Is There an Irrational Voter?

With reference to our comment on the Politics of Identity, a number of readers have taken issue with our conceptualization of rationality and the claim that all voters are rational. In this post we respond to the issues raised by the readers.

The gist of the points raised is as follows:

  • You have failed to stress that the rationality of the Pakistani voter is different from that of the liberal citizen who was the subject of the Stanley Fish column on which you commented.
  • What about the frequent comments made that Bush was a great guy to have a beer with and that is why he was worth voting for? How do you view that?
  • Is voting always rational or is it sometimes visceral? Of course, one’s gut can be taken to be rational based on prior calculation.
  • The voter does not have the expertise to be rational; he cannot calculate, for example, what is best for the economy, etc.
  • It is important to take note of all the literature from behavioral economics. It does at least put into serious question many basic insights of microeconomics. It probably does the same to voting theory in political science. What is your view of this literature that essentially says that people are systematically irrational?

The first thing to reiterate is the point of departure in our previous post: “The starting point in this analysis has to be the conceptualization of the voter and the only one that can be supported (at least till it is disproved) is that the voter is rational and votes to advance his or her interests.” We take the rationality of the voter as a plausible starting hypothesis but are open to modifying our position if the hypothesis is disproved. So the question to address is whether the points raised by the readers are sufficient to disprove the hypothesis of the rational voter. 

The answer can be yes or no depending upon what one understands by the term ‘rationality.’ There is a generic sense and a specialized definition of the term. Both Professor Fish and ourselves used the term in its simple and generic sense in which rationality implies the use of the process of reasoning. Thus a voter is rational if he or she uses reason as a basis for his or her choice. It is important to note that it is an entirely different issue as to whether the process of reasoning itself is flawed or based on incomplete or incorrect information.

In this interpretation of the term, the Pakistani and the American voter cannot have different rationalities since both use their reason. But the reasoning is applied to a different set of issues. And the different nature of the issues can make a lot of difference to the nature of the resulting politics as we argued in our comment. The bottom line is that the rationality is constant; the issues vary. We will elaborate on this and present a surprising twist in a subsequent post.

We have already mentioned above that in this interpretation the quality of the reasoning is a separate dimension. It is quite obvious that the quality would vary considerably across individuals. The spectrum can stretch all the way from the very informed voter who has meticulously studied the position of all the candidates on all the issues to the uninformed voter who feels that if the candidate is a Republican it is enough assurance that the voter’s interests would be advanced. In between there can be the lazy voter who thinks that a fellow who is a good beer companion will also be a good political representative. And there can also be the rational non-voter who feels that the candidates are so much alike that it does not matter who one votes for or if one votes at all.

We now address the question pertaining to the existence of the visceral voter. Of course, such a voter can exist. Every time one hears the words “over my dead body” one can safely assume that one is in the presence of a visceral decision-maker. One can imagine a black voter in a constituency with a white candidate just after the bitter apartheid struggle in South Africa. The white candidate may be the best placed to advance the material interests of the black voter and yet the voter might say “over my dead body.” So one can think of situations in which the pain a voter inflicts on himself is outweighed by satisfaction obtained from the prevention of any gain to the ‘enemy.’ Is Hillary playing to the visceral voter by slyly hinting that Barack Obama has a Muslim middle name?

Such behavior can be categorized as irrational. But it is important to keep in mind that no theory applies to all individuals or any specific individual. If a theory adequately describes the behavior of a good percentage of voters it can serve a useful purpose. So the question is how many visceral voters are out there in the situation under consideration? If the number is very large, the rational voter theory needs to be replaced by something that better captures the reality of the situation. Our own sense is that the percentage of visceral voters is small in the contexts we are discussing and can be safely ignored for our purpose.

We now turn to the specialized definition of rationality as it is employed in neoclassical economics and choice theory. Without going into details, it is sufficient to state that in these theories rationality is not just a process of reasoning but a specific process of reasoning that satisfies a number of postulates. When those postulates are violated the behavior is said to deviate from rationality. As our readers have pointed out a lot of research in the behavioral sciences has shown that the postulates are systematically violated in some cases. One set of experiments shows that while all factual information remains the same, just the way a decision is framed (say in terms of lives saved versus lives lost) can cause individuals to switch their decisions.

This is indeed true but all this implies is that the specific definition of rationality is inadequate for some purposes. Neoclassical economic theory and choice theory are weak in incorporating the psychological dimensions of reasoning in their model. It is not that individuals are irrational; rather the model of decision-making is not rich enough to cover all types of situations. This is a specialized area but interested readers can type the names of the leading researchers (Kahneman and Tversky) in Google to find the links to the relevant literature.

So, the conclusion remains that it is adequate to believe that the large majority of voters are rational and that rationality (understood as the use of reason) is the same everywhere.

