Yes, it can be rational to vote in presidential elections

With less than a year to the next election, and with the publicity starting up already, now is a good time to ask, is it rational for you to vote? And, by extension, is it worth your while to pay attention to what Hillary, Rudy, and all the others will be saying for the next year or so? With a chance of casting a decisive vote that is comparable to the chance of winning the lottery, what is the gain from being a good citizen and casting your vote?

The short answer is, quite a lot. First the bad news. With 100 million voters, your chance that your vote will be decisive–even if the national election is predicted to be reasonably close–is, at best, 1 in a million in a battleground state such as Ohio and less than 1 in 10 million or less in a less closely-fought state such as New York. (The calculation is based on the chance that your state’s vote will be exactly tied, along with the chance that your state’s electoral vote is necessary for one candidate or the other to win the Electoral College. Both these conditions are necessary for your vote to be decisive.) So voting doesn’t seem like such a good investment.

But here’s the good news. If your vote is decisive, it will make a difference for 300 million people. If you think your preferred candidate could bring the equivalent of a $50 improvement in the quality of life to the average American–not an implausible hope, given the size of the Federal budget and the impact of decisions in foreign policy, health, the courts, and other areas–you’re now buying a $1.5 billion lottery ticket. With this payoff, a 1 in 10 million chance of being decisive isn’t bad odds.

And many people do see it that way. Surveys show that voters choose based on who they think will do better for the country as a whole, rather than their personal betterment. Indeed, when it comes to voting, it is irrational to be selfish, but if you care how others are affected, it’s a smart calculation to cast your ballot, because the returns to voting are so high for everyone if you are decisive. Voting and vote choice (including related actions such as the decision to gather information in order to make an informed vote) are rational in large elections only to the extent that voters are not selfish.

That’s also the reason for contributing money to a candidate: Large contributions, or contributions to local elections, could conceivably be justified as providing access or the opportunity to directly influence policy. But small-dollar contributions to national elections, like voting, can be better motivated by the possibility of large social benefit than by any direct benefit to you. Such civically motivated behavior is consistent with both small and large anonymous contributions to charity.

The social benefit from voting also explains the declining response rates in opinion polls. In the 1950s, when mass opinion polling was rare, we would argue that it was more rational to respond to a survey than to vote in an election: for example, as one of 1000 respondents to a Gallup poll, there was a real chance that your response could noticeably affect the poll numbers (for example, changing a poll result from 49% to 50%). Nowadays, polls are so common that a telephone poll was done recently to estimate how often individuals are surveyed (the answer was about once per year). It is thus unlikely that a response to a single survey will have much impact.

So, yes, Virginia–and Ohio, and Florida, and Pennsylvania, and New Jersey–it is rational to vote. Utah, Wyoming, and Massachusetts: maybe it’s not worth your time. On the other hand, there’s a chance you could swing the national popular vote (which can affect the perception of a mandate) and in any case you’re likely to have close local races that can ultimately affect policies from schools to taxes to crime and punishment, so if you have any preferences there, it might very well be worth your time to cast your ballot and have a small chance of making a big difference.

Here’s our research article in the journal Rationality and Society spelling out the reasoning and evidence in more detail.

P.S.  I realize I’m doing something that’s generally not done here by reposting an entry from elsewhere.  However, I think it’s relevant given the discussion on the recent blog entries here on voting.  I think this is one case where a "reprint" adds to the blog discussion.

P.P.S.  Take a look at the comments here for some arguments back-and-forth on this.  Just to answer one objection right now:  by saying that people vote to make the economy better, to make America stronger, etc etc., I’m not making some sort of "paternalistic" claim that I know better than others.  I’m just saying that people have legitimate differences of opinion about what policies are good for the country, and voting gives us a small chance to make a big difference.

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  • Ben Jones

    “…you’re now buying a $1.5 billion lottery ticket.”

    Except that if I win, the winnings get shared out across millions of people. Why wouldn’t my time be better spent buying an actual lottery ticket? And if you say that’s selfish, what if I say I will use my winnings to pay for new libraries, cancer research, even give it to the SI? It can be rational to vote in presidential elections. It can also be rational to get the bus across town and give ten pence to the first homeless person I see. Doesn’t put either on my to-do list.

