Voting makes no sense. Why do we do it?

A look at the paradox of voting through a behavioral economics lens

As November 8 approaches and election hype hits an all-time high, a question remains that economists have long pondered: Why do people vote at all?

I know, I know. “This is an important election!”, you say. “The country’s going to hell if Trump’s elected; of course I’m going to vote!”, et cetera, et cetera. I can already hear all of you yelling in my ear about how hard our ancestors fought for democracy, and shame on me for even suggesting we waste that privilege.

But I’m not talking about the value of democracy at large, or the importance of the outcome in this particular presidential race. I’m talking about a cold, hard, rational look at an individual’s choice to cast a ballot.

According to rational choice theory (the basis for classical economics), human decisions must be examined on an individual basis, holding all other factors constant — ceteris paribus, in Latin econ lingo — to see which option has the best chance of increasing the individual’s personal utility, and by how much. Theoretically, human beings will consistently make “rational” individual decisions — ones that take account of available information, probabilities of events, and potential costs and benefits to ultimately make a decision that maximizes their own personal benefit.

As an article by Freakonomics authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt famously pointed out, the fact that people vote at all — let alone their odd voting behavior — defies this model. Why? When all other people’s votes are held constant, one individual’s decision to vote just doesn’t matter. The chances that my singular vote could change an election — particularly a high-profile election like the presidential race — is incredibly small.

Voting exacts a cost — the time and effort to drive to the polls, or the postage to request that absentee ballot — and doesn’t give any discernible payoff — at least, not in terms of changing election results. In terms of personal utility, voting doesn’t really make sense.

It’s a paradox, of course. Everyone can agree that voting in aggregate impacts an election — duh. That’s how the system works. And many economists admit that the rational ceteris paribus model has been complicated in recent years with the advent of social media, which makes influencing others a powerful possibility. But social media aside, it’s hard to argue with the rational futility of the act of casting a single ballot.

Despite all of this, 57.5% of Americans voted in the 2012 election. Why? Did everyone in America skip their probability class? What other factors could be at play? Are there benefits of voting beyond influencing the election that play into our personal utility function?

AP Photo | Matt York

In 2014, a group of economists led by Stefano DellaVigna had a hypothesis: People vote so they can tell people they voted. The team designed an experiment to test whether social image is the driving force behind turnout, and found that indeed it plays a significant role for most voters. Their conclusion:

People vote because others will ask. The expectation of being asked motivates turnout if individuals derive pride from telling others that they voted, or feel shame from admitting that they did not vote, provided that lying is costly.

Another recent behavioral economics study takes this idea a step further, suggesting that voting doesn’t fit into the rational economic model and must be conceptualized differently altogether. Rather than a self-interested decision made at a single moment in the voting booth, these researchers assert that we ought to think of voting as “a self-expressive social behavior influenced by events occurring both before and after the actual moment of casting a vote.” Voters are influenced, they argue, by a complex constellation of behavioral stimuli over time, ranging from self-prediction and commitment weeks before voting day, to implementation intentions, to social pressure and accountability after the election.

Looking at the research in aggregate, it’s clear that affiliative and belonging needs motivate much of our voting behavior. This refers to several different related forces, including:

  1. Identification with an ingroup and a resulting willingness to incur a cost for the benefit of the group. In a version of the famous “dictator game” experiment, in which participants are given a sum of money and the option to allocate part of it to another participant, researchers found that people allocated more money to an anonymous participant who shared their political party identification than to an anonymous participant who had a different party identification. Everyone wants to be there for his/her tribe.
  2. Following of descriptive social norms to adhere to group expectations. Human beings have a natural inclination to want to fit into a group, so if a person’s Facebook page is inundated with voting-related news, and all of her friends are talking about the election and who they’re voting for, she may feel a pressure to vote in order to be “part of the group”. Indeed, this “bandwagon effect” may even go so far as to affect the results of the election, as people may choose to vote for the candidates or parties most likely to succeed, hoping to be on the “winner’s side” in the end.
  3. Use of voting as an expression of identity. If someone perceives himself as a “good citizen”, a patriotic American, or a politically-conscious intellectual, he/she may feel compelled to vote in order to act in accordance with that identity and avoid cognitive dissonance.

All of this research resonates deeply with me, personally. I have every reason not to vote — I’m jaded about the political system’s ability to create any kind of meaningful change; I vote absentee and it’s a hassle; I was an economics major and see very clearly the rational case for not voting. And yet … I sent in my ballot last week anyway. Why? Social pressure. Guilt. Identity. A desire to be a minuscule part of history.

My choice to vote may not change the election, but it allows me to feel part of something larger than myself. Rational or irrational, this is perhaps personal benefit enough.

Happy election week, everyone. Let us all be thankful that it will soon be over.

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