As another year of aggressive political campaigning looms, researchers are finding biological evidence that voting is a stressful event.
In the new study, researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have determined that voting can lead to measurable hormonal changes suggestive of stress.
“We understand that emotional changes are related and affect various physiological processes, but we were surprised that voting in democratic elections causes emotional reactions accompanied by such physical and psychological stress that can easily influence our decision-making,” said study author Hagit Cohen, Ph.D.
Researchers found that the level of cortisol — a hormone secreted in times of stress to help the body cope with threats — was nearly three times higher just before voting than the cortisol level of the control group, and nearly twice their level 21 months later.
The study will be published in the print journal, European Neuropsychopharmacology.
Researchers studied 113 people who were on their way to vote on Israel’s Election Day in 2009.
They were asked to give a saliva sample for cortisol testing and to complete a questionnaire examining their emotional arousal at a stand that was placed about 10 meters from the ballot box.
The control group consisted of other people from the same area who were asked to give a saliva test and complete the questionnaire on post-election day.
The study also found that people were more emotionally aroused just before casting their ballot.
“Since we do not like to feel ‘stressed out’,” Cohen said, “it is unclear whether this pressure on Election Day can influence people and cause them not to vote at all. Impact on voter turnout is particularly important given that the stress levels rise if our preferred party or candidate for whom we want to vote is not popular in the polls and projections.”
Researchers warn that their findings are preliminary — a first step in understanding the relationship between stress at a biological level and voting. Furthermore, the study did not examine — and therefore did not find — if high levels of cortisol affect choice.
However, evidence about the decision-making processes and biological processes in the body will be explored in future research.