A Different Kind of Disadvantage: Candidate Race, Cognitive Complexity, and Voter Choice

  • Melody Crowder-Meyer
  • Shana Kushner Gadarian
  • Jessica TrounstineEmail author
  • Kau Vue
Original Paper


Voters use heuristics to help them make decisions when they lack information about political choices. Candidate appearance operates as a powerful low-information cue. However, widely held stereotypes mean that reliance on such a heuristic can reduce support for candidates of color. We argue that racial prejudices are more likely to dominate decision making when electoral environments require voters to expend more cognitive resources—such as when they must choose multiple candidates at once. Using two experiments we find that black candidates receive less support from cognitively taxed voters than from voters who have the cognitive space to intentionally limit their prejudices when voting. We also reveal that this pattern is particularly evident among ideologically liberal voters. Respondents who profess politically liberal views support black candidates more often than white candidates when the cognitive task is simple but are less likely to do so when they are cognitively taxed.


Race Local politics Experiment Cognitive complexity Voter behavior Heuristics 



Thank you to participants at Princeton University, Simon Fraser University, University of British Columbia, University of Michigan, Cornell University, MPSA 2016, and APSA 2016 for comments.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

11109_2018_9505_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (242 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 242 kb)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Davidson CollegeDavidsonUSA
  2. 2.Maxwell SchoolSyracuse UniversitySyracuseUSA
  3. 3.School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and ArtsUniversity of CaliforniaMercedUSA

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