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.

Dan A

Dan G raises a good question, one of those head-scratchers that say "Logic would dictate A, but we see the opposite" - for me, that alone makes it interesting and worth investigating.

I've got to disagree with Doug, though, on the grounds that even a straight popular vote does not change the fact that voting is terribly inefficent, witht eh costs outweighing the benefit, electoral college aside.

Also, I;m surprised at Ernie's comment, especially on here, of all websites. Freakonomics is a book (should I say "new field of study" instead?) that deals with exactly what he is annoyed with - reanswering questions that "have already been answered" but incorrectly so. I just finished the book, and so the example that I'm reminded of is the big controversy one, abortion-crime drop. Crime drop was "explained" by all the numerous reasons given, but someone looked at that and said "You know what, I don't buy it, there's something else at work." That, to me, seemed the point, and so here is someone else doing the same thing - "I hear the reasons why people vote more in close elections, etc. but I don't think that covers it."

At first glance, the theory has some merit, so I'll look into some more because it sounds interesting, turning the "conventionall wisdom" around, or at least readdressing it.

As a side-note though, I would love to see how he defines and uses "altruism" because I have always been under the impression that it was something done with the knowledge that there will be no benefit to you, the deed-doer. Makes me hesitant then, to see "voting" as such (if that is what is claimed) especially if this is true - if voting validates you and makes you feel better... isn't that a benefit you receive?


Adam Johnson

Ah yes, this is more or less exactly what I did my grad school thesis on:

In a nutshell motivation for voting can boil down to two possible reasons:

1) People vote because they have some rational expectation of affecting the outcome of an election.

2) People vote because they derive satisfaction from the act of voting itself ('doing one's civic duty' etc).

Now obviously your chance of single handedly deciding an election is very low, and the electorate seems to realize this--on average the turnout difference between a close election and a blowout one for a major office is on the order of one to two percentage points, and a lot of that difference may be due to the fact that you have more campaign activity (tv ads, canvassing, etc) in close elections.

So most people vote because on some level they get some personal benefit out of it-- a sense of civic duty, satisfaction from expressing their beliefs, a vague belief that they are 'making a difference' etc.

Interestingly enough the difference in turnout between close elections and blowout elections on average isn't very large (again one two two percentage points on average) and the relationship between closeness and turnout is extremely weak (r=0.007).


Julie VanDusky

Economists don't vote because they know math. They know that the liklihood of their individual vote making a difference in a national election is very small. So why vote, it's a waste of time. Why not use that time to do something that will offer them rewards, like writing papers and collecting data?

There are a ton of articles and books in the American politics literature that deal with this notion that voting makes you feel good. The literature was founded about a decade after Downs' work, by Riker and Ordeshook, when they identified the "D" term in voting. They basically argued that voting was not an investment exercise, as Downs argued, but rather a consumption exercise. People consume "Democratic Duty" when they vote; it makes them feel good that they contributed to the democratic process. Also, there is a ton of literature dealing with what was termed the "cross pressures" of political attitudes, and how people respond to being surrounded to people who either agree or disagree with their political beliefs.

I have not read the article, but it appears the predictions from the article's model are similar to the ones in the existing literature that I mentioned. I am curious is there is a way to differeniate the models, perhaps the article presents some unique hypotheses that cannot be logically dervived from other work in the literature.



I understand how people feel comfortable and in well-being when they are with people similar to them. Yet, i don't comprehend why many economists do not vote on election day; maybe this is just a mere assumption. The influence one person has, as for this case Oprah, is truly what is called Power, and it is worth more than Money. I agree with PedroCMS in the sense that voting can bring some happiness, especially if the candidate you wanted won, and he somehow benefits you in some way.


I guess you could say that voting may bring some happiness becuase in some cases, when you vote and win, you feel like there is chance for a positive outcome in things such as your income. This is of course if you are taking into account a president that is willing to raise the minimum wage and push towards other social reformations which benefit those in need and yourself.


We could change the economist voting outlook by elimination of the electoral college and go by straight popular tally.


Don't forget Anthony Downs' famous economist/poli sci work from 1957 An Economic Theory of Democracy, which essentially forms the backbone for all contemporary voting behavior research. A definite must read, it essentially argues why it is not in the average individual's best interest to vote in elections (mostly focused around such things as the high opportunity cost to make an educated decision). It's been heavily discussed in the politics community ever since.

Given Downs' analysis, it doesn't surprise me that economists are less likely to vote than other groups.


this is why when I tell people I vote for Nader, they look at me like I'm from Mars- I vote for him because it makes me happy- I'm proud of Nader- as to the other 2 guys...

ernie cohen

I haven't read the paper, but the article sure makes it sound like bad science. A new theory has to explain things that existing theory doesn't. The traditional theory already explains why people are more likely to vote in tight elections (their vote is more likely to matter). And as to explaining the influence of people like Oprah on votes, why is such an explanation needed, when she wields even greater influence on which books people read?

A reasonable argument for the validation theory (that people are more likely to vote if they can vote for the winner) would be if election margins were statistically larger than poll margins of so-called likely voters. Is this in fact the case?

Dan G

Economists would have to decide on one explicit opinion before they could be agreed (or disagreed) with.

Harry Truman famously asked once for a one-armed economist so that he could never say "on the other hand..."

Some Random Economist

Maybe economists are less altruistic than other people because nobody agrees with us.

Dan G

Another thing that always interested me was whether or not potential impact of the winning candidate's new policies affected voter behavior. If this was true, you'd expect that local elections would have a higher turnout in terms of percentage of the voting population than state elections, which would be higher than federal elections. This, however, doesn't seem to be the case.

An explanation in line with the above idea is that voters' willingness to vote is positively corrolated to the number of people the winning candidate's new policies will affect, not simply their affect on the individual voter.


Maybe economists are just so happy that don't need that extra bump.

Mike B

If you consider that no matter who wins the election, there will always be data to write some sort of economic paper about. It could be that taking a partisan stance and voting can make an economist feel less objective about the following economic situation .


While it "isn't in an individual's best interest to vote" as KevDC, it is interesting to note that still many people do vote. Either large sectors of the market aren't acting rationally or they are reciving utility or some combination of the two. Many people may believe it is in their best interest and act accordingly. This would seem to give a stronger vote to irrational people. If economists are less likely to vote, it could have a large impact when taken over the whole electorit. This may be why the candidates aren't always forced to used the best economics in their arguments. This may also be why the infamous "Ron Paul" supporters never showed up: They are too rational or simply recieved their positive utility from blogging about him rather than actually voting.