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Levels of the stress hormone cortisol may help determine who votes this Election Day

Those with the highest “baseline” levels of the stress hormone cortisol — and thus with the lowest tolerance for stress — tended to be the most likely to stay at home on Election Day.

St. Paul voters in line on Tuesday morning.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

In the presidential election of 2012, only 57 percent of eligible American voters cast a ballot. That meant 93 million people who could have voted failed to do so.

It won’t be clear until the end of today how many people vote this year. There are, of course, plenty of reasons people fail to participate in a political election.  eing “too busy” has topped many nonvoters’ lists in the past, but other reasons often given include illness, a general disinterest in politics, a dislike of the candidates or the issues and simply forgetting to go to the polls. 

And then there are the efforts at voter suppression.

Some scientists believe, however, that there may be yet another reason so many people fail to fill out their election ballots — one that’s biological. In a small study published just a couple of years ago, these scientists reported that low levels of the stress hormone cortisol was a strong predictor of people’s voting behavior.

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Those with the highest “baseline” levels of the stress hormone cortisol — and thus with the lowest tolerance for stress — tended to be the most likely to stay at home on Election Day. 

“Politics and political participation is an inherently stressful activity,” said Jeff French, a neuroscientist at the University of Nebraska and the study’s lead author, in a released statement. “It would logically follow that those individuals with low thresholds for stress might avoid engaging in that activity, and our study confirmed that hypothesis.” 

Submitting to stress

For their 2014 study, French and his colleagues measured cortisol levels in saliva samples collected from 105 volunteers of various political affiliations. The study’s participants were (by their own description) highly liberal, highly conservative or disinterested in politics.

The participants were then put into stressful, but nonpolitical, situations designed to raise or lower their stress and, thus, their cortisol levels. One activity involved preparing a 10-minute speech for a job interview, which the participants were told would be videotaped and evaluated. (They didn’t actually have to do this.) Another required the participants to solve a complicated math problem out loud. 

To measure cortisol levels, saliva samples were taken before and immediately after these activities, which were all conducted at the same time in the afternoon to ensure that the study didn’t pick up naturally occurring swings in the hormone’s levels. Cortisol has a circadian rhythm. It’s typically higher in the morning and lower in the evening. Cortisol also rises in response to stressful stimuli. Some individuals have higher “baseline” levels of cortisol than others. Research suggests that these people tend to be more sensitive to fear, more socially reticent and more prone to anxiety and depression.

A strong predictor

French and his colleagues compared the cortisol data collected during the laboratory experiments with the participants’ voting record. They found that the individuals with the highest, baseline cortisol levels were the least likely to have voted between 2006 and 2010.

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In other words, their cortisol levels predicted how active they were as voters.

Participation in other types of group-oriented activities — specifically religious activities — was not, however, strongly associated with cortisol levels. Nor did the study find any link between cortisol levels and involvement in nonvoting political activities, such as volunteering for a campaign, making campaign contributions or corresponding with elected officials. 

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Limitations and implications

Pointing to other studies, French and his colleagues say that elevated cortisol could result in lower rates of participation in elections because of the link between high levels of the hormone and social anxiety.

The study was quite small, however, and not very diverse (100 of the participants were white and it seems as if they might have all been Nebraskans). These factors limit the strength of the findings.

Still, the study’s results are intriguing, particularly on this Election Day. 

“The key takeaway from this research, I believe, is that while social scientists have spent decades trying to predict voting behavior based on demographic information, there is much to be learned from looking at biological differences as well,” said French.

“Many factors influence the decision to participate in the most important political activity in our democracy, and our study demonstrates that stress physiology is an important biological factor in this decision,” he added. “Our experiment helps to more fully explain why some people engage in electoral politics and others do not.” 

I can’t recall a national election that felt more stressful than this one. And, indeed, the American Psychological Association reported last month that more than half of Americans say they are “somewhat” or “very” stressed by this year’s presidential race. Let’s hope, though, that all eligible voters who haven’t yet cast their ballot — no matter how high their cortisol levels might be — get to their polling place today.

FMI: The study by French and colleagues was published online in the May 2014 issue of Physiology & Behavior, where it can be read in full. … And if you’re a Minnesotan who doesn’t know where your polling place is, you can track it down quickly through the Secretary of State’s website.