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  • johnnypeepers
    Posted at 00:27h, 10 March Reply

    The Democratic voter in the U.S. is rational. They recognize that wealth can be redistributed to make their lives easier. Casting a vote every 2 or 4 years requires much less time, labor, and education than getting a higher paying job. I call that a rational choice.

  • Ali Sohail
    Posted at 22:25h, 11 March Reply

    Ignoring the neo-classical interpretation of rationality and its application.
    I will develop my argument based on your argument in the middle half of the article regarding rationality.

    Given the broad definition driven by reason should in-effect categorize the visceral voter as a rational rather than an irritational participant.

    This is because, in the case hypothesis built for southafrica, the past and perception is the underlying reason for the black voter against the white candidate. Hence, rational!

    On a personal level, I would argue rationality is based on the knowledge an inidividual holds at any given point in time (mis-non-perfect knowledge inclusive) . Hence, voting or not voting consistent with your knowledge (given the past or present) at any given point would be considered as rational.

    Irrationality, on the other hand would be associated with an individual producing an outcome which is inconsistent with the knowledge existent and specific to the individual’s being (in his head and heart). Therefore a personal attribute, which would be very difficult for an external source to measure in true terms, let alone behavioral economics.

  • Ali Sohail
    Posted at 23:15h, 11 March Reply

    Further, evaluating rationality on the basis of knowledge and a defintive answer as a rational outcome, as outlined for academic reference and use is dubious.

    This is because the concept itself is non-stagnant, as it is based on the knowledge of the existing time. Therefore, what was considered rational under the newton age cannot be considered as rational under the einstein age.

    As the paradigm shifts from feudalism to capitalism and eventually socialism ( in the marx definition of pardigm shift) rationality as a produce has to keep changing under each paradigm.. hmmmmm!

    Therefore, academically speaking, the concept and use although narrowed for analytical purposes, highlights major shortcomings in the underlying of social sciences.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 00:24h, 12 March Reply

    Ali Sohail,

    There are a number of points to consider. First, rationality (defined as the use of reason) is a constant – knowledge or interests can change but that does not change rationality.

    Second, what would be an example of an outcome inconsistent with the existing knowledge of an individual? If you can come up with an example, even then such an outcome could be the result of a miscalculation or accident not necessarily of irrationality. The single is correctly judged but the batsmen slips in the middle and gets run out. Was he irrational to try and take the single?

    Third, if everything is rational then the concept loses all meaning and becomes empty. The South African example was a case where a person gains satisfaction by incurring a loss himself as long as the loss imposed on another is greater. This can be called a perverse rationality but many would call it irrationality.

  • Ali Sohail
    Posted at 20:45h, 14 March Reply

    In terms of rationality, thought and practice below is a link which will be of great interest:

    Why do smart people make irrational decisions every day? Why do we repeatedly make the same mistakes when we make our selections? How do our expectations influence our actual opinions and decisions? The answers, as revealed by behavioural economist Professor Dan Ariely of MIT, will surprise you.

  • Hafeez Jamali
    Posted at 03:11h, 17 March Reply

    I tend to agree with your move of using a notion of rationality beyond the one employed in neo-classical economics to explain rational voting behavior because the neo-classical definition is far too narrow/inadequate. However, my objection in the earlier response was not to this narrow definition of rationality exemplified by homo-economicus. Rather my objection is addressed to the notion of reason in general in the post-Enlightenment period which has long a lineage in Western philosophy starting from Kant through Hegel, etc. In the domain of politics, this notion of the sovereign citizen-subject making his political decisions autonomously within the frame of the constitutional nation state is a construct which is the specific product of the historical developments and discourses emerging in Europe roughly around the turn of 17th century. It does not take into account the fact that different people in other cultures, countries, regions outside of Europe and European diaspora countries such as Canada, US, Australia, etc. may not act as sovereign citizen-subjects posited in your analysis. For instance, many people in Pakistan believe in Pirs, the authority of their tribal chief, etc. – forms of authority which are vaguely captured in Max Weber’s notion of ‘charismatic authority’- and they vote based on a mixture of pragmatic and divine/charismatic considerations. I am merely speculating here, but it is easy to follow that this form of rationality is different from- although not in any way inferior to- the reasoned voter posited in your argument. Similarly, the notion of ethnic identity, at least in parts of Sindh and Balochistan, becomes a symbolic marker of wrongs suffered in the past under the yoke of rule by dominant ethnic groups. So people may decide to vote – or decide not to cast their vote in protest- against such rule by affirming their ethnic identity over immediate or narrow self-interest. The voting behavior then becomes an index of condensed historical experience and different imagined futures for these people which would not be captured in the kind of rational voter analysis posited in your post or in SF’s original article. The main thrust of my response is not to deny the importance of the ‘rational voter hypothesis’ but to think of ways in which we may move beyond its confines to envision how different people imagine their being in the world as well as their past and futures while voting or deciding not to cast their vote.

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