We’re rarely rational when we vote because we’re rarely rational, period

Apr 3, 2016

Photo credit: Kaitlin McKeown/Associated Press

By Robert M. Sapolsky

Science can tell us lots about how voters will make their decisions in 2016. To appreciate those findings, first free yourself of the idea that humans are rational beings.

Rationality has taken a hit in various domains of decision-making. Economics used to be thought of as a realm of pure rationality, something disproven, for starters, by the million-plus Pet Rocks sold around Christmas in 1975. Formal behavioral economics research comes to much the same conclusion more systematically. For example, people make radically different choices about an economic scenario depending on whether it is described in terms of risk or gain (“you have a 50% chance of losing X number of dollars,” versus “you have a 50% chance of gaining X”).

Human decision-making is subject to implicit influences in other realms as well. In one study involving thousands of cases of parole-board decisions, a highly significant predictor of whether an inmate was granted parole was how long it had been since the judge had eaten. Justice may be blind, but don’t expect to get a sympathetic hearing from someone whose stomach is gurgling.

Other research shows our sensitivity to all sorts of unconscious cues. People think potato chips taste better if they hear crunching sounds in the background as they eat, rate a beverage as tasting better if it’s served in more expensive-looking surroundings. Ask people their favorite detergent; if they’ve just read a paragraph containing the word “ocean,” they’re more likely to choose Tide — and then concoct some supposedly rational reason why it’s the very best.

Which brings us to how people go about voting for a political candidate. It’s a rare voter who carefully reads a candidate’s position papers on every conceivable topic. Instead, we typically vote based on a candidate’s stance on a subset of topics, assuming there will be a certain consistency on other topics. Or we follow party lines, or choose based on endorsements — if A agrees closely with B’s politics, and B is voting for C, A is on pretty safe ground voting for C even if C is a complete unknown.

Another conscious component of political decision-making is voting for experience or competence, rather than a platform. This is so common that one study found that candidates judged to look more competent had won elections 68% of the time (perhaps we don’t so much vote for competence as for the appearance of it). Competence at least seems like a pretty rational criterion — after all, who wouldn’t want competence in our leaders? — until you wind up voting for someone who competently implements things you oppose.

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5 comments on “We’re rarely rational when we vote because we’re rarely rational, period

  • In one well-studied phenomenon, when voters consider two candidates with identical positions, they tend to choose the one independently rated to be better looking. For male candidates this means tall, symmetrical features, high forehead, prominent brow ridges, jutting jaw. It’s part of a larger pattern — people judged to be attractive are typically rated as having better personalities, higher moral standards, as kinder and more honest. When job applicants present the same resume, the better looking is more likely to be hired. If miscreants are convicted of the same crime, the better looking tends to serve less time.

    We get the politicians we deserve. Instead of doing your due diligence and researching the actually management qualities of a candidate, we vote for the good looking one. A lot to be said here about our upcoming demise. We the voters, chose to vote for self inflicted extinction, because we the voters, are irrational.

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  • Then there is voting for the one the voters have heard of (but who has no policies they dislike – or indeed no policies at all)! – prominent in the media – like a half-brick on a diamond necklace! (Trump/Farage anyone?)

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  • Seven year and 18 days!

    That was my age when we had the referendum about nuclear power in Sweden back in 1980. Already at that time I had made my opinion clear, I was pro nuclear. That is an opinion that I have retained ever since. A couple of decades later I actually did study some basic nuclear physics, chemistry and geology and university, and on top of that I read a course in nuclear waste management.

    Of course, I was not qualified to have an opinion in this issue at age seven. But I’m not so sure I have enough knowledge even today. Why did I become pro nuclear at a time where I could not spell the word nuclear power plant (not even in swedish, my native language). The best explanation I have found was given by Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, He is specialized in autism. When I saw a lecture he gave about that kind of personality I found a suitable explanation. The main contributor to autism seems to be exposed to higher than average levels of male hormones as a fetus. It is possible to detect the beginning of autism amongst children that are only a few months old. They have a tendency to not be so interested in other living creatures or dolls; they rather focus on mechanical toys and patterns.

    While growing up we tend to find groups of likeminded people, we understand them better and feel more comfortable amongst them. Yes, most of my friends are masters of science, and I was about to get there before I became seriously ill. What I think is that I found more confidence in the people that argued for nuclear power. They are probably more oriented to logical reasoning, to study statistics and doing an analysis using reason. Those who are opposed to nuclear power are probably more oriented towards emotional decision making, instead of being impressed by graphs of the probability of a nuclear disaster, they vision the children that are dying from radiation disease.

    I can’t say my stance is the correct one. I think it’s the autistic one. That does not mean that all people have autistic traits are enthusiastic about nuclear power, but it’s probably more common. Well, I might be wrong, I have not done any proper studies in psychology, but I have watched (several times) Robert Sapolsky’s basic course in psychology that Stanford has been kind to share at Youtube . That is something I recommend to all people to look at. In 25 lectures he explains the basics of our human nature in a very understandable way.

    Simon Baron-Cohen has also explain other traits in my personality, I can be socially awkward, I am not good at understanding other people’s feeling, but I have a well developed understanding of other people’s suffering. I am obsessed with how things works and I spend most of my life trying to get knowledge, analysing and trying find out how to improve everything from my bicycle to humanity. I think I have a well developed moral and that I lie less than the average person. But the reason I lie less is not moral, is that I feel awkward doing it. I am just a bit autistic. That’s also why I have written this comment.

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  • Kristian Kalin #3
    Apr 7, 2016 at 5:49 pm

    Those who are opposed to nuclear power are probably more oriented towards emotional decision making, instead of being impressed by graphs of the probability of a nuclear disaster, they vision the children that are dying from radiation disease.

    The problem with nuclear power, is that war-mongering politicians have insisted on developing the wrong sort of dangerous nuclear power using uranium and plutonium, because they like bombs, and don’t care about the long half-life of waste.


    Research on thorium began in 1947, but funding has been withheld because it has no military applications.

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  • Yes, if Thorium had been on the table, I’d have been pro-nuclear power.

    So I’m not anti-nuclear per se, just anti-U&Pu-nuclear.

    I’ve read somewhere that China is starting to turn out Thorium reactors.
    Well, most worthwhile stuff is made in China these days. (Along with loads of crap but that’s another matter).

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