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The Impulse Factor: Why Some of Us Play It Safe and Others Risk It All

Undecided Voters Want Just the Facts,
But are Swayed by Attacks

by Nick Tasler
author of The Impulse Factor: Why Some of Us Play It Safe and Others Risk It All

Both the Obama and McCain campaigns bet that the small, undecided minority of voters prove to be the king-making faction on November 4. So, how will the undecided decide? They repeatedly tell pollsters and reporters alike that they are concerned far more about issues than they are with William Ayers, the Keating Five or other dirt unrelated to policy matters.

An AARP poll recently revealed that undecided voters between the ages of 18-49 are twice as likely and those over the age of 50 are three times as likely to support a bipartisan, issues-focused candidate over a mudslinger.

Candidates Turn Deaf Ear

Yet, negative campaign ads from both sides continue terrorizing innocent commercial breaks. Aren't the candidates listening to swing voters?

Yes. But the campaigns also understand that when undecided voters say they are concerned about the economy, it means they are scared about losing their jobs, their homes and about putting food on the table. And when people are scared, above all else, they are driven by an impulse to avoid danger. That means threats of danger overshadow promises of opportunity. It's a perfectly rational, albeit primal, response to be more concerned with being eaten than with eating.

In other words, when your livelihood is threatened, it makes logical sense to put the pursuit of a better life on hold to sustain any life, period. Despite cries of disgust with mudslinging and a legitimate desire to hear solutions instead of attacks, candidates know that swing voters' protective impulses will drive them to vote against the predator, rather than for the leader.

Danger Always Trumps Opportunity

Never mind the decades of overwhelming psychological evidence supporting that truth. If you need proof, take a straw poll. Ask the undecided or recently decided around you who they intend to vote for and why. Without hesitation, you can bet that the majority will explain all the reasons why they are not voting for the other candidate — what they don't like or what they outright fear about him or his policies.

It's the same reason why the majority of people pull their money out of the stock market when it drops, rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to buy more stock at a discount. In the minds of the frightened, danger always trumps opportunity.

It's the Economy Stupid

In theory, another option does exist. Undecided voters' truly desire a solution to the present economic woes, and therefore the candidate who provides that solution could seal victory. All that candidate must do is devise an economic recovery plan in which nobody loses their jobs or their houses; the national debt doesn't increase; businesses remain competitive as well as regulated; Wall Street is punished without Main Street suffering; everyone has quality healthcare; and taxes are lowered. And they want details, too.

They have witnessed 18 plus years of political song and dance routines, and are already skeptical of politicians and their vague reassurances. They demand specifics about how the candidate intends to make their jobs, homes and futures safe. But if one of those details reveals a possible threat, undecided voters' impulses will respond loud and clear: Danger!

Both candidates are intelligent men with able campaign staffs who know full well that no wave of a policy wand can eliminate the impending economic correction. Of course, they have ideas but not a perfect solution. If they did have a silver bullet solution, we would know what it is by now. So, the candidates face two options for reaching the undecided electorate.

Think about it. If you're a candidate with finite time and money how would you spend it? Would you fight the uphill battle of devising and communicating an impossibly perfect plan with no possible pitfalls? Or would you focus on pointing out the clear flaws and necessary sacrifices required by your opponent?

Undecided voters — including me — have failed to convince candidates that we will reward them for honesty. Campaigns correctly believe that revealing a realistic, yet imperfect solution will attract more voters than it turns away. In fact, the evidence is pretty convincing that just the opposite will happen. The candidate who offers a detailed plan that implies anything less than "everything will be okay" will be punished at the polls. So, campaigns do the next best thing: attack.

On the dawn of November 4, undecided voters will wake up with a decision to make. Assuming they decide not to stay home, they will enter the voting booth still concerned about the future. The perfectly safe plan they hoped to hear will not have come. Despite their honest loathing of mudslinging and their yearning for solution — based debates, they will be compelled by a protective impulse to vote against the candidate who seems more likely to eat them.


About the author:

Nick Tasler is the director of research and development for think tank and consultancy TalentSmart®. His new book, "The Impulse Factor: Why Some of Us Play It Safe and Others Risk It All," reveals how a newly discovered gene mutation affects our individual levels of impulsivity and discusses the advantages and pitfalls of impulsive, risky behavior. "The Impulse Factor" is published by Simon & Schuster.

About the book: The Impulse Factor

In his work as research and development director at cutting-edge think tank TalentSmart®, where he helps businesses work better and employees think smarter, Nick Tasler realized that the recent discovery by scientists of a potential-seeking gene could have a remarkable impact on how we understand decision making.

Those who have this gene — about one quarter of the population — are endowed with impulsive tendencies that can lead to fast and decisive action or to foolish choices. The cautious majority that Tasler calls risk managers can make carefully considered decisions or become hopelessly lost in the fog of details.

Now The Impulse Factor offers readers a unique online opportunity to analyze their own decision-making style and harness it to improve their everyday lives. Each book comes with access to a proprietary assessment developed specifically to evaluate impulsivity. With examples from business, psychology, and Tasler's own research at TalentSmart®, the book also vividly illustrates how susceptible we are to the events around us and how our reactions often run contrary to our best interests.

By combining his research with real-world examples of extreme decision making, Tasler teaches readers how to thrive when faced with difficult choices. More than just a book, The Impulse Factor provides a clear understanding of why you make the choices you do — and the tools to make those decisions change your business and your life.

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