Faculty Profile: George Marcus’ new book examines U.S. voting trends

With his Apple laptop and Hawaiian-print shirt, George E. Marcus looks more like a Silicon Valley executive than a Williams College professor. For the last 30 years, however, Marcus, a professor of political science, has made a name for himself in the academic world with his work in and outside of Williams. This month, the University of Chicago Press releases Marcus’s new book, Affective Intelligence and Political Judgment. Co-authored with W. Russell Neuman and Michael MacKuen, the book forwards a new theory about the way people make political decisions.

Using new evidence from neuroscience and political science, Marcus’s book integrates rational and emotional conceptions of political psychology to create a new picture of voter decision-making. Marcus and his co-authors suggest that the best model of political judgment accounts for affective factors such as intuition, voting habits and emotion, as well as rational judgments about real issues. The book stresses the interdependence of affective and rational intelligence in voter decision-making.

“Essentially what we argue is that sometimes people are rational, and sometimes they’re not. Given our work, we can determine when people are creatures of habit, and when they’re creatures of reason, and why,” says Marcus.

Though the book has yet to be officially released, it has already received praise from the academic community. At a conference of political scientists in Chicago, Marcus’s work sold more copies than any other book from the University of Chicago Press, prompting him to point out the obvious: “There is a lot of interest in the book.”

Marcus’s academic curiosity helps explain his groundbreaking work. He was not always such a fan of research, though. In fact, as an undergraduate he thought research simply consisted of going to the library, reading a stack of books and paraphrasing what he found. Then, while in graduate school at Northwestern University, a professor asked Marcus to assist him with summer research. That summer opened his eyes, and he fell in love with the challenge of discovering new intellectual ground.

Marcus came to Williams in 1970, when he was only 24 years old. He describes his decision to come here directly from graduate school as a “happy accident.” Raised in Boston, Marcus wanted a job that was close to his family, following his father’s death during Marcus’s last year of graduate school.

For a young man educated at Columbia University in the 1960s, Williams’ relative isolation and traditionalism proved to be somewhat of a shock. In his time here, he witnessed significant changes in the composition of the student body and faculty and an increase of the number of financial aid students.

“I find teaching at Williams very satisfying,” in part, Marcus says, because “the students are bright enough that you don’t have to teach down to them…. [They are] capable of understanding the majority of the research that the faculty does here.” Marcus plans to use his new book in one of his courses next semester.

He added that there are pressures at small schools such as Williams that make it hard on professors. “It’s a little bit of a strain. You want to be available to students, you want to stay on top of what’s going on inside the classroom, and outside the classroom.”

On the challenge of pursing research interests at a small liberal arts college, Marcus says, “Obviously, this is not a research university, but there are not many research universities that would be much different.” Williams’ isolation, like its size, does not impede Marcus’s research, even though his field appears to require easy access to a city. He finds the College willing to accommodate his busy travel schedule, and he uses the Internet to collaborate with colleagues at other institutions.

Marcus believes, however, that Williams’ location makes it difficult for students to stay informed about political issues. He urges students to think carefully when making their choices for this year’s election.

“There are some issues that are likely to be decided either in Congress or in the Senate or in who’s president that are likely to touch your lives for a very long time. This election is more likely to affect the balance of your lifetime more than my lifetime.”