    “…voting gives us a small chance to make a big difference.”

    I’d call it a vanishingly small chance to make a depressingly small difference, particularly in UK general elections at the moment. I don’t see how this discussion of rationality is different from buying a lottery ticket. Frankly, I’m happier spending £1 on a tiny chance of being filthy ri…philanthropic rich, than I am taking the time to vote and having an equally small chance of getting my chosen nincompoop in.

  • Daniel

    Derek Parfit made this point awhile back in “Reasons and Persons” (pp. 73-75).

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    When was the last time one vote in a Presidential election made a difference? Do we then conclude that everyone who voted happened to luck out but a winning ticket could be just around the corner?

  • Unknown

    Someone else already made the point that the margin of error in vote counting is greater than one vote. It follows from this that no one could ever know that he had cast a swing vote; however, it doesn’t follow that one cannot do this. For one’s vote might turn out to be the one that causes the decision to call or not to call for a recount, for example. Still, one would never know that this effect was present. This of course is not a concern for an altruist.

    Unfortunately, however, since other errors might be made during a recount, by means of the above mechanism, one’s vote for a candidate could easily be a cause of the election of an opposing candidate. And it is not at all obvious that one’s vote would be much more likely to cause the election of one’s chosen candidate rather than another one, in this way or in some other.

  • Caledonian

    And it’s not at all clear that choosing one candidate over another is generally useful. If either option is going to be horribly damaging, arguably you’re better off not voting at all (or writing-in a nonsense candidate) in order to register your unhappiness with the system.

  • http://www.satisfice.com James Bach

    If the chances were as high as 1 in 10,000,000 that my vote would be decisive, we should expect several people per national election to be “the decider”. But we don’t see this, and in fact, we *can’t* see it– since the error in the system itself far exceeds one vote, if anyone wins by one vote that’s simply the illusion of “one person made a difference”, based on ignoring the will of all the voters who accidentally pressed the wrong buttons.

    Plus, no one is an informed voter. Not me, not you. Because candidates carefully disguise their beliefs and motives. Do you really think all those candidates are as religious as they pretend to be?

    Furthermore, in an exactly evenly split vote, how can it be said that one choice is better than another? The closer the election is, the *less it matters* who wins, from a decision quality point of view. By the same token, in a close vote, wouldn’t it be better if anyone who didn’t feel reallllly strongly just stayed home and let the passionate ones make the decision? That way, the people who care have a more powerful influence.

    Personally, I don’t care which of the media-created manikins running for president gets in. Not one of them dares to say what he really thinks.

    All this assumes that the methods we use to tabulate votes is honest. Why should we believe that it is? The biggest problem with politics is that it attracts political activists. Have you ever hung out with a political activist? It’s chilling. The kind of rationality used by political activists is “whatever works to impose my values on others.” It’s a ruthless pragmatism. I’m sure some political activists would consider their duty, if possible, to manipulate the vote totals so that the “right guy” wins. It would take a lot of sunshine on that vote tabulation process before I could believe it was being run in an impartial and honest fashion.

    Voting is rational? Come on. It’s an elaborate ritual designed to make you think you have some control over your life. What’s rational is for politicians to try to *convince* you that voting is rational.

  • Nick Tarleton

    If the chances were as high as 1 in 10,000,000 that my vote would be decisive, we should expect several people per national election to be “the decider”.

    No, every 10,000,000 or so national elections, we would expect everyone who voted for the winner to be “the decider”.

    The closer the election is, the *less it matters* who wins, from a decision quality point of view.

    Were Gore and Bush equally good/bad in 2000? Nixon and Humphrey in 1968? The popular vote difference was less than 1,000,000 in both those elections. Why would this be the case?

  • Vladimir Nesov

    In general voting policy you select is a probability distribution among voting for each candidate and not voting at all. Result of election is determined by these distributions of all voters, and your decision that goes into determining the result is in adjusting these probabilities. If you know that sufficient number of other people will go and vote for your candidate, it’s better to stay home. In vote/stay home decision, it’s only meaningful to go vote if you are going to vote for a winning candidate and to set probability of actually going to vote only to the extent of making him win, if it’s a close call.

