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Decisions, Decisions: Judging a Book by Its Cover?

Time Required Average (6-10 days)
Prerequisites You must be willing to conduct and analyze a large number of surveys.
Material Availability Readily available
Cost Very Low (under $20)
Safety Adult supervision recommended when conducting surveys.


This project challenges you to think like a politician (and a scientist!), and try to ascertain what factors are most important as individuals make their decision on how to vote. For example, is it what is being said, or who is saying it?


The purpose of this project is to determine if people judge political policies and ideas based on the merits and logic of the views expressed in the statement being made or if they react more to the person or the group that is making the statement or policy.


Andrew Olson, Ph.D., Science Buddies


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Last edit date: 2013-01-10


A fascinating, practical, and important area of sociology is the study of how people make political decisions. In representative democracies, the decision-making process derives its ultimate legitimacy from elections, in which the vast majority of the adult population is eligible to vote. Voting strategies alone can be the subject of study for many years.

For a candidate running for office, understanding what motivates people to vote can be a major factor in determining how to present themselves and their issues to voters. There are numerous theories that can be established about what influences voters to cast their votes for or against a particular issue.

This project investigates which has the stronger influence on voters, the group presenting the issue or the issue itself. To do this project, you will test a random sample of potential voters. Both groups will read the same editorial statement (which you will prepare) about a particular issue. For half of the subjects, the editorial will be attributed to a group perceived as more "liberal" and for the other half, the statement will be attributed to a group perceived as more "conservative." After reading the statement, each participant will complete a brief survey, asking their age, gender, education, political affiliation, and whether or not they agree with the statement. The Experimental Procedure section explains how to construct the survey.

The Science Buddies resource, How Many Survey Participants Do I Need?, will show you how to figure out how many respondents you need to recruit in order to achieve your desired level of confidence that your results are representative of the total population.

Terms and Concepts

To do this project, you should do research that enables you to understand the following terms and concepts:

  • political psychology,
  • decision making,
  • voting strategy,
  • groupthink,
  • sample size,
  • population.

More advanced students will also want to study:

  • confidence level,
  • margin of error (confidence interval),
  • statistical significance,
  • null hypothesis,
  • Student's t-test.


  • How many people would you have to survey in order to have a 2.5% (i.e., 0.025) margin of error?


  • These webpages will get you started on researching the science of decision-making:
  • This webpage calculates the sample size required for a desired confidence interval, or the confidence interval for a given a sample size:
    Creative Research Systems, 2003. "Sample Size Calculator," [accessed June 28, 2006] http://www.surveysystem.com/sscalc.htm.
  • This website has information on statistics and statistical tests, written for the non-mathematician:
    Niles, Robert, 2006. "Robert Niles' Journalism Help: Statistics Every Writer Should Know," RobertNiles.com [accessed June 28, 2006] http://www.robertniles.com/stats/.
  • This website has descriptions and calculators for several statistical tests, including the Student's t-test that you can use in this project:
    Kirkman, T., date unknown. "Student's t-Tests," Department of Physics, College of St. Benedict & St. John's University [accessed February 23, 2006] http://www.physics.csbsju.edu/stats/t-test.html.
  • Here is an Excel tutorial to get you started using a spreadsheet program:
    James, B., date unknown. "Excel 101," University of South Dakota, [accessed March 3, 2006] http://www.usd.edu/trio/tut/excel/.

Materials and Equipment

To do this experiment you will need the following materials and equipment:

  • survey forms:
    • ask for each participant's age, gender, education, political affiliation (e.g., "conservative," "liberal," "centrist"), and degree of agreement with the statement (1 to 5 scale),
  • you will also need to write an editorial or position statement on an issue of interest to you.

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Experimental Procedure

Note: There are special considerations when designing an experiment involving human subjects. ISEF-affiliated fairs often require an Informed Consent Form for every participant who is questioned or observed. In all cases, the experimental design must be approved by a scientific review committee (SRC) prior to the commencement of experiments or surveys. Please refer to the ISEF rules for additional important requirements for studies involving human subjects: http://www.sciserv.org/isef/document.

Preparing and Conducting the Survey

  1. Since this project involves human subjects, you will need to plan well ahead for this experiment in order to obtain SRC approval for this experiment for ISEF-affiliated fairs. The SRC will need a detailed description of your proposed experimental procedure.
  2. You should choose a political issue that interests you and write a single editorial statement about the issue. Here are some points to keep in mind:
    1. As mentioned in the Introduction, for half of the participants, the statement will be attributed to a "liberal" group, and for half of the participants, the same statement will be attributed to a "conservative" group.
    2. One approach would be to write the statement so that it takes a more centrist position.
    3. Another idea would be to write the statement so that it conforms closely to a "liberal" or "conservative" viewpoint.
    4. Either approach could work for this project. Which approach do you think will give you more insight into the decision-making process?
  3. Before you start on your survey, have some adults read your editorial statement and ask them for suggestions for revisions. When you are satisfied with the statement, you're almost ready to start.
  4. You will also need to prepare a survey to record the participants' reaction to the statement, and some information about their background. The survey questions should include:
    1. age,
    2. gender,
    3. educational background,
    4. political affiliation (e.g., "Which of the following best describes your political affiliation (circle one): conservative, liberal, or centrist?"), and
    5. degree of agreement with the statement (1 to 5 scale).
  5. To conduct the study, you can look for volunteers at a busy shopping center or other public gathering place (adult supervision highly recommended).

Analyzing the Results

  1. To analyze the results, first divide the survey results by the group to which your editorial statement was attributed.
  2. Within each of these groups, divide the survey results by political affiliation (conservative, liberal, centrist). Note that you must conduct a sufficient number of surveys so that each of these sub-groups has enough participants so that you can be confident that your results are representative.
  3. For each sub-group (conservative, liberal, centrist), calculate the average agreement score. It would also be a good idea to create a histogram of the agreement scores for each sub-group so that you can see what the distribution of scores looks like.
  4. What do your results tell you about the importance of group identity in decision-making? Are people more likely to agree with the statement when it is attributed to a group they are comfortable with, or is the content of the statement more important?
  5. More advanced students should calculate the statistical significance of any differences in average scores between the groups.

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  • A technique that politicians and lobbyists sometimes use is to create a name for a group that hides or even conflicts with the group's true purpose. Design an experiment with position papers to test whether potential voters can see through this kind of subterfuge.
  • Make up names for different organizations and ask people what they think they do or if they are liberal or conservative.

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I did this project I Did This Project! Please log in and let us know how things went.

Ask an Expert

The Ask an Expert Forum is intended to be a place where students can go to find answers to science questions that they have been unable to find using other resources. If you have specific questions about your science fair project or science fair, our team of volunteer scientists can help. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions, offer guidance, and help you troubleshoot.

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