Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Why do people vote?

As the dust finally settles on the 2015 UK general election it is interesting to reflect on the big (game theory) question - why did over 30 million people turn up to vote?
       A simple model of voting would suggest that hardly anyone should vote. Basically there are non-negligible costs to voting in terms of time. But, the expected benefit of voting seems very, very small. Indeed, since universal suffrage in 1928 there is not a single constituency election in the UK that has been won by one vote. In other words everyone who has voted in a UK general election for the last 70 years or so could have stayed at home and the outcome would have been exactly the same.
        With such dismal prospects of making a difference why would anyone vote? Yet people do vote! This is the paradox of voting. And I saw the paradox in full swing at 7am on polling day - people were already turning up in numbers, eager to vote, smiles on their faces.
     Typical explanations that have been proposed to resolve the paradox appeal to social norms. There are two ways to look at this. One is to say that people vote because they feel an obligation to do so - they would feel guilty if they did not vote. The other is to say that people enjoy civic engagement - they feel good because they vote. The smiles I saw on people's faces on Thursday would suggest the latter explanation has some merit. There is, though, a problem with such explanations.
       If people simply wanted to vote to avoid guilt or feel good about themselves then they could vote for anyone. Remember they are not going to effect the outcome whatever they do. A typical voter, however, seems to put serious thought into who they are going to vote for. Clearly, the idea that someone would randomly decide how to vote is extreme. But, a person can put more or less effort into deciding and many people seem to put in more.
      One could counter this criticism by arguing that people want to vote for the 'right candidate' or maybe want to vote for the winning candidate. For instance, we might say there is social norm to engage in the whole election process and not just turning up to vote. That, though, doesn't really convince me. It seems that people put in effort deciding who to vote for because they think they 'can make a difference'.
      To fully explain the paradox I think we, therefore, need to appeal to 'irrational' beliefs. Realistically a voter is not going to make a difference but he or she may behave as though she can make a difference. To explain why this happens we can look at how people behave in 'large' games. A large game is a game with 'many' players. In the theoretical literature many is often read to mean an infinite number. But, a general election has enough players or voters to comfortably qualify as large.
       The experimental evidence suggests that people tend to think of a large game as a two player game where everyone else is grouped together. In other words people think in terms of me and them. To given one example, in a recent paper with Denise Lovett we look at leadership in public good games and find that subjects behaved the same whether one or three will follow their lead. From a theoretic perspective this is strange because there is more to be gained by influencing three than one. But, if a person thinks in terms of me and them it makes no difference if there are one, three, or a million followers.
     Seen through the lens of a two player game it is easy to see why a person may think their vote matters. Indeed, they have the casting vote! And note that politicians and media feed this bias by making ever vote feel critical. It is also interesting to look at what people who do not vote say. I typically hear things like 'I don't like any of the candidates' or 'all politicians are the same'. This is a complaint about the choices on offer and not a recognition that there vote is non-critical.
      What are the practical implications of this? If irrational beliefs really do explain the paradox of voting then we have an interesting ethical conundrum. Most seem to think that a high turnout at elections is a 'good thing'. So, we might want to encourage voting. But, then this would require us to miss-inform people by reinforcing an irrational belief that each vote counts. And, ethically, we surely want to reduce miss-information!    

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