Can You Vote Your Way to Happiness?
Your vote, by itself, isn’t likely to deliver change. But casting your vote might make you just a little bit happier.
That’s the theory of Julio Rotemberg, an economist at Harvard University, who thinks the major utility of voting might be that it makes us happier by helping us feel connected to people with whom we agree. The argument in Rotemberg’s new working paper, “Attitude-Dependent Altruism, Turnout and Voting,” relies on two assumptions about human nature: that we act more altruistically towards people who think the way we do, and that our well-being increases when our opinions are shared by others.
This could explain why turnout is so much higher in close elections. In a close election, voters are anxious to have their opinions validated by picking a winner. Just as importantly, voters turn out in a close election to help validate the opinions of people who support their candidate.
In lopsided elections, voters tend to already know whether or not their countrymen share their opinions. Voters who pick a long-shot, third-party candidate might be encouraged to vote as an expression of support of people who share their eccentric views.
Rotemberg’s theory might also explain why some public figures — Oprah, for example — are so influential. If Oprah‘s endorsement of Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries gave him a 1 million-vote bump, then, according to Rotemberg’s theory, Oprah fans voted in part to show support for their fellow fans and for Oprah herself. In return, if Obama wins, these same voters get a boost in well-being for seeing their choice carry the day.
Oddly enough, the Rotemberg altruistic-voter theory gives us another explanation for why most economists don’t vote: research indicates that economists tend to be less altruistic than most people, and they are more likely to be free riders.
Maybe economists are happiest sitting at home on election day, letting the rest of us validate or invalidate their opinions for them.