    All other kinds of voting are to influence numbers in election results, not to select a ruler, and it’s a totally different cause. I’m not sure that it’s at all worthwhile, and there are other promotion methods.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    So when the ticket pays off, millions of voters all simultaneously get to singlehandedly decide the Presidency, but when the ticket doesn’t pay off, no one gets to decide the Presidency?

  • D

    Isn’t this trying a bit hard? It seems like all you need strictly to do is to invoke the free-rider problem. Surely one isn’t irrational merely because one isn’t a free-rider.

  • Eisegetes

    A 1/10,000,000 chance of giving $50 worth of goods to each American is really only an expected gain of 5/1000 of one cent to each American. Only a theorist would think that most people would value such a small gain, so broadly distributed, over an hour of their own time. I certainly would not spend an hour to give a paperclip to every man, woman and child in America. Would any of you?

  • Eisegetes

    Of course it can be irrational not be a free rider…very often, the expected gain of participation is lower than the expected gain of free riding. Whenever that is the case, free riding is the rational choice.

  • Improbus

    It seems that one bullet is be more important than one vote. One vote may not change an election but one bullet, if properly used, can.

  • http://www.satisfice.com/blog James Bach

    Were Gore and Bush equally good/bad in 2000?

    How can such a question have meaning? Obviously at the time, some people liked one guy and didn’t like the other. It would not have been dramatically against the will of the people for Gore to have won, just as it was not dramatically against the will of the people for Bush to win. Voting is simply a process of measuring the will of the people. Decision quality is presumed to flow from that to the extent that it matters.

    Do you think that hindsight qualifies you to say who was *really* better? Even if it did, you would have to compare your “Bush Won” hindsight against an equivalent (and unavailable) “Gore Won” hindsight. But even in that fantasy situation it wouldn’t qualify you. Different people would make different assessments of the same data.

  • http://achillesshrugged.blogspot.com Benquo

    It might make more sense that the ticket pays off when the winner in a given state exceeds the loser by just one vote, and that state’s electoral votes would have changed the outcome had they been cast the other way.

    In such a case, every person who voted for the winner in that state cast a decisive vote. I’m not sure what the numbers for that would look like.

  • D

    Eisegetes – well sure. That’s why there’s a free-rider problem. My point was simply that there are elaborate game theoretic / sociological / ethical frameworks for dealing with such issues, which seem to me better suited to explaining why we should vote than this rather hokey suggestion that a vote is a lottery ticket.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Eliezer, yes, half the electorate can be decisive all at the same time.

  • Eisegetes

    I’m just trying to insist on careful use of terminology. Free-riding might be irrational and also unethical, or it might be both rational and unethical. Or we might arrange our social interactions so as to increase the social costs of free riding until an otherwise irrational activity becomes rational. I was just trying to point out that free riding usually happens precisely because it is a rational choice, and that the reason that many people (including me) don’t vote is that they view voting as irrational, in the sense that its costs outweigh its benefits.

  • Anonymous

    >It seems that one bullet is more important than one vote.

    Hah, if only. A magic bullet it need be, to convert entire population to rational decision making and then to eliminate nincompoop rotation system.

  • Eisegetes

    Thanks, Robin. So it’s 1/20th of a penny rather than 1/200th. My bad on that one.

    Still, definitely paperclip territory.

  • Recovering irrationalist

    OK, new rule: if an odd number of votes are cast, Dems win, otherwise GOP.


    If your vote is decisive, it will make a difference for 300 million people…you’re now buying a $1.5 billion lottery ticket.

    Is every voter now worth $1.5 billion of altruistic utility each? Either positive or negative utility depending on the result, but definitely one or the other.

    Something’s wrong with this picture.

  • Larry D’Anna

    Consider this:

    When you put forward the argument that voting is irrational, and you convince enough smart people not to vote, you could swing an election.

