Editor’s Note: Michael Slepian is an assistant professor in the management division at Columbia Business School. An expert on the psychology of secrecy, he published the study (referenced below), “Motivated Secrecy: Politics, Relationships, and Regrets,” along with co-authors Professors Rachel McDonald of Columbia Business School, Jessica Salerno of Arizona State University and Katharine Greenaway of the University of Melbourne. It will appear in an upcoming issue of Motivation Science. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
In November 2016, the world was shocked by the outcome of the US presidential election. Not only had the chattering classes gotten it wrong, but the data – the polls that many closely tracked – were sometimes off, too. Why did several state polls seem so off, especially in key battleground states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin?
Perhaps Trump voters were less likely to pick up pollsters’ phone calls; perhaps people changed their minds; or perhaps even some decided to keep their true intentions a secret. It was this last possibility that intrigued us. The day after the election, my colleagues and I launched a study to explore the phenomenon of keeping a vote secret.
Like many, we assumed that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election, and consequently, we expected that the majority of our participants would be women in traditionally Republican districts secretly supporting Clinton. To our great surprise, we were wrong on both counts.
For our study, we sought to recruit 1,000 individuals, bringing together a pool of voters who admitted to us that while telling someone they would vote for one candidate, they secretly voted for another. To find our participants, we advertised the study online, and within five days we had received 1,000 responses from people who qualified for the study.
Our participants came from Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing platform used by many academics for research studies. This population tends to skew toward liberal participants. And, yet, of those individuals who kept their vote a secret, about twice as many participants said they voted for Trump than voted for Clinton.
These individuals weren’t just keeping their secret from coworkers, strangers or neighbors. Overwhelmingly, people who kept their vote a secret were hiding it from their family, friends and romantic partners, too.
So, what does it all mean? This research does not prove that people lied to pollsters, but it does suggest that people who kept their vote a secret overwhelmingly voted for Trump. Our findings ultimately reveal a deeper, more troubling truth: our political climate has left us so divided that many are unable to meaningfully engage with those who have different political beliefs – including those with whom we are closest.
According to the research, people were concerned that voicing their political support would create conflicts and arguments with those around them. They also expressed concern that if they revealed who they actually voted for, their reputation would suffer.
It was this second motivation – concern for one’s reputation – that made people’s secret votes particularly burdensome. When people were more concerned for their reputation, they were more likely to ruminate on the secret. In short, they felt disingenuous in their interactions with others.
One participant described the pains of keeping his support for Trump secret from his family: “How could I describe to my family, especially a hardcore, dyed in the wool, black pride woman like my mother, that I voted for Trump?”
Keeping our political beliefs and behaviors secret from those around us – whether in our workplaces, families or homes – reduces the opportunity for people to recognize and humanize the people with whom we politically disagree.
Eliminating these conversations not only cuts us off from those who think differently, but it also prevents us from finding common ground and mutual respect.
In another ongoing project, we have been studying people who have changed their mind on a wide variety of political issues, asking: Who changed your mind? According to our preliminary findings, very rarely did people report that a politician or television host had changed their mind.
Frequently, however, their opinion was changed by someone they knew well – family, friends and romantic partners. The extreme political nature of our new day-to-day has begun to rid us of the ability to speak frankly and honestly with each other, which, ironically, is one of the key ways to change someone’s mind.
When people cast their votes in 2016, it seems too often they did so without talking it over with anyone – and that had negative implications for those individuals and society at large. We are at risk of this happening again in 2020.
Perhaps Trump supporters will feel more comfortable voicing their intentions than they did in 2016. But it’s important to remember that the Trump 2016 win was built on “identity politics,” where political views and interests center on particular demographic groups, and our research makes clear that people remain concerned about the reputational implications of their political support.
In other words, many people have learned it’s safer to say one thing and do another at the ballot box.
At a time when political divides have never been sharper, political polarization has led people to avoid talking to each other, and to give up on engaging in dialogue. While these kinds of conversations can cause discomfort and a potential rift, meaningful dialogue has to start somewhere. Not only is the home often a safe place to start – it is likely to be the place where we can make the most change.