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Just How Irrational Are Voters?

This irrational:

(via: Ezra Klein

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Categories: Ezra Klein, Politics, Voting Tags:

Logically Consistant ≠ Rational

I stumbled on a 2006 paper from Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels of the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics that further confirms my attitude toward voters in general.

Most of the time, the voters are merely reaffirming their partisan and group identities at the polls. They do not reason very much or very often. What they do is rationalize. Every election, they sound as though they were thinking, and they feel as if they were thinking, as do we all. The unwary scholarly devotee of democratic romanticism is thereby easily misled.

This of course shouldn’t be too surprising to people who study how our brains work. Human brains make shortcuts by seeking patterns and putting things in categories. This is a useful and necessary tool so that we can make any sense of a complex and chaotic world. Often it’s hard to break those intuitive theories and stereotypes (and very easy to reinforce them). So as the Achen and Bartels paper helps us see, I’d argue that partisanship and group identity politics is a quick natural substitute, a mental shortcut, for rigorous and rational thinking. Steven Pinker writes in How the Mind Works

[The] mind has to get something out of forming categories, and that something is inference. Obviously we can’t know everything about every object. But we can observe some of its properties, assign it to a category, and from the category predict properties that we have not observed.

When something doesn’t fit our categories we tend to ignore the evidence or alter it to fit our preconceptions instead of the other way around.  Pinker writes,

A third reason we are so-so scientists is that our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth. Sometimes the truth is adaptive, but sometimes it’s not. Conflicts of interest are inherent to the human condition, and we are apt to want our version of the truth, rather than the truth itself, to prevail. 

Everyone else excited for the 2010 midterms!?


(photo from Wired)

The Great American Taboo: Democracy is Overrated

January 31, 2010 1 comment

Democracy is a morally necessary tool for a legitimate state and social contract, but the reality is that it is also a mechanism for choosing irrational policies. As Andreas Kluth, a correspondent for The Economist, said about democracy in a debate on if California is failed state, “James Madison didn’t want [the word] even used in the constitution of the country, because he was afraid—they had studied ancient Athens which was a failure because of direct democracy. They had studied Republican Rome, which was very stable, they wanted Rome, not Athens.”


In America, it is probably more blasphemous to criticize democracy than even religion. The founders recognized the need for a constitutional republic with limited state powers over a pure and far-reaching democracy for many reasons. In a book I read about a year ago, Bryan Caplan nails up his own version of the ninety-five theses. The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies merges economic analysis with political science to explain why voters often act against their own (and the country’s) economic interests. I encourage everyone to read what I think is one of the most important and counter-intuitive studies of our political system.

Among all the fascinating data and analysis, in one of my favorite chapters Caplan explains the phenomenon of “rational irrationality” in voters. Any one person’s vote is astonishingly unlikely to sway an election. Therefore since an individual’s vote has more emotional effect on the individual than electoral effect it may be rational to vote in a way that makes the voter feel better than to vote for a policy that may be materially better for the nation. After all it is a lot of work to research and discover the most effective policies. Aside from effort, social costs can be high to hold unpopular beliefs regardless of their veracity. Also, even think of the politician for whom it makes more sense for him to vote for policies that get him elected over policies that might better the country. Human self-interest is an insight that doesn’t only apply to economics.

I imagine this is part of the reason politics can rarely be looked at dispassionately – people so often take offense if you criticize their preferences for a particular candidate or policy.
Voters see themselves as validating their own values so to criticize democracy one is seen, by extension, to be judging the integrity of the voter himself.

This is too similar to religion to ignore. In 2007, philosopher Dan Dennett gave a talk at the Atheist Alliance International convention where he outlines “good reasons” for belief in religion. He doesn’t mean reasons for beliefs in the doctrines of religion, but reasons for acting as though you believe in those doctrines. Watch his whole talk but it boils down to the social costs being very high for not being religious.



What Bryan Caplan argues for voters applies to the religious, “If agents care about both material wealth and irrational beliefs, then as the price of casting reason aside rises, agents consume less irrationality (p. 123).” The price for an individual consuming irrationality, whether it is in the voting booth or the church pew is often small, but in aggregate for society the cost can be very high. Although Caplan’s book is about political beliefs he, to his credit, spots the connection with religion. He writes, “Human beings
want their religion’s answers to be true. They often want it so badly that they avoid counterevidence, and refuse to think about whatever evidence falls in their laps[…] Once you admit that preferences over beliefs are relevant in religion it is hard to compartmentalize the insight (p. 15).”


Understanding that voters can be irrational and the reasons for it tempers enthusiasm for democracy (and often increases appreciation for markets). A balance obviously has to be found between giving citizens the power to make their own decisions as voters and limiting the influence that a group of potentially irrational voters can have over another group of citizens. But an important step is to break the taboo that democracy always good.
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