Can ordering beer teach us about voting behavior?

“Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.” —John Quincy Adams.

Unfortunately, the above vision by Adams is often not realized. Group identity, social proof, voter access, and a plethora of underlying behavioral influences tend to guide our voting behavior – often without our permission.

A 2018 article in the Washington Post by Kwame Anthony Appiah titled: “People don't vote for what they want. They vote for who they are.” examined a study by Professor and Researcher Lilliana Mason that explored how, often, we don’t vote for what we want, we vote for who we perceive ourselves to be.

As we look ahead to the recent election here in the states, and the growing political polarization we are experiencing, it’s important to recognize that this is also a global issue that is experienced to varying degrees in countries around the world. There are a lot of conversations on the table right now about making behavioral science and resulting, decision science, more accessible and less “WEIRD” (aka focused on Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic populations) and if there is one thing that can all relate to… well, whether overtly spoken or inwardly thought, it’s that we all have disagreements with others on the political direction of our home country.

So, with that in mind, let’s explore a few behavioral science concepts that can impact our voting behavior and decision make in hopes that it will help us all rationalize our voting decisions.

1. Group Think & Social Proof.

Many of us often vote by party line even when the parties policies or practices are not fully in alignment with our values. Instead we vote for that political party because we feel like they are our community. We align with a political group, often because of one salient topic (I.e., abortion, gun rights, or the environment). We then allow (often subconsciously) the social decisions of that group to guide our own decisions on topics unrelated to the original issues that we aligned around, regardless of whether or not we feel the same as the social group on those subsequent issues.

Person looking at a sign with a group of people in the background

A study by Behavioral Economist and Professor Dan Ariely in his flagship book “Predictably Irrational” showed that at times, we don’t even choose our drinks or meals at a restaurant based on what we truly want, we are influenced by the decision of the group we are seated with. In the study he found that groups who ordered traditionally, out loud, either fell into an “I can’t order the same thing” or an “I’ll have what he’s having” mindset and often failed to order what they truly wanted.

The direction they went was also influenced by culture – when conducted in the US, statistically participants fell into the “I can’t order the same thing” category and in China it was the opposite. When asked to order “in secret” with no outward influence – the participants in both studies rated that they were, on average, overall, more satisfied with their meals, signaling that they actually chose more to their own tastes rather than by the influence of the group. While probably impossible in today’s world, imagine what voting would look like if political issues did not reference party affiliation?

Social norms drive much of our behavior. We see how our reference group behaves, and we mimic that behavior. This is magnified in these days of stratified social media and 24-hour news coverage where, when a new issue arises, you immediately see how your “tribe” responds, which then influences your perceptions and beliefs on that issue and limits our deeper in person debates around the subject. It’s no secret that we act and speak differently online than we do face to face.

2. Choice Architecture.

How easy it is to vote, impacts who votes and the information have exposure to impacts out views. Often, due to policy, access, “friction”, and more it can be easier for certain demographics to vote than for others, and this can have a significant impact on election results.

A 2018 article by Ted Robertson and Dan Connolly on behavioralscientist.org titled “Building a Culture of Voting Through Choice Architecture” explored the impact of choice architecture on elections looked at the concept of “automatic registration” on voter turnout. According to the article, when Oregon implemented this concept in 2016, 272,000 more people became registered and the voter turnout from that group was 44%!

The below visualization by Philip Kearney, based on data from the census and townhall.com, conceptualizes that if “abstained” voters were assigned the candidate “nobody” then that non-existent candidate would have won the 2016 election – getting more “votes” than either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Admittedly, this is theoretical and in the real world those people would not have all voted for the same person if “nobody” was a candidate, but the point is, choice architecture can impact voter access, and when used ethically could allow for more voter participation and a more accurate depiction of the full demographics of a country.

Election map of the united states

So how does this impact you at the polls? Be aware that the information you are consuming and even the processes through which you vote could have been designed to “nudge” you. Behavioral nudges were brought to the mainstream by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” According the duo a nudge is “any aspect of choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”

While we would argue that choice architecture that is designed to make it easier and more accessible to vote is ethical and net positive, on the flipside were a partisan party to influence and design a ballot to nudge people toward a specific vote that would be unethical.

At the end of the day, as mentioned above an affiliated party often becomes a community which influences personal identity and the salient topic that may have led to that affiliation then influences our decision about less emotional topics to align with that group think. Now, add to the fact that the group we align with is most likely designing choice architecture and nudges to further commit us to that belief system and it’s easy to see how we can become so polarized.

With an awareness of these influences, before hitting the polls try and look at each topic and decision in a vacuum. If we can segregate smaller less heated topics form the big ticket items, its likely that we would see much more agreement between parties.

3. Confirmation Bias & Motivated Reasoning.

Once we have a belief or viewpoint, our brain works hard to reinforce that perspective. When we see information that supports one of our pre-held beliefs, our brain is more likely to take it at face value and process that information. On the other side, when we see information that contradicts our pre-held beliefs, our brain goes to work to discount that information or even ignore it totally. This bias is called the confirmation bias and works at a subconscious level, so we don’t even know it’s happening. Thus, the beliefs we hold about our politics are reinforced while information that may be contrary to our politics is discounted. We are naturally inclined to seek validation of our beliefs and reject information that challenges them.

Person looking at articles on a computer

Motivated reasoning takes this concept one step further. This is the idea that we justify our actions or make decisions based on what we want or desire versus based on actual evidence. Thus, we are likely to believe that somebody is righteous and honest if they agree with us, but evil and dishonest if they disagree. When we look at political candidates, we are more likely to rationalize bad behavior or poor decisions by politicians on our side than on the other side of the political fence.

datagram of making a design based on beliefs versus facts

Again, this one is challenging to overcome and even being aware of it we are likely to fall into its trap. Be sure and check sources but try and leave the source affiliation at the door and focus on the facts on display. Read verified articles things that make you uncomfortable even if you don’t like the source, so long as it is reputable – chances are that if you are uncomfortable with it you may not be as committed to your view as your brain (and social group want you to think).    

This is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Having a deeper base understanding of the societal and emotional factors at play in our decision making process is not a magic bullet but it can help us look inward and evaluate the things that matter to use and make better overall decisions moving forward.

Keep these thoughts in mind as you research issues, head to the polls, and cast your vote.

Sources

Anthony 2018, The Washington Post, accessed 21 October 2020, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/people-dont-vote-for-want-they-want-they-vote-for-who-they-are/2018/08/30/fb5b7e44-abd7-11e8-8a0c-70b618c98d3c_story.html>

Ariely, Dan. Predictably Irrational. Harper Collins, 19 February 2008.

Connolly and Robertson 2018, Behavioral Scientist, accessed 21 October 2020, <https://behavioralscientist.org/building-a-culture-of-voting-through-choice-architecture/>

Kearney 2018 accessed 21 October 2020, <https://philip-kearney.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/2016-election-2-1.png>

Thaler and Sunstein. Nudge. Yale University Press , 8 April 2008.