STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Increasing numbers of American voters call themselves independents, saying they are unaffiliated with either the Republican or the Democrat parties. But pollsters are finding that few of these voters are actually open to persuasion. Now a new psychological test offers ways to identify the real independents. Here's NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: It's August in a presidential election year. In the next months you'll hear a lot of this from talking heads on TV.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There are now 24 million registered independents.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That is the highest percentage in at least 60 years.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They're gonna be the deciders. They're going to be the ones that are going to pick the next president.
VEDANTAM: Independent voters say neither party represents their views. Most are moderates, but the number one thing they say? Independents prize their ability to think independently. Here's 23-year-old Amin Sadri from Florida.
AMIN SADRI: It's a shame that I guess more people don't do that. More people, you know, for lack of a better - lack of a better word, they almost feed at the trough. They're set on a certain mindset, so they only listen and gather information that is already predestined to go in a certain direction.
VEDANTAM: Sadri says he despises partisanship. He has close friends who are Republican and Democrat. Even his Baha'i faith has explicit rules about partisanship.
SADRI: It's an inherent aspect of politics that it's about one side versus the other. So Baha'is, because we seek unity and because we seek to abstain from conflict and contention, partisan politics are something that Baha'is are forbidden to participate in.
VEDANTAM: But here's the problem. Even though independents like Sadri say they only care about ideas, not party labels, many consistently vote Democratic or consistently Republican. I asked Sadri who he voted for in the 2008 presidential election.
SADRI: I voted for Barack Obama.
VEDANTAM: I asked him about other races, the 2010 House, Senate and governor's races in Florida. I even took him back in time to elections when he was too young to vote.
So I don't know if you remember the Dole-Clinton race in '96. You would have been really small at that point. You must have been seven or so. Did you have any thoughts on who you wanted to win?
SADRI: Clinton. Clinton most definitely.
VEDANTAM: So in '96 you wanted Clinton?
VEDANTAM: What about 2000?
SADRI: 2000, Gore.
VEDANTAM: What about 2004?
SADRI: Oh, 2004, what a tough year. That would have - that would have definitely been Kerry.
VEDANTAM: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, all Democrats. One last question, which is on the 2012 presidential election - who are going to vote for?
SADRI: I'm going to vote for Barack Obama. But you know...
VEDANTAM: Let me stop you here for a second. In 2000 and 2004 you were too young to vote, but if you could have voted you would have voted for the Democrat.
VEDANTAM: In 2008 you voted for the Democrat.
VEDANTAM: In 2010 you supported Democrats for the governor's race, the Senate race and the congressional race. In 2012 you're going to support the Democrat for Senate, and you're supporting the Democrat for president. You know, I think you're a Democrat.
SADRI: (Sighing) See, that's the problem. As soon as I say that I am a Democrat, then people look at me and say, oh, you believe in this, you believe in this, you believe in this, and I don't.
VEDANTAM: This fall, Sadri will count himself as an independent voter. But if the campaigns think he's persuadable, they'll be wasting their money. Now, politicians, reporters and pollsters know that only a few independents are actually open to persuasion. The challenge lies in how to identify them. That's where a new psychological test could be useful.
BRIAN NOSEK: My name is Brian Nosek. I'm a professor at the University of Virginia.
VEDANTAM: Nosek is a psychologist who studies one of the most important gaps in human behavior.
NOSEK: The gap between what we're trying to do, what we think we should do, what we want to do - and what we actually do.
VEDANTAM: Nosek understand why millions of voters call themselves independents but consistently vote for one party. It's not because they're lying. Nosek says people have blind spots. When you ask them their views, they'll tell you what they believe. Sometimes that's the truth, sometimes it's not. Nosek has a test that gets around the problem. It measures people's inner attitudes, including ones they don't know they have.
NOSEK: The test is called the Implicit Association Test, and it's been used for a variety of different topics, trying to measure people's racial attitudes, their anxieties about spiders, their self-esteem. In our case, we tried to measure how strongly people associate themselves with Democrats or Republicans.
VEDANTAM: The idea is simple. If you are a Republican deep down, you'll quickly categorize things that are Republican with things about yourself, because you identify with the Republican Party. You'll be slower to group things connected to the Democratic Party with things about yourself. Nosek gave me an oral version of the test. This is just to show how the test works. It won't tell you if I'm a Republican or a Democrat. In the actual study, people's reaction times are precisely measured on a computer.
NOSEK: Okay, ready?
In the real study, Nosek tested about 2,000 citizens to see how fast they made these associations. The test easily identified registered Republicans and Democrats. Republicans were quick to link Republican words with themselves. Liberals made faster associations with words connected to the Democratic Party. Independents? Some showed no bias for either party. But the vast majority did.
NOSEK: It might break down into a third, a third, a third. There are a large number of independents who are not in the middle, but show some degree of implicit partisanship.
VEDANTAM: Nosek proved the test was measuring people's real attitudes by asking the volunteers to evaluate different policies. Some were labeled Democratic ideas. Others were labeled Republican. Then Nosek secretly switched the labels. The idea that used to be called Democratic, it was now labeled Republican. Remember the claim that independents make that they don't care about labels, they don't care which party comes up with ideas, they only care about the ideas themselves?
NOSEK: What we found was that independents who were implicitly Democratic tended to favor the plan proposed by Democrats. And independents who were implicitly Republican tended to favor the plan proposed by Republicans. And it didn't matter which plan was which.
VEDANTAM: Party labels, not ideas, determined which proposals these voters supported. That's the definition of partisanship, where loyalty to the team comes first and the ideas come second. Nosek thinks the test can help independents figure out if they are walking the walk or just talking the talk. Campaigns might use the test to find the minority of independents truly open to persuasion. So this fall, don't be surprised if someone comes up to you and says, would you mind taking a little psychological test? Shankar Vedantam, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: Okay. You can learn more about that test at npr.org, and in the interest of full disclosure, we ought to tell you Shankar is a registered independent. You can ask him if he's faking it on Twitter @hiddenbrain. While you're at it, why not follow this program if you don't already. We're on Twitter too @morningedition and @nprinskeep.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.