Why Do We Vote? So We Can Tell People We Voted

(Photo: Ho John Lee)

(Photo: Ho John Lee)

We once wrote about reasons to not vote, at least from an economist’s perspective. Since a single vote almost never alters an outcome, what’s in it for the voter?

If a given citizen doesn’t stand a chance of having her vote affect the outcome, why does she bother? In Switzerland, as in the U.S., “there exists a fairly strong social norm that a good citizen should go to the polls,” [Patricia] Funk writes. “As long as poll-voting was the only option, there was an incentive (or pressure) to go to the polls only to be seen handing in the vote. The motivation could be hope for social esteem, benefits from being perceived as a cooperator or just the avoidance of informal sanctions. Since in small communities, people know each other better and gossip about who fulfills civic duties and who doesn’t, the benefits of norm adherence were particularly high in this type of community.”

And, further:

In other words, we do vote out of self-interest – a conclusion that will satisfy economists – but not necessarily the same self-interest as indicated by our actual ballot choice. For all the talk of how people “vote their pocketbooks,” the Swiss study suggests that we may be driven to vote less by a financial incentive than a social one. It may be that the most valuable payoff of voting is simply being seen at the polling place by your friends or co-workers.

The “suggestion” of that Swiss study has now been expanded upon, with experimentation, in a new working paper (abstract; earlier PDF) by Stefano DellaVigna, John List, Ulrike Malmendier, and Gautam Rao, called “Voting to Tell Others.” The abstract:

Why do people vote? We argue that social image plays a significant role in explaining turnout:  people vote because others will ask. The expectation of being asked motivates turnout if individuals derive pride from telling others that they voted, or feel shame from admitting that they did not vote, provided that lying is costly.  We design a field experiment to estimate the effect of social image concerns on voting.  In a door-to-door survey about election turnout, we experimentally vary (i) the informational content and use of a flyer pre-announcing the survey, (ii) the duration and payment for the survey, and (iii) the incentives to lie about past voting. Our estimates suggest significant social image concerns.  For a plausible range of lying costs, we estimate the monetary value of voting “because others will ask” to be in the range of $5-$15 for the 2010 Congressional election.  In a complementary get-out-the-vote experiment, we inform potential voters before the election that we will ask them later whether they voted.  We find suggestive evidence that the treatment increases turnout.

Okay, since we’re in a voting frame of mind, I will ask for your vote:

Which Behavior Do You Find Most Anti-Social?

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  1. nick says:

    Voting gives positive self esteem. Wether or not anybody knows.

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  2. Cyril Morong says:

    Why would person A try to make person B feel guilty if person B did not voter? What does person A get out of that?

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  3. Steve Cebalt says:

    Following on Nick and Cyril: unlike Nick, who gains in esteem, I gain the avoidance of pain (guilt, totally self-imposed) by voting. All of it is self imposed, as I really have no social circle to impose said guilt upon me. No one would ever know whether I did or didn’t vote. But I do feel guilty when I don’t vote….but I don’t feel esteem when I do; just the absence of pain/guilt. There are no winners here :)

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  4. JK74 says:

    I vote because it’s a signal – to the politicians. Sure, in who gets the job, a 51-49 win counts as much as a 90-10 one. But if, say, in successive elections the margin goes from 90-10 to 51-49 (or vice versa), you can bet that the politician concerned gets the message loud and clear. Sure, my vote is a pretty small signal on its own – but it’s mine, and I don’t want to rely on anyone else to send it.

    I vote because it’s a civic duty. There are some things you don’t measure in dollars & cents, and this is one of them.

    Last & least, I vote because (here in Australia) it’s compulsory.

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  5. steve cebalt says:

    I remember being surprised at learning Mr. Levitt’s reasoning on not voting — essentially, that it is pointless, since 1 vote virtually never decides nationally elections. Except when it does. I see his point, really, but I’ll bet the folks on Broward County Florida (hanging chads, Bush v. Gore, etc. etc.) felt like their votes mattered. In the end, that national election WAS decided by one vote — one the Supreme Court.

    At that time, I worked at an insurance company, and I asked one of the actuaries about the seemingly unimaginable odds of the results in that election. He was unimpressed. “Any outcome is as likely as any other outcome. So why not? Especially in elections where two sides start with 40% and spend 3 years and hundreds of millions fighting over a handful of persuadable voters. When you consider the number and frequency of national elections, now that I think about it, the remarkable thing is that this outcome isn’t MORE common.”

    Add to that: An election needn’t be separated by just ONE vote: as long as the two sides are within the parameters of a recall, they could be separated by hundreds of votes, depending on the voting jurisdiction.

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  6. Harold says:

    Hi freaks,

    I am annoyed by the ongoing sub-theme in Freakonomics about the irrationality of voting. The idea that one vote will not make a difference is contradicted by the fact that the many votes which supposedly negate a single vote are themselves made up of single votes. If none of these single votes made a difference, then we would expect every election to come back undecided.

    On the other hand, if we accept the idea that it is only large groups of votes that effect an election, then telling a large group of people not to vote could effect an election. While I am not proposing that Freakonomics listeners are electorally concentrated enough to swing an election, I think we also cannot assume that denigration of voting as irrational will have no aggregated effect. Consider a situation where not voting becomes a signal of rationality. What would this group of rational actors be saying to each other with their non-voting signal? “We, the smart people, know better than to vote, leave that to the dumb folks.” But if you value being smart and understand how individual votes become many votes, then don’t you want as many smart people to vote as possible? If you disagree, then I fully support your right to not vote.

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    • Voice of Reason says:

      We’re talking about decision making from a micro standpoint, not the entire population. The decision here is not one candidate other the other, which would be a two vote swing, it is one candidate or nobody, a one vote swing. How many major elections have you heard of where the outcome was literally decided by one vote? I haven’t heard of any. And if there have been, then congratulations, if you voted now your candidate will be in a run-off instead of losing (assuming that yours was the one that was down).

      Personally, I never have the chance to get the stickers at all, because I just use absentee ballots. Why wait and line and waste the gas when I can just spend 49 cents on a stamp?

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  7. Winkleink says:

    If you view an election as a 1 off event with no future impact then yes an individual vote makes very little difference. But, if you view politics and elections as an incremental process then over time politicians learn what we value based on who and what we vote for and then society and laws are changed advancing society and how politicians behave.

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  8. Matthew Gould says:

    How does this translate to corporate Proxy votes?

    Many corporations are struggling to get a quorum of proxy votes because shareholders are not motivated to vote.

    It seems like the social motivation that works for government elections may not work for corporate proxy?

    How do we get more people to vote proxies?

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