify Their Votes?

It’s pretty amazing that people consistently voted for the candidate who matched their political opinions even when they couldn’t remember their political positions at all. How did they explain their choices, then?

The researchers asked everyone to explain why they voted for the person they voted for. All of the non-clinical participants were quick to point out each candidate’s positions. For example, one of these participants said, “I would vote for him because of his political stance.”

The amnesic patients, however, just made stuff up. One patient responded, “I don’t know. He just seems more likeable.” Another said, “He’s dressed a little bit better. He has more style.” Despite having clearly been influenced by the issue positions, without being able to remember those positions, they had little explanation for their acquired preferences.

What Does This Tell Us About Political Psychology?

Although these results might be surprising, they tell us about more than just how amnesic patients form opinions; they tell us about how the brain forms opinions.

If learning information can form a general opinion even when someone’s brain can’t hold onto that information, it suggests that there’s a separate system in the brain that’s responsible for forming and updating what we think is good and bad.

This isn’t a totally new idea. Research in cognitive psychology has suggested the existence of multiple memory systems. According to this model, one type of memory is declarative memory, which is the ability to remember facts and events. Another type is (you guessed it!) nondeclarative memory. Within nondeclarative memory, though, is emotional memory, which might have something to do with developing candidate preferences. Learning the facts about a candidates helps develop an overall positive or negative association with the candidate, which will remain intact even as memory for the facts fades because it’s housed within a separate memory system.[1]   For another example of all of this, check out research on the somatic marker hypothesis” and the Iowa Gambling Task, which has shown how people with particular sorts of amnesia can “unconsciously” learn about what’s good and bad even when they can’t “consciously” figure out why.

So, should we let people vote if they can’t even remember what the candidates’ positions are? Well, that’s a personal question, but I can say at least as far as the science is concerned, a simple lack of memory need not suggest the person’s vote is baseless.


Feature Image: “Voting” by justgrimes –  Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, cropped

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.   For another example of all of this, check out research on the somatic marker hypothesis” and the Iowa Gambling Task, which has shown how people with particular sorts of amnesia can “unconsciously” learn about what’s good and bad even when they can’t “consciously” figure out why.

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