14 November 2005
This week's meeting of PPBW features a paper by Harvard grad student Samuel Abrams titled "Interests, Parties, and Social Embeddedness: Why Rational People Vote." The paper offers a provocative argument: "When people vote and read about politics it is because this is sometimes a way get respect from other people in their social networks. Politicians understand this and try to influence what groups discuss and find important." Here's a longer summary of the findings from the paper's conclusion.
Because it is difficult to understand voting in standard rational choice models as investments in desirable outcomes, participation is often seen as quasi-irrational. The same is true of political knowledge acquisition. Voting becomes an act that is poorly linked to the real interests of groups, and that is easily manipulated by elites. By contrast, we have argued in this paper that voting and political knowledge are in fact safely anchored in group interests and can indeed be understood as an investment in desirable outcomes. As implied by network theory, the objective for individuals is not to influence the result of an election, but to maintain and improve their standing in the networks and communities to which they belong. Being knowledgeable about group interests, and being prepared to act in the interest of the group, are key ingredients in establishing such standing.
Posted by Barry Burden at November 14, 2005 10:10 AM
Barry and Samuel,
My colleagues and I have done some research on this which suggests that voting is completely rational, given that people vote not for their selfish interests but with the goal of benefiting the country at large. In short, the statement on page 6 of your paper that PB=0 is not right if, as in presidential elections, B is potentialy huge.
As we discuss in Section 5.2 of our paper, the rationality of the act of voting is consistent with sociological and psychological explanations of the sort discussed in your paper. I think there is room for understanding voting both as a rational act and as something with psychological and sociological benefits (just as economic transitions themselves are rational and also serve psychological and sociological goals).
Posted by: Andrew Gelman at November 14, 2005 4:08 PM