  • spacenookie

    It seems like you are not accounting for various factors, such as the risk of being killed in a vehicle accident while travelling to/from the polling place, and the cost of determining which candidate is more beneficial (e.g. you invest 20 hours into news watching etc to pick your candidate at 20$ per hour = 400$, x 100 million voters = 40 billion).

    Also you assume the voter to be a perfect decision maker. Rational people must admit the possibility of being in error. In the case that your vote is decisive, one-half the electorate (minus you) disagreed with you and thought
    the other candidate would provide the benefit. If you assume all voters are equally qualified to choose the right candidate, there is a 49.many9s% chance that you have just denied the benefit instead of gaining it.

  • D. B. Lambert

    I think this is a great post and one that challenges my previous understanding of the rationality/irrationality of voting.

    Adding to spacenookie’s comment, though, even from an altruistic perspective isn’t the following calculation still required before one can say that voting in their particular case is rational:

    (Present Value of One’s life to society) x (Probability one will die on the way to the voting booth; or the increase in the probability one will die relative to remaining home) < (Probability one will decide the election) x (Expected Utility Increase) Additionally, assuming those who individually contribute more to society are better educated and better informed, the results of this calculation could negatively affect the make-up of the electorate.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    Recovering irrationalist, in that situation your vote has probability 0.5 of making a difference D-R and probability 0.5 of making a difference R-D (where R,D are utilities for Republicrats and Democans, respectively, winning the election), for an average of 0. Whereas with real voting systems, ignoring pathologies for convenience, voting for a given candidate rather than not voting at all can only change the result in favour of the candidate you prefer, and therefore you’ll always consider that part of the outcome to have positive expected utility.

  • Caledonian

    Yes, g, but if you value the differences between the candidates less than you value the resources/effort involved in voting, voting is a waste of your time.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    The two key questions are:
    1) Is anyone really altruistic enough for this calculation to work for them, as opposed to wanting to appear altruistic to their friends etc.
    2) How confident can you rationally be that you know which candidate gives $50 more to each citizen? After all, if you are pivotal almost exactly as many people thought the opposite of what you think.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I think my argument – seemingly 10 million voters are “solely responsible” if the win is by one vote, otherwise no one is “responsible” – argues that our intuitive concept of “moral responsibility” is a bit more complicated than applying a strictly local causal counterfactual to one person.

    By the same logic, if two people poison a drink, neither is guilty of murder.

  • Nick Tarleton

    As I said on the previous thread, when existential risk is considered the expected utility of voting for the right guy gets a whole lot bigger. In any case, ignoring existential risk and even long-run policy effects, $50 seems far too small as the mean difference in expected quality of life per person.

  • Nick Tarleton

    Eliezer, in the voting and poison cases it seems we should hold people accountable not for the actual result of their action but for the expected result given their knowledge. Of course, this doesn’t agree with all our intuitions either; while I’ve never understood why attempted murder is less of a crime than murder, I feel like a reckless driver who kills someone should be punished more than one who doesn’t.

  • Eisegetes

    Nick, the problem is that you would have to increase the expected return by a huge amount to make any practical difference in most people’s cost/benefit ratio. Say that the difference between Hillary and Rudy is worth $5000 to each and every American, rather than $50 (that seems like a wild overestimate to me, but using that number will help to make the point).

    Now instead of 1/20th of one cent per American as the expected return on voting, you have 5 cents per American. A lot better, but still only the value of about one stick of gum. Would you waste an hour of your time to give everybody in this country a piece of juicy fruit? If so, you are a more generous man than I am.

    The point is that most people (I think) place a relatively lowered value on benefits that are so broadly shared that they are almost immeasurably small in the context of any one individual. That’s the kind of gain one could get from voting, even assuming that we can overcome the informational problems.

    Unless you’d drive across town to give everybody gum, I don’t think it matters whether $50 is a bit of a low ball estimate (and in truth, I think it is probably too high).

  • Andrew

    Robin question 1:

    Ultimately, it’s hard to pin down rationality. We are told in the textbooks that rationality can be defined in terms of consistent preferences (i.e., the Van Neumann utility theory) but sometimes it can be more useful to define rationality as the organized pursuit of a goal.

    The key point of our paper is that people generally vote with the goal of influencing the election outcome. This is consistent with what people actually say on surveys and the way that people deliberate when considering whom to vote for. (See the paper for various bits of evidence.) As we discuss in the paper (and in the blog entry), to the extent that it’s rational to vote, it’s because you care about what’s best for the country. It’s not rational to vote to get the chance of a $1000 tax cut–that really is equivalent to a crappy lottery ticket!–but voting can be a rational way to try to change the direction of the government’s policies.

    For some reason, the concept of altruism bugs a lot of people, but, yeah, I think lots and lots of people vote for what they think is best for the country. In our paper we model this as altruism, but if you’d prefer, you can model it as a separate goal: wanting the U.S. (or, humanity as a whole) to succeed is a goal in itself, without having to subdivide into how it helps each individual person. That’s perhaps one reason why the $50/person number seems either too small or too large.

    Robin question 2:

    That’s right, you can’t really know. At some level, the whole idea of rationality falls apart somewhere. For example, suppose you vote based on candidates’ positions on abortion. This is a reasonable rationale for voting but there’s no really good way of framing it so that it’s “rational” for some people to support legal abortion and “rational” for others to oppose it. These are just different preferences (and different value systems).

    In any case, I was responding to the argument that says: It’s irrational to vote because your probability of making a difference is so small, it’s worse than buying a lottery ticket, etc. If, for whatever reason, you care about which candidate wins and you think he or she could really make the world much better (or that the opposition could make the world much worse), then voting can be perfectly rational without any need to bring in the “consumption value” of voting, “civic duty,” etc.

    Caledonian:

    I’m not saying voting is rational for everybody, just for many.

    Eliezer,

    You’ll never know if your vote is decisive (because of recounts etc.) but the probability of decisiveness can still be estimated, as discussed in the paper.

    (Also, voting is different from the classical free-rider or tragedy-of-the-commons problem, for reasons we discuss in detail in our paper.)

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    The field of Law and Economics does a decent job of analyzing how responsibility should be allocated from a strictly consequential point of view.

  • http://rolfnelson.blogspot.com Rolf Nelson

    Unfortunately, however, since other errors might be made during a recount, by means of the above mechanism, one’s vote for a candidate could easily be a cause of the election of an opposing candidate. And it is not at all obvious that one’s vote would be much more likely to cause the election of one’s chosen candidate rather than another one

    As a first-order approximation, the probabilities cancel out. If there’s a 1/T chance of a tie vote, then your vote for A increases the probability of A getting elected by approximately 1/T. This remains true even if there are sloppy recounts, or if a dog eats half the ballots at random.

    It’s similar to the reason you don’t have to worry, every time you lift your finger, whether the Butterfly Effect will cause a hurricane killing millions.

  • Nick Tarleton

    Nick, the problem is that you would have to increase the expected return by a huge amount to make any practical difference in most people’s cost/benefit ratio.

    Which reducing the probability of existential risk emphatically does. Have you read Nick Bostrom’s paper Astronomical Waste? (You may have a point about the gum, but see Eliezer’s Torture vs. Dust Specks.)

  • http://drzeuss.blogspot.com Dr. Zeuss

    Everything in this post is interesting and true, except the $50 estimate, which is wildly too high.

  • http://rolfnelson.blogspot.com Rolf Nelson

    It is a bit puzzling to me why so many people vote. Possible (and intertwined) reasons may include:

    1. Rational altruism (broadly defined; let’s also include people who vote due to emotional hatred of an outgroup in this category)

    2. Blatant irrationality (can’t do the math, or are swayed by emotions into doing something they know is irrational)

    3. Sense of ethics and duty: don’t want to be seen as a free rider, and think incorrectly that the act of voting itself, no matter who you vote for, is somehow a social good

    4. Sense of community: want to impress the ingroup by voting for the candidate that the ingroup likes.

    5. Signal your ability to be a good friend or a ferocious enemy: vote for the candidate whose policies helped you, or against the candidate whose policies harmed you. An inexpensive way of signaling to your peers that you always try to repay favors and avenge wrongs, no matter how quixotic the situation.

    (1), (4), and (5) are all rational reasons, and (2) and (3) are irrational.

    And, of course, there are multiple reasons, rational and irrational, for people not to vote.

    I’m sure Robin, if he cares to, can cite ten papers where all my ideas here have already been discussed and refuted. (Jerk.) 🙂

  • Jeff Borack

    Benefit bias?

    It seems like an awful lot of the responses here are focusing on how tiny the benefits of voting are as opposed to how high the costs are. Is that a bias people usually have?

    Whether we’re looking at it as greedy pigs (I can spend the time making money) or altruists (I can spend the time making money and then spend that money for the publics benefit (or I can spend that time educating my children)), voting seems expensive. I only make $15/hour, and it still doesn’t seem worth my time to analyze the candidates enough to make an informed decision. It seems exceptionally pointless when I think of all the other people voting based on some gut instinct that didn’t require any time, effort, or rational thought. I realize that that’s irrational, and shouldn’t effect my decision, but it still nauseates me. What else nauseates me… hmm, oh, thats right, politicians!

    If I had to guess, I’d say that most of the benefit of voting comes to an individual when they know they’re being seen voting by members of their community, and most of the cost comes when they’re been seen voting and asked a question about their political choices. I think voting is a social thing. Just like agreeing with something that doesn’t make sense to signal group solidarity.

    Vote or Die! -P. Diddy

  • Fly

    During the 35 years I could vote, I’ve voted exactly once. At no other time did I really care which candidate won. I acted knowing that my vote would not influence the result. My vote was purely an emotional affirmation of what I believed and what I cared about. As such it had value to me. Rationality helps us explore alternatives and predict consequences but emotion drives actions.

  • Fly

    Voting might be a group socialization activity. As such it may strengthen community bonds. I’ve read that group singing or ritualistic group dancing serves a similar purpose. If so, not voting has social costs for those who seek group acceptance.

  • Unknown

    Despite having argued against it, I am not really sure whether this argument for voting works or not.

    However, if it does, I am skeptical that anyone really votes for this reason. Suppose that someone does. Such a person, if he is consistent, will also agree to be mugged by Pascal’s mugger, at least if the mugger makes sure to make his threat sufficiently credible and sufficiently bad. Such a person may also accept Pascal’s wager, in fact; the usual argument that the infinities cancel is absurd (consider this: you are in a room with a green button which has a 99.99% of causing infinite utility and a .01% of causing infinite disutility, and a red button with a 99.99% of causing infinite disutility and a .01% chance of causing infinite utility. Do you flip a coin because the infinities cancel?)

    Maybe the argument is valid anyway, and a real altruist would vote, and choose all of his actions on the basis of tiny probabilities of vast utilities, and accept Pascal’s wager. I’m skeptical, but I doubt that anyone can validly respond to the mugging or the wager without also showing the irrationality of voting.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    This type of discussion, which assume that the only point of voting is to cast the deciding vote in anotherwise 505-50 race, always strike me as magnificently misguided. Only the socially autistic could have such a hard time understanding something which is perfectly transparent to normal people. It’s tough to explain how minds work to a person with autism, and it’s tough to explain voting to those who either can’t or won’t recognize social phenomena as something other than a collection of atomic economic transactions. But I made a try a few months back which might be of interest.

    If you start with the supposition that people are fundamentally individual rational actors, much of human life is mysterious. If you start with the much more accurate supposition that action and cognition are fundamentally social processes, things get clearer, and more interesting.

  • Unknown

    Mtraven, I agree with that. One of my points is that no one really votes because if one participated in 10,000,000 elections, on one occasion one might cast a deciding vote. No one is going to spend 10 minutes of his time on such a possibility, let alone the time it takes to actually vote. People vote for many other reasons such as appearance, for the feeling of being a part of a whole, and so on.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Unholysmoke/ Ben Jones

    “…seemingly 10 million voters are “solely responsible” if the win is by one vote…”

    This is the ‘winning goal’ scenario. If a team wins a game 3-0, which is the winning goal? The first? The last? All three? None of them?

    Which American is responsible for getting Bush in? The only answer that makes any sense is ‘everyone who voted for him.’ Doesn’t matter that if you hadn’t voted for him, he’d have got in anyway. Unless you’re in Florida of course.

    Nick – existential risk is a big deal, possibly the biggest deal. But if we’re talking about astronomical odds, why aren’t we playing the lottery? Would you rather have ten million dollars to spend on making the future safer, or get to cast the deciding vote between the two front-runners in the next election? Bear in mind the amount of time current presidential hopefuls have spent discussing existential risk….

  • Andrew

    To various commenters:

    I’m not trying to say that you personally should vote. If you don’t want to vote, that’s fine. But millions of people do vote, so I’d rather try to understand this rather than to dismiss it as simply irrational.

    As we discuss in section 5.2 of our paper, psychological and rational explanations are complementary, not competitors. Ultimately, we do everything for psychological reasons, so, yes, we vote because it feels good, because everyone’s talking about the election and we want to be involved, etc. At the same time, voting can be rational.

    To conclude: I don’t object to people not voting. What I do object to is for people to tell _others_ that they _shouldn’t_ vote or that it’s silly to vote because it’s so irrational. I don’t think it’s silly to vote at all, and these are my reasons (which are backed up by some research). My reasons won’t apply to everyone, but what I objected to was people like the Freakanomists bloggers saying “we know that voting doesn’t make good economic sense.” That “we know” statement was based on ignorance (as are a lot of “we know” statements, I suppose). Voting can indeed make good economic sense, even if voting can be explained by other psychological processes as well.

  • Eisegetes

    Nick, I agree that if there was a clear-cut difference between candidates on existential risk issues, that could raise the values quite a bit…but the problem is that it is nearly impossible (I think) to discern any clear-cut difference between most electable candidates on those issues. Is Rudy more likely than Hillary to help the species survive and flourish over the longer term? That is a question that is extremely difficult to answer, and our lack of epistemic access to the answer means that we have to discount any predictions we would make by a fairly strong probability of our being wrong.

    Lacking any sense of which major party candidates are better from the standpoint of existential risk, I cannot use that as a basis for a rational decision between them, so it becomes irrelevant from the standpoint of my own personal lottery. Maybe you feel like you can draw such distinctions between candidates with enough confidence to make voting a rational act for you; I highly doubt, however, that such an atypical motivation suffices to explain the behavior of most voters, few of whom are very concerned with existential risk, and almost none of whom would be able to articulate which way the issue of existential risk would cut in an election contest.

  • Nick Tarleton

    But if we’re talking about astronomical odds, why aren’t we playing the lottery? Would you rather have ten million dollars to spend on making the future safer, or get to cast the deciding vote between the two front-runners in the next election?

    The lottery always has a negative expected monetary value. I don’t get the analogy at all.

    but the problem is that it is nearly impossible (I think) to discern any clear-cut difference between most electable candidates on those issues. Is Rudy more likely than Hillary to help the species survive and flourish over the longer term?

    I’m sure one is less likely to start World War III, and I’m pretty sure I know which, and that probably dominates most other concerns. This deserves further thought from the Lifeboat Foundation or someone.

    I highly doubt, however, that such an atypical motivation suffices to explain the behavior of most voters, few of whom are very concerned with existential risk, and almost none of whom would be able to articulate which way the issue of existential risk would cut in an election contest.

    FYI, I wasn’t trying to explain the behavior of most voters.

  • tom

    This story seems to add to the case of the media “helping” us decide on candidates. It is certainly Disney’s right to have their policy. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080104/ap_en_tv/abc_debate

  • http://profile.typekey.com/bayesian/ Peter McCluskey

    “By the same logic, if two people poison a drink, neither is guilty of murder.”
    David Friedman shows (in Law’s Order, pages 192-194) how a somewhat serious argument can be made for conclusions that are very similar to this.
    The most important caveat to remember is that the logic requires that their actions be independent, but if this became a legal rule then we should expect undetected collusion to commit this kind of murder to become more common than two people independently poisoning the same drink.
    Whether voters should be considered to be acting independently is not a simple question.

