Some good science-based reading for Election Day, whether or not you voted

I voted today, on Election Day in the US.


That said, now is as good a time as any for some interesting articles about politics and voting. Here are some that came my way:

Motive attribution asymmetry

Oliver Burkeman discusses a study that shows that you argue that your side is motivated by love, while the other side is motivated by hate. But since the other side thinks the same, what is the “truth”?

“One of the reasons it’s so hard to accept the notion that our enemies might be motivated by love, I suspect, is because that conclusion seems to suggest that our enemies’ cause must therefore have merit.”

“Actually, those two issues are completely unrelated.”

I agree with this: it is quite possible (I’m not saying it’s always the case) for someone you disagree with to have the most loving intentions, but simply be mistaken rather than evil.

Dangers of accurate statistical prediction by data journalism

A good article in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology about Nate Silver’s statistical journalism argues that data journalism should focus on understanding rather than prediction.

“This extensive use of Big Data for election forecasting passively promotes our current sense of political fatalism.”

“If our politicians can’t risk making public appearances or trying to appear human without navigating at least three levels of performative irony, then our political culture has entered a state of structural crisis.”

Emotions of Election Day: asymmetric hedonic response

Harvard Kennedy School research result on asymmetric hedonic response: after an election, losing makes you far sadder than winning makes you happy.

I confess to having been really bummed out fairly often in the past two decades of voting. I’ve been trying to be more detached.

In praise of the occasional voter

Sometimes, some people make fun of people who do not vote (I never do this; there are often quite rational reasons to avoid voting). Here’s an interesting article arguing that the “occasional voter” is actually quite valuable.

From an economics point of view, “voting is a classic example of a free-rider problem” because the possible gain for each individual is so tiny, statistically, that it may not make sense to go out of one’s way to vote.

On the other hand, voting has an interesting cost to the voter: “The very act of voting for a given candidate or party ties us mentally to that candidate and inadvertently costs us some measure of our neutrality.” This is because we rationalize what we do in order to resolve our cognitive dissonance about the apparent pointlessness of voting. We try to fool ourselves into thinking we did something really important. “We don’t just choose what we like; we like more and more what we choose.”

So the “occasional voter” can be an outsider not subject to cognitive dissonance as much as the regular and party-registered voter, countering partisanship.

Of course, it could be argued that partisanship, and the resulting gridlock, is good. But is it? That’s another topic entirely.

The strange sameness of political candidates in the face of competition

The Conversable Economist, Timothy Taylor, offered an explanation for why politicians end up in the same squishy middle, based on Hotelling’s famous 1929 mathematical model.

“Mainstream politicians thus face a continual dynamic where they seek to reassure their more ardent partisans that they are on their side, while shading and tacking as needed to pick up voters in the middle.”

By the way, if you are interested in more mathematical modeling, check out Scott Page’s free MOOC on “model thinking”, which I reviewed here.

Bloggers’ reactions to Election Day

Here’s a blogger I follow, Alan Jacobs, on his options.

People hate Congress, but 90% of incumbents get re-elected. “The message from voters to Congress? Throw the bums out. But not my bum.”


I hope you enjoyed this taste of research results concerning psychology, sociology, and economics.

I’m not staying up to watch the returns from today’s election. I did what I did, and it’s over for me until next May.

Did you learn anything surprising in the links I shared here? Is there anything that will change how you think or behave when it comes to politics?

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