[Link] Statistically, People Are Not Very Good At Making Voting Decisions

by [anonymous]1 min read31st Dec 201216 comments

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Link. Nothing surprising considering previous work on the subject, but a good reminder.

A study by three scientists in the American Political Science Review finds that voters are not competent at accurately evaluating incumbent performance and are easily swayed by rhetoric, unrelated circumstances and recent events.

Gregory Huber, Seth Hill, and Gabriel Lenz constructed a 32-round game where players received payments from a computer "allocator." The goal is to maximize the value of those payments.

Halfway through, at round sixteen, the player had to decide whether to get a new allocator or to stick with the old one.

The allocators pay out over a normal distribution based on a randomly selected mean. Getting a new allocator means that a new mean is selected. This was meant to simulate an election based on performance. 

The group ran three experiments where they changed some of the rules of the game in order to find out how voters could be manipulated or confused over performance. Essentially, how good were voters at accurately analyzing the performance of the "allocator?" 

  • The first experiment merely alerted the player at round twelve that they would have the chance to pick a new allocator at round sixteen. This "election in November" reminder made the player weight recent performance in rounds 12-16 over earlier performance in rounds 1-12.
  • The second experiment involved a lottery held at round eight or round sixteen. The payout was either -5000, 0, or 5000 tokens. The participant was told that the lottery was totally unrelated to the current allocator, but players still rewarded or punished their current allocator based on their lottery performance.
  • The third experiment primed the player with a question right before the election. The question took an adapted form of either Ronald Reagan's "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" or John F. Kennedy's "The question you have to decide on November 8 is, is it good enough? Are you satisfied?" 

The conclusion: 

Participants overweight recent performance when made aware of the choice to retain an incumbent closer to election rather than distant from it (experiment 1), allowed unrelated events that affected their welfare to influence evaluations of incumbents (experiment 2), and were influenced by rhetoric to focus less on cumulative incumbent performance (experiment 3).

If you were ever wondering why Congress has a 95% incumbency rate despite an approval rating in the high teens, this study may be worth a read. 

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If you were ever wondering why Congress has a 95% incumbency rate despite an approval rating in the high teens, this study may be worth a read.

That also has something to do with polarized districts, which is often attributed to gerrymandering. As Swing Districts Dwindle, Can a Divided House Stand? - 538

If you were ever wondering why Congress has a 95% incumbency rate despite an approval rating in the high teens, this study may be worth a read.

I think this statistic is hugely misleading. I suspect if one were to ask the people disapproving of congress whether their complaint is that it's too liberal or too conservative or otherwise ask what they thing is wrong with it, you'd find out that the current congress is actually a "reasonable" compromise situation.

This isn't surprising information of course, but it is still good to have a empirical study solidifying our knowledge.

Now if you want to extend this to simulate real voter behaviour, add multiples of the rhetoric and lotteries, and then entirely remove all information about the allocator's output.

If you were ever wondering why Congress has a 95% incumbency rate despite an approval rating in the high teens, this study may be worth a read.

My Congressman is great! It's all those other bozos that cause all the problems! ;)

If you think about voting decisions as an intelligent collective entity making decisions, the question naturally arises : why does the system work at all? Sure, there are massive flaws, but overall the governments of the United States does maintain a powerful military, build and maintain a decent set of roads, keep the mail delivered, care for millions via the VA, etc, etc, etc.

(note : state government is typically selected through even more arbitrary and uninformed votes)

If you think of the masses as a collective with an IQ down in the mentally retarded range, it is difficult to see how this is even possible at all.

There are various theories, of course, but one possibility is that a "bug" in the system is why it even functions. Powerful people in "smoke filled back rooms" decide who the candidates for office that the masses choose between actually are. These people are themselves intelligent and they are selecting intelligent enough decision makers that the system continues to function, more or less. The problems are mostly limited to cases where the powerful people calling the shots collectively make short-sighted decisions, such as sponsoring candidates for office who would rather lower taxes now and allow the roads to go to ruin, and so on.

No, I don't think these powerful people in smoke filled back rooms coordinate with each other very much. This is the difference between this hypothesis and the "conspiracy" hypothesis people create to explain how politics work.

From my personal experience with politics, I'd conclude that people in smoke filled back rooms selecting candidates is mostly a correct description of affairs, although our countries and political habits may differ. (I have participated in three party primaries where all candidates were selected in this way and only later were formally elected by the party members. During the last election, there was an actual smoke filled back room where people discussed things.) On the other hand, I wouldn't thnik that those powerful smokers are intelligent. (Our current district chairman is a moron who doesn't distinguish between Atlantic and Pacific oceans, to say the least. His political skills aren't that abysmal but he is certainly no genius even in this respect. Our local deputy isn't much better.)

From my personal experience with politics, I'd conclude that people in smoke filled back rooms selecting candidates is mostly a correct description of affairs, although our countries and political habits may differ.

I suspect this is less true in the US, where the parties hold primaries which can be competitive if a non-establishment candidate bothers to organize, that's how the Tea Party got many of its candidates on the Republican ticket. On the other hand, in your country it appears to be a lot easier for a new party to become electorally viable.

Yes, in many European countries new parties regularly appear and get their deputies elected to the parliaments (and often they are ideologically similar to the Italian example you have linked to). To me it appears that a single U.S. party corresponds to a group of several related European parties.

Of course, in any system a non-establishment candidate can get elected if he bothers to organise and is able to do it. It still doesn't imply that the voters play significant role in the selection process, it may still be the case that the most important selection happens in the back rooms before the official voting.

I think this is an excellent question to ask. It does seem fairly surprising that democracy works as well as it does. Bryan Caplan has a number of posts on this issue.

He seems to think that part of the answer is that politicians often use their political slack to make reasonable decisions. Politicians might not have that great of incentives or be that intelligent, but voters have really terrible incentives to have good opinions on most issues, so political slack can be a good thing.

I would say that there is a specific bias here that is actually helpful. People tend to vote mostly on the issues that they care most about; and, generally speaking, those also tend to be the issues they know most about. Person A, B, C, and D might on average not know a lot about education, environmental issues, finance, and technology, but if person A votes for the candidate mostly based on his positions and performance on educational issues and person A knows and cares a lot about education,person B votes for the candidate mostly on environmental issues and he knows a lot about environmental issues, person C is a finance expert who votes based on financial issues, and person D is focused on science and technology and votes based on science and technology issues, then candidates are motivated to preform well on all four issues even though only 25% of the voting population properly understands each specific issue.

[-][anonymous]8y 0

My Congressman is just fine! It's all those other bozos that are advocating policies that I disagree with that are the problem!

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