  • http://rolfnelson.blogspot.com Rolf Nelson

    If you start with the supposition that people are fundamentally individual rational actors, much of human life is mysterious. If you start with the much more accurate supposition that action and cognition are fundamentally social processes, things get clearer, and more interesting.

    Such models are usually wrong, and more importantly, are not useful in predicting people’s future actions (as opposed to just making ex-post-facto rationalizations of what already happened.)

    Is Bob more likely to drink soda or windshield-wiper fluid today? My prediction, based on my model that humans tend to be rational, is that he is more likely to drink soda. You, on the other hand, with your model, have to scratch your head. “What did he see someone on TV drink last night? What would his friends think is cool? Does he live in Samoa? Margaret Mead said the culture is different in Samoa, so maybe he drinks wiper fluid if he lives in Samoa. Dang, I wish I remembered what the guy on TV drank last night. And how did the guy on TV decide what to drink? Did that person, in turn, watch another TV show?” Etc.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Rolf, how did Bob know that soda is better for him than windshield-wiper fluid? Did he reason it out from first principles, or did he perhaps learn it from someone else? And why does he think soda is a good thing to drink while someone in a different culture might prefer fermented mare’s milk? And if rationality is such a good predictor of human action, why do we have a whole blog devoted to strenuously encouraging people to be more rational? Nobody has to scold the planets for not hewing closely enough to the laws of celstial mechanics.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/Unholysmoke Ben Jones

    Nick,

    It is extraordinarily unlikely that the pound I spend on the lottery will pay off.

    It is extraordinarily unlikely that the time I spend voting will ‘pay off’ by swinging the vote to my candidate.

    For the sake of argument, let’s put the odds of these two events roughly equal, some millions to one. I’m not advocating playing the lottery, and I only have done once (16th birthday, naturally). I’m just saying that if you have a pound to spend, and it can either go on a bus ticket to the polling station or a lottery ticket, I know where mine would go. That’s my analogy.

  • http://rolfnelson.blogspot.com Rolf Nelson

    Did he reason it out from first principles, or did he perhaps learn it from someone else?

    Who knows? Maybe he learned Alice, who in turn learned it from Chuck, who in turn reasoned it out. Maybe Dave would have suggested to Bob to consider drinking wiper fluid instead, except that Dave reasoned the same way Chuck did. There are many ways to converge on a rational solution, the model is valid no matter which is the actual story.

    And why does he think soda is a good thing to drink while someone in a different culture might prefer fermented mare’s milk?

    Not knowing how Bob rates the various tastes, or how he trades off health vs. tastiness, I can’t make a prediction in this case, any more than you can. But I can predict that he probably won’t drink blinker fluid, and my claim is that your model can’t even make that prediction.

    And if rationality is such a good predictor of human action, why do we have a whole blog devoted to strenuously encouraging people to be more rational?

    No one said humans are *always* rational. That said, there are useful *models* where humans are held to be “always rational”; these models are usually more useful, in terms of predictive power, than models that have no notion of rationality. But even neoclassical economists don’t actually believe that humans are always rational, any more than chemists believe that atoms are actually discrete colored spheres that snap together like tinker-toys.

    There are also useful models where humans are rational “to a first level of approximation” but also include some structured, well-defined deviations from rationality. These are extremely hard to do right, and aren’t something you can whip together on a Saturday afternoon. Keynes is famous, not because he was the first one to think of making such a model, but because a huge number of people before him had *tried* to construct such a model in a way that would produce better predictions than the “always rational” model, and failed.

  • J Thomas

    “Which American is responsible for getting Bush in?”

    I dunno. Clarence Thomas?

    Maybe Walden O’Dell, the CEO of Diebold?

    It could be argued that Bush himself had something to do with it. There were various people who probably had a veto on it, and he was almost certainly one of them. He’s personally responsible for his election at least as much as anyone else, unless you suppose that he was so mentally incompetent that he shouldn’t be held responsible for knowing how incompetent he was.