Cover Story

Voting is personally costly. It takes time to register and to learn about the candidates' views. On election day, you may need to leave work, stand in long lines or slog through harsh weather, knowing all the while that the chances your individual vote will make a difference among the thousands, or millions cast, are pretty much zero.

"The probability that I'll be the deciding vote in the 2008 presidential election is much smaller then the chance that I'll get hit by a car on the way to the polls," says Florida Atlantic University's Kevin Lanning, PhD, paraphrasing an observation made by the late University of Minnesota psychologist Paul E. Meehl.

"If we look at it in those terms alone, it appears to be irrational," Lanning says.

So why do we bother?

Psychologists and political scientists have many theories. Some see voting as a form of altruism, or as a habitual behavior cued by yard signs and political ads. Others say voting may be a form of egocentrism, noting that some Americans appear to believe that because they are voting, people similar to them who favor the same candidate or party will probably vote, too, a psychological mechanism called the "voter's illusion."

Self-expression is likely to play a role as well, posits Lanning, who watches voting behavior as a poll worker in Palm Beach County, Fla. In a 2002 election, for example, he saw an ex-felon who repeatedly tried to vote. The man stood in line for an hour with his young children in tow and was turned away twice before voting officials verified that his voting rights had been restored.

"It mattered enough for him to go back and so the question is why?" Lanning says.

Looking back on the man's persistence, Lanning sees his determination to vote as an affirmative act that underscores his membership in the larger group, he says.

"We can think of voting as an expression of the self-concept," he says. "If I'm an American, and Americans vote, then the act of voting is an expression of who I am."

The social factors

Some research suggests that people are motivated to vote because they want to "fit in." Bruce Meglino, PhD, of the University of South Carolina's Moore School of Business, for example, sees voting as an example of a behavior included in social admonitions--things people are supposed to do--such as working hard when no one's watching or helping a stranger they'll never see again. Given that voting is an activity with more costs than benefits for the individual, Meglino thinks that highly rationally self-interested people probably don't bother to vote.

Research by Richard Jankowski, PhD, chair of the political science department at State University of New York, Fredonia, supports the role of altruism in voting. Looking back at questions posed in the American National Election Study's 1995 pilot study, Jankowski found that respondents who agreed with altruistic statements were more likely to have voted in 1994 elections.

"I found very strong evidence that people who vote tend to be highly altruistic, and people who don't vote tend to be much more self-interested," says Jankowski, who published his findings in Rationality and Society (Vol. 19, No. 1).

Altruism's role in voting is being further examined by James Fowler, PhD, a University of California, San Diego, political scientist who studies voting through the lens of the "dictator game." In the game, Player 1 is given a sum of money, and told that he or she can divide up the money with Player 2, or keep all of it for themselves. They're also told that Player 2 won't learn their identities. In theory, if people are solely motivated by self-interest, they will keep all the money. But only about a quarter of the players do that, the researchers found. About half share some of the money and nearly a quarter split it evenly with the unknown player, Fowler says.

Because altruists in the dictator game may be keen to engage in other prosocial behaviors, Fowler theorized that they would be more likely to vote than the people who keep all the money for themselves. A study in The Journal of Politics (Vol. 68, No. 3) supports that theory. A dictator-game player who split the money was twice as likely to vote when compared to a Scrooge.

Some people, of course, vote because they believe their vote will make a difference, according to a study published by Melissa Acevedo, PhD, of Westchester Community College, and Joachim Krueger, PhD, of Brown University, in Political Psychology (Vol. 25, No.1).

"Basically, people just think their vote makes a difference, and have this mistaken belief even though statistically it's not the case," Acevedo says.

In their study, they proposed two possible projections that people make before an election that make it more likely that they'll vote: They vote, and their candidate wins, or They abstain, and their candidate loses.

Building on an idea first proposed by the late Amos Tversky, PhD, and George Quattrone, PhD, in 1984, Acevedo and Krueger think that voters might be acting on two egocentric mechanisms: One, the "voter's illusion," projects their own behavior to people similar to themselves likely to support the same candidate; the other allows them a route to believe that their individual votes can affect the outcome by forecasting what might happen if they don't vote.

To test their ideas, Krueger and Acevedo asked participants to imagine they were supporters of the "Peace Party" in a fictional country where they faced a close election with the "War Party." They were asked to assume that they intended to vote, but that half the time circumstances prevented them from getting to the polls, and that they learned the results on the late-night news. They were then given four different scenarios: that their party had won and they voted (or abstained) and their party had lost and they had voted (or abstained).

