Campus News

Why Do We Do the Things We Do?

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 3, 2010)- There were scores of reasons behind Americans’ decisions to vote for or against Barack Obama in 2008.

Despite what voters may think, University of North Carolina psychology professor Keith Payne contends that many of the causes are outside our awareness and beyond our control. In a series of studies with researchers from Stanford, Payne found that along with the usual factors, more subtle implicit forms of prejudice (which come to mind automatically and may influence behavior unintentionally) also played an important role in voters’ decisions.


Payne will present his research on implicit cognition at a colloquium and workshop at the University of Kentucky this week. "I am particularly interested in the interplay between automatic processes (unintended, often unconscious) and cognitive control," he said on his Web site.

Payne's colloquium, titled, "Implicit Attitudes in Social and Political Behavior," will begin at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, March 4, in Room 213 of Kastle Hall.

Payne also will conduct a workshop, "From Blink to Think: Techniques for unpacking automatic and consciously controlled aspects of everyday behavior," for those who would like to learn how to use the social psychologist's methods in their own research. The workshop is from 2 to 4 p.m. Friday, March 5, in the Lexmark Public Room of the Main Building.

"We invited Keith to speak, because his research is fascinating and important," said political science professor and event organizer Mark Peffley. "His measure of implicit attitudes has turned up strong evidence of unconscious and involuntary biases at work in so many fields, including voting in the 2008 presidential election, drug and alcohol abuse and prejudice and discrimination."  

Cognitive control is generally defined as people steering thoughts and actions to remain consistent with their goals. Payne studies the unconscious thoughts and feelings that shape people’s attitudes and behaviors, also known as implicit social cognition.

Using behavioral experiments, large scale surveys and mathematical modeling, Payne is answering questions like, "Why people sometimes act in prejudiced ways even when they intend to be fair? How do people set aside unwanted biases and act the way they want to? And what happens when that process breaks down?"

Payne's "Affect Misattribution Method" was recently used in a national survey to measure inherent biases in the vote for Obama.

Payne's visit will also promote interdisciplinary research in the social sciences across departments and colleges, according to Peffley. "This is a part of a proposal we’ve developed to create a social science institute here," explained Peffley.  "There are already lots of collaborations occurring at UK, but we’d like to see more to advance the social sciences."   

For more information on Payne's visit, please contact Peffley at