Why Do People Vote Against Their Self-Interests?


Do People Consistently Vote Against Their Own Self Interests?

Well, people at least think they aren’t – and the reason is asymmetric information. In laymen’s they don’t know what the heck they’re doing.

While writing “Who Said Money Can’t Buy Happiness?” and reading a recent pew report, I started to ask myself – do people actually vote with their self interests? In economics it is a simple and well supported proof that all people act on behalf of their own self-interests, almost exclusively. But do we see it in politics?

Maybe people are “value voters,” who vote based on values candidates share with them, such as religious views and conscience in front of things such as experience, policies, ideas, and progress. This might be true, I certainly know a fair share of people who will or won’t vote for these candidates because they think Obama isn’t a Christian, or Romney is a Mormon. Some people also might be voting for Romney because they like that he is super rich (maybe he knows something we don’t), or Obama because he can empathize with lower classes.

As Jonathan Haidt the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion puts it,

Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.

It is pretty hard to reason with God, rationality doesn’t play a part in a persons decision-making if their intuition is God facing.

The number isn’t much, but let me use this as an example: 20-40% of welfare recipients vote Republican and a larger percent are medicare recipients. Facing potential cuts, are these people voting Republican because of their “moral compass”?

Some quotes from Haidt’s book lends to what may be happening:

“The Republican party dupes people into voting against their economic interests by triggering outrage on cultural issues. ‘Vote for us and we’ll protect the American flag!’ say the Republicans. ‘We’ll make English the official language of the United States! And most importantly, we’ll prevent gay people from threatening your marriage when they … marry! Along the way we’ll cut taxes on the rich, cut benefits for the poor, and allow industries to dump their waste into your drinking water, but never mind that. Only we can protect you from gay, Spanish-speaking flag-burners!'”

Here’s a more painful but ultimately constructive diagnosis, from the point of view of moral psychology: politics at the national level is more like religion than it is like shopping. It’s more about a moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies.

So he suggests that we place an emphasis on our moral compass when we vote, perhaps against our own economic interest. The Democrats fail to capitalize on this.

The Democrats, in contrast, have tried to win voters’ hearts by promising to protect or expand programs for elderly people, young people, students, poor people and the middle class.

Across many kinds of surveys, in the UK as well as in the USA, we find that people who self-identify as being on the left score higher on questions about care/harm. For example, how much would someone have to pay you to kick a dog in the head? Nobody wants to do this, but liberals say they would require more money than conservatives to cause harm to an innocent creature.

So when we say that people are not voting with their self interests in mind, maybe in fact they are – just not the ones we usually think about.

In America, it is these three moral foundations that underlie most of the “cultural” issues that, according to duping theorists, are used to distract voters from their self-interest. But are voters really voting against their self-interest when they vote for candidates who share their values? Loyalty, respect for authority and some degree of sanctification create a more binding social order that places some limits on individualism and egoism. As marriage rates plummet, and globalization and rising diversity erodes the sense of common heritage within each nation, a lot of voters in many western nations find themselves hungering for conservative moral cuisine.

To summarize his claims, leaders on the left try to appeal to people’s “caring” side, helping the weak and vulnerable – promoting justice and equality. This fits well for some, but not so well for others. On the other hand, the Republicans do a great job sticking to and promoting cultural values that appeal to voters.

But is that it, home run? I’m not so sure.

I think that the majority of voters vote based on their “moral compass,” but all are also voting based on asymmetric information. Meaning they don’t know what others know, the politicians, and therefore vote on what they see.

We see Romney being a family man who is devoted to his church (to his credit Obama often advertises pictures of him with his family to give people the same interpretation.) We see Obama as a man who understands and cares about the middle and lower classes. People probably see him as thoughtful and fair with a good temperament.  These are what I think people vote on.

We get most of our external information from news channels or word of mouth, each of which we cannot always trust. Political ads and news channels are always biased, and even those who follow politics can’t take them for their word (introduce fact-checkers). But we, the somewhat “informed,” are not the typical voter.

According to rational ignorance theory, for the typical citizen the marginal cost of obtaining information is greater than the marginal benefit of knowing it. This means that people are completely rational in not knowing what the bananas is going on – and consciously choosing not to. This describes the typical voter very well, they don’t know anything. What they do see are the unavoidable first impressions.

Many of these people may not actually vote, but a considerable portion do. Being that they don’t know anything other than what they gather from impression means they are more likely to vote based on their “moral compass” and less on policies, economics, or a candidates ideas.

So do people vote against their own self-interests? The debate is up in the air, Haidt says no – I say probably.

What do you think?


3 thoughts on “Why Do People Vote Against Their Self-Interests?

  1. Reply Robin Oct 2,2012 %I:%M %p

    Yes. Yes. Yes, though not me. I always try and exercise my civic rights and vote based on facts as I know them, along with taking into consideration my ‘moral compass’ as the blog states and do my darnedest not to vote against my own best interest, which I’ll be doing again this November and looking forward to it!

  2. Pingback: Why Do People Vote Against Their Self-Interests? | Economic Features | Scoop.it

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