For each scenario, participants rated how much regret they'd feel to having voted or abstained. The results showed low regret and high satisfaction for when they voted and their party won. When they voted and lost, or abstained and won, participants showed a greater expectancy of regret, less satisfaction and reduced confidence in voting again.

Acevedo and Krueger note that these psychological mechanisms can explain why some people vote strategically for a less preferred party or candidate, and the way voter turnout increases when polls predict a close race.

Those behaviors support the contention that people believe their votes can make a difference on electoral outcomes, Krueger says.

Meanwhile, there may be a genetic component to all of this: Following social rules and acting for others' welfare despite personal costs may be passed down genetically, according to new research by Fowler and Laura Baker, PhD, a psychologist studying the genetic and environmental foundations of behavior at the University of Southern California. In previous research, Baker had found that adopted children develop political leanings that are similar both to their adoptive parents and siblings, supporting the idea that where a person falls on the liberal to conservative spectrum is at least partially "culturally transmitted." Baker's research has also showed a strong familial component to conservative attitudes, as well as a genetic component. However, the degree of political participation via the act of voting may be a different story. In a study of more than 1,000 pairs of adult twins, Baker and Fowler found a stronger relationship in voter turnout in identical twins than in fraternal twins, with virtually no effect of shared family environment.

Party affiliation and religious affiliation does appear to be strongly influenced by shared environment between twins, however.

"The party you affiliate with seems culturally determined, but the degree to which you participate seems more genetically influenced," Baker says.

The findings of Fowler, Baker and co-author Christopher Dawes, a political science doctoral student, were scheduled to be published in the May issue of American Political Science Review.

Habits and norms

But voting may be just plain habit for some people, according to Wendy Wood, PhD, a social psychologist at Duke University and co-director of the Social Science Research Institute. She worked with political scientists John Aldrich and Jacob Montgomery at Duke examining American National Election Study survey data in 10 mid-term and presidential elections between 1958 and 2002. Her research suggests there are two kinds of voters: Election-specific voters, who are motivated by a particular candidate or issue, and habitual voters, who consistently show up to vote in every election. Habitual voters are much more likely to have lived at the same address over several elections and possess a "stable context" for voting. Voting by habit may be activated by such election cues as neighbors talking about politics or candidate signs posted in front yards, Wood says. (That's not to say they haven't carefully considered the issues: "You could show up habitually, but vote in a thoughtful way," Wood says.)

Less-habitual voters may vote due to social pressure, a significant factor in many people's decision to vote, according to Yale political scientist Donald Green, whose research shows the influence of one's peers: He conducted an experiment involving 180,000 Michigan households for the 2006 primary elections. About half of the group was the control group, and did not receive any mailed communication. The other half was divided into four groups, each targeted with a different mailing. People in the first group got a letter reminding them of the importance of doing their civic duty and voting. The second group received the same message, but they were also told that voting records were public records, and that their turnout was being studied. The third group got a letter listing whether or not they had voted in the last two elections, and were told that after the election, another letter would be sent to them indicating whether they voted in the upcoming election. The fourth group received a letter listing whether their neighbors had voted in the previous two elections, and told them that after the election, another letter would be sent out to them and their neighbors with a check mark next to their names indicating whether or not they had voted.

Among that fourth group, turnout rose by 8.1 percent in the primary, an effect Green described as "explosively large" compared with what's historically achieved in "get out the vote" mailings. Turnout rose by almost 4.9 percent in the group shown their own voting records and by 2.5 percent among the group told that their voting records were being studied, according to results published in the American Political Science Review (Vol. 102, No. 1).

Turnout in the control group was 29.7 percent, while turnout in the first group reminded of their civic duty to vote was 1.8 percentage points higher.

"Feeling obliged to comply with a social norm is indeed a powerful force," he says.

Such studies are important, notes Lanning, because they can give clues as to how to boost voter turnout among traditionally marginalized groups. If instead, people become convinced that elections aren't fair and that their participation doesn't matter, rule by the many can give way to the tyranny of the few, Lanning says.

"America is a great country, and we're great because people from so many different backgrounds can and do participate," he notes. "That greatness is at risk when significant groups, in significant numbers, don't participate as they could."