The 'X' factor in voting

Whether with your head or your heart, there are cognitive drivers behind that ballot-paper cross

General elections are an opportunity for citizens to exercise their democratic right to elect political leaders to serve them.

The 2011 General Election in Singapore was remarkable in several ways. In all, 82 of 87 seats were contested, the highest proportion since independence in 1965. For the first time, a group representation constituency, or GRC, fell to the opposition. The incumbent ruling party, the People's Action Party (PAP), got 60.1 per cent of valid votes cast, its lowest since 1965.

Since then, the PAP appears to be in permanent campaign mode. A number of policies to appease voters have followed - a massive ramp-up in public housing supply, adjustments to education pathways, increased social support, a sudden push to recognise older citizens for their contributions, tweaks to moderate immigration and huge investments in transport infrastructure.

The SG50 year, 2015, is turning out to be a year-long celebration, laying a path of goodwill to the door of the next general election.

As elections loom, widely expected to take place next month, it is timely to consider some of the cognitive drivers which could steer voting behaviour, in other words, look at the common mindsets that shape how people vote.

Cognitive biases


Polls results, in the end, boil down to how well the respective camps engage voters to believe in them. ST FILE PHOTO

The most prominent is hindsight bias. This is intrinsic to the ruling party's narrative of past success upon which it bases its claim to legitimacy for another mandate. This narrative portrays the success story of modern Singapore as being the result of PAP rule.

The narrative of success is treated as synonymous with, and conditional on, the PAP.

The flip side of this is the implicit narrative of failure avoided. Such foiling of failure is implicitly viewed as a story synonymous with, and contingent on, the opposition.

While the first-generation PAP leaders were certainly remarkable, this simple narrative too conveniently maps correlation over causation.

Singapore benefited from several contextual advantages. The long boom from the 1960s fed into great economic moderation into the 1990s, providing us the opportunity to tap the growth of an expanding global economy.

The Cold War made international alliances easier to form. Coming from a low base, it was not too difficult to marshal its land and labour resources successfully.

Harsh action to constrain the political and information space also gave the PAP difficult-to-contest control, giving it the advantage of planning and acting for the long term. This remains a feature of its leadership, which investors appreciated. These conditions were important to our success. That leaders at that time could take advantage of them, is testament to their brilliance.


The next driver is confirmation bias. Those who believe the PAP's story that the party is instrumental to the country's success, will naturally want to confirm the success by giving the PAP more years in power.

Conversely, there are those who find this narrative too neat, marginalising unpalatable political truths. For them, a rejection or cynicism of the past narrative implies automatic rejection of a future mandate, regardless of the virtues and capabilities of the present slate of candidates.


A third driver that shapes voting behaviour could be cognitive rigidity. The PAP has been in power for the entire 50 years of Singapore's independence. Three whole generations after 1965 have never known any other political reality. It may be very difficult for these Singaporeans to conceive of, not just Singapore without the PAP at the helm, but even to make sense of their own identity as citizens without the PAP. Without the capacity to imagine success and a national identity under different political conditions, voters might choose the default choice to maintain the known pattern.


A fourth driver would be saliency bias. This is where a recent significant event inordinately steers behaviour.

The relentless "upbeat" drumming of SG50 events could be construed as a way of inducing a positive saliency bias in voters.

However, a saliency bias works both ways.

Public transport failures, such as the breakdown of two major MRT lines during the evening peak hours on July 7, could spark widespread antipathy towards the PAP, should they occur close to, or during, an election period.


A fifth cognitive driver is the action of an underdog syndrome.

Singaporeans have mixed and conflicting expectations of their leaders. They wish them to be brilliant and accomplished, yet humble; exalted but common; to be close to perfect yet touchingly human. These near impossible-to-reconcile requirements seem to apply mostly, if not only, to the candidates from the PAP.

The public has one hurdle rate, or minimum threshold, for ruling party candidates, and another, lower, hurdle rate for the opposition. There seems to be an inclination on the part of some Singaporeans to treat the opposition more leniently, as compensation against the perceived political advantages enjoyed by the PAP.

Head and heart

None of these cognitive drivers should obscure or excuse the need for citizens to be invested in the electoral process with their heads, as well as their hearts.

For committed supporters of the PAP, there is a responsibility to hold their candidates to account for their ideas, their integrity and their values. This helps to stay the dangers of a rotting intellect, corroding values and decline into complacency that typically bedevil incumbents in any arena.

The PAP has worked hard over this current term of government to demonstrate to voters, through its policies and ground activism, that it has a heart, as well as a head. This election will test if, and how many, voters are persuaded.

Supporters of the opposition should similarly expect much from their candidates - Singapore cannot succeed on sentiment and good intentions alone.

Leadership must be powered by the quality of the candidates' ideas as well as organisational and managerial competencies.

Candidates from opposition parties cannot be excused from possessing these necessary attributes of good leadership.

The only opposition party with elected representatives in Parliament, the Workers' Party, has had the opportunity, through the responsibility of managing a GRC, to show that opposition candidates have a head as well as a heart. This election will test whether they have been convincing.

In the end, it all boils down to how well the respective camps engage voters to believe in them.

Voting is driven by both cognitive processes - and biases - and emotional factors. Undecided voters, in particular, are least likely to be influenced by cognitive biases. If they prove to be the many rather than the few, then this will be an election decided less by the committed supporter than by the swing voter.

•The writer is the CEO of Future-Moves Group, a management consulting firm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2015, with the headline 'The 'X' factor in voting'. Print Edition | Subscribe