Voting is so stressful that it can actually trigger hormone changes

Voting isn't generally seen as the most enjoyable activity, but this is really taking things to a whole new level: voting actually causes a significant increase in the levels of cortisol, a hormone the body uses to deal with stress.

Researchers at Israel's University of Haifa and Ben-Gurion University measured the cortisol levels of voters during the 2009 Israeli elections. People on election day had cortisol levels that were three times higher than those of other subjects the day after, and followup studies nearly two years later showed the original test subjects had had cortisol levels on Election Day that were twice their normal baseline.

What's more, who the test subjects planned to vote for made a difference. Those who said they were voting for the party that, according to polls, was likely to lose the election had higher cortisol levels than those who were voting for the expected winners. Voters in general were emotionally aroused, showing signs of "positive" effects like sharpness and inspiration as well as "negative" effects like nervousness and embarrassment.

The researchers say this is just the first step in understanding the biological aspects of voting. There's still lots of work to do to understand whether these hormonal shifts are actually powerful enough to affect how people vote, but chief researcher Dr. Israel Waismel-Manor says it's far from impossible:

"Emotions can affect biological processes, which in turn can influence our decision-making processes. Studies of decision-makers, stock traders and the general public have shown that higher levels of cortisol influence decision-making. Elevated cortisol leads to risk-taking behavior and at the same time it impedes memory retrieval. These findings, along with the results of the present study, bring into question the decision-making process among voters. Our study has found that voting is both exciting and stressful, psychologically and physiologically. It remains to be seen whether Election Day stress is capable of altering voting decisions and outcomes."

For those curious, here's how the actual experiment worked, which involved a mix of surveys and saliva samples:

The survey was conducted on the day of Israel's 2009 national elections. 113 voters just about to enter the ballot booth were asked to provide a saliva sample to be examined for cortisol levels, and to complete a questionnaire that examined their affective state. The control groups included individuals from the same township who reported their affective state on the evening of the elections through a phone survey; and a second group who gave a saliva sample on the following day. The research team also went back to the first study group of actual voters 21 months later in order to examine their baseline cortisol levels; and since cortisol has a diurnal cycle, this part of the study was carried out on a non-work day, like Election Day, and at precisely the same time of day as the original saliva samples were taken.

European Neuropsychopharmacology via the University of Haifa. Image via.