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Social Science Says: Go Vote!

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Tania Lombrozo provides three additional reasons to vote, courtesy of the social sciences.
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Millions of Americans will cast a vote for the next president of the United States on Nov. 8 — Election Day — and for countless other offices and propositions.

In case you need the extra encouragement, here are three (more) reasons to vote, courtesy of the social sciences:

1. Voting is rational. (Maybe.) In fact, there are heated debates over whether it's rational to vote. On the one hand, voting is effortful: There is time and energy involved. And on the other hand, the odds that your individual vote will make a difference to the outcome of an election are miniscule. If you make decisions with the aim of maximizing your expected utility, it might be wise to avoid the minor costs, and to instead stay home on Election Day to enjoy your morning coffee (or something a little stronger).

But at least a handful or arguments have been marshaled for the rationality of voting, and here I offer brief versions of two of them:

  • The first argument appeals to the idea that you're aiming for the best outcome for all involved. Your vote may have a very, very small chance of being a deciding vote — but the outcome of the election could have non-trivial consequences for a very, very large number of people (think healthcare, social policy, climate change, foreign policy ... ). To calculate the expected value of your vote, you need to take into account the small probability of making a difference, but also the very large consequences that deciding the election could entail. When you multiply those numbers to calculate the expected value of voting, you may well end up with something more valuable than your morning coffee.
  • The second argument involves a shift in the way we assign value to voting. Maybe the value of voting doesn't come from the miniscule probability of casting a deciding vote. Instead, voting could be about the experience of voting — the sticker, the comradery, the civic engagement, the personal involvement as the vote counts come in. On this view, the "costs" to you that come from the walk to your polling place and the chats with neighbors as you stand in line aren't costs at all — they're part of the point. Going out to vote is no less rational than drinking your morning coffee.

2. You are morally responsible for the outcome of the election. I just said that the probability of casting a deciding vote is miniscule. How, then, could you be responsible for the outcome of the election?

Research suggests that when it comes to assigning moral responsibility for particular outcomes, we do something more sophisticated than simply compute whether your single vote "made a difference." Instead of imagining a world in which everything is exactly the same except for your single vote to see whether your vote made a difference, we evaluate how different the world would have to have been for your vote to have made a difference. If all other voters in your demographic also stayed home, for example, would that have made a difference?

Consider a more familiar example. Eight students compete in a relay race: four on Team Speedy and four on Team Slow. On the day of the big race, each member of Team Slow performs unusually poorly. As a result, Team Speedy takes home the winning trophy.

Who is responsible for Team Slow's loss? Let's suppose that no single team member's bad performance "makes a difference" to the outcome. Had slow member #1 been faster, Team Speedy would still have won. Had slow member #2 been faster, Team Speedy would still have won. And so on for Team Slow members #3 and #4. But had all four been faster, then Team Slow would have won.

In a case like this, we don't let each individual Team Slow member off the hook just because that individual's actions didn't "make a difference." We might instead hold them responsible as a group. Or, for each individual, we might consider how different the world would have to have been for that person's slow performance to have made a difference. In a world in which the other team members hadn't been unusually slow, then that individual's slow run may well have made a difference, and that world isn't too far-fetched to consider.

Similarly, we hold voters and non-voters responsible for the outcome of the election, even though no single vote (or failure to vote) is likely to make a difference. And that means all eligible voters are on the hook. If you count yourself among them, you are partially responsible for the outcome of the election.

3. You will regret not voting. Psychological research suggests that in the short term, people often regret actions (things they did) more than inactions (things they did not do). But longer term this pattern reverses: The things we regret, in the long run, are the things we failed to do. People also tend to regret missed experiences more than missed opportunities to acquire material goods. So failing to vote — an inaction and missed experience — is especially likely to generate regret. In fact, some economists and political scientists have argued that voting can be rational under the assumption that voters aim to minimize their maximum regret, and that voter turnout is affected by the level of regret that potential voters anticipate, either from failing to vote or from failing to vote for the right person. Either way, you should do your homework and vote. You might regret it if you don't.


Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo