Faculty of Social Sciences
New Research

Behavioral problems in childhood linked to lower voter turnout

This may contribute to the political marginalization of individuals with a strong need to be heard, according to researchers.

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Typical behavioral problems may include repeated physical aggression towards others, frequent initiation of fights or bullying, intentional destruction of property, lying to gain advantages, stealing, running away from home, or skipping school.
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Research recently published in the scientific journal Political Behaviour shows a clear connection between chronic behavioral problems in childhood and not voting as an adult.

Typical behavioral problems may include repeated physical aggression towards others, frequent initiation of fights or bullying, intentional destruction of property, lying to gain advantages, stealing, running away from home, or skipping school.

The research has been conducted by Lisa-Christine Girard and Martin Okolikj.

Girard is a researcher at Department of Special Education at University of Oslo. Okolikj is a researcher at Department of Comparative Politics at University of Bergen.

Followed 6000 participants over five decades

The research is based on data from a British cohort study, and researchers have followed a group of people over time to observe how they develop in various areas.

The participants in this study were all born in the same week in 1970.

The study includes ongoing reports from parents about their children's behavior from the ages of 5 to 16. Data analysis of these revealed three distinct groups with coinciding developmental patterns:

  • No significant behavioral problems.
  • Moderate behavioral problems throughout childhood.
  • Extensive, chronic behavioral problems throughout childhood.

The researchers then mapped whether the participants had voted in national elections at the ages of 30, 42, and 46. This was based on the participants' self-reporting of voter turnout.

The results were surprising

The likelihood that those in the chronic behavioral problems group voted in elections was up to 20 percent lower than the group without behavioral problems. And the difference was approximately the same at ages 30, 42, and 46.

«I am simply surprised that something that happens between the ages of 5 and 16 has such a clear and measurable effect on adults' political behavior many decades later,» says Okolikj. The researchers had controlled for other factors that could affect voter turnout, such as education, income, marital status, union membership, and so on.

«The results are robust. We have used what is called statistical matching. In simplified terms, this means that we have compared individuals who otherwise resemble each other. The only difference is the occurrence of behavioral problems,» explains Okolikj.

First study of its kind

Psychologists make a distinction between internalized and externalized difficulties.

Internalized difficulties refers to problems with an inward expression, such as anxiety or depression. Externalized difficulties have an outward expression, such as behavioral problems.

According to Okolikj, this is the first published study in the world that examines the connection between children's behavioral problems and later participation in political elections.

«There has been conducted some research on the connection between depression in youth and adults and voter turnout. As far as I know, no one has previously studied how children's mental health problems that manifested as unwanted external actions affect voter turnout,» he says.

Challenge for the health of democracy

A central characteristic of behavioral problems is repeated violations of social norms and rules.

The researchers believe that this could be one of many explanations for the connection between behavioral problems and lower voter turnout.

Okolikj says that a consistent pattern of rule-breaking may lead to a feeling of not belonging in society, and therefore less responsibility towards society.

«If so, voting is probably not your biggest priority,» says Okolikj.

He believes the study points to societal challenges that go beyond individual mental health:

When groups exclude themselves from important political activities, researchers also talk about a challenge to the health of democracy.

«In a well-functioning democracy, all groups must be heard. If some gropus feel that they are not being represented in important processes, motivation for political participation can decrease even more. This can easily end up as a vicious circle.»

Can declining voter turnout be prevented?

Today, voter turnout is decreasing in most Western countries. At the same time, the prevalence of mental health problems is increasing.

«There are, of course, many reasons why voter turnout is decreasing. Increased mental health issues may be part of the picture. Political science has generally been concerned with adults' political behavior. This study shows that we also need to look at how our political 'self' is shaped before we become adults,» says Okolikj.

Okolikj also believes thinks that insight from psychology is relevant to political science:

«Problems are most effectively prevented at a young age. If we want to maintain the legitimacy of democracy and facilitate the participation of as many people as possible, we need to find out more about how we can intervene early to counteract political exclusion.»

To learn more about the connections between mental health in childhood and political participation as adults, Girard and Okolikj have conducted a new study that will soon be published.

«Here we have used data from an Irish study. We look at various types of mental health problems and different political activities, including political activism and voter turnout,» says Okolikj.

This story was first published in Norwegian at forskning.no


Lisa-Christine Girard og Martin Okolikj: Trajectories of Mental Health Problems in Childhood and Adult Voting Behaviour: Evidence from the 1970s British Cohort Study. Political Behaviour, 2023. Doi.org/10.1007/s11109-022-09852-9