Vote counting

In "Why do we vote?" in the June Monitor, Melissa Acevedo, PhD, is quoted as saying that "people just think their vote makes a difference, and have this mistaken belief even though statistically it's not the case." I hope this is an instance of a quotation taken out of context.

Strictly speaking, the only election in which an individual's vote makes a difference is one that is decided by a single ballot. Given that virtually no elections are won or lost by a single vote, should readers draw the conclusion that they are being foolish whenever they go to the polls, since they are being at least partially motivated by "mistaken beliefs"? I think not.

Ultimately, an election has to take place before we can know that a single vote, or any other number of votes, has determined the outcome. I guess we could simply replace elections with polls conducted by social scientists. But until that day arrives, I'll continue to appreciate those "mistaken" citizens who take the time and trouble to cast their ballots.

Michael Morris, PhD
New Haven, Conn.

Response from Dr. Acevedo

The fact that an individual vote does not make a difference in an election is an argument against institutions such as the Federal Election Commission, which states that a single vote can decide the outcome of an election. Since 1900, no U.S. election has been decided by a single vote. Several commentators have noted that in large elections, the mathematical irrelevance of a single vote is a "big brute fact" and "a moral certainty" (Meehl, 1977, Overbye, 1995). Current estimates suggest that there is a one in 10 million chance that a single vote will decide an election (Gelman, King, Boscardin, 1999). Nonetheless, many citizens have the mistaken belief that their votes will be the deciding votes.

This introduces the whole idea of a political social dilemma, where individuals must choose between their own individual interests and the interest of the collective. If citizens were to follow strict statistical reasoning in deciding whether to vote, many would probably decide that it is not worth the time and effort to go out to the polls. However, if all citizens followed this line of reasoning, no one would vote and our democracy would fail. I disagree with the statement that individuals with the overly optimistic belief that their vote will have a significant impact on electoral outcome are foolish, because it is their voting behavior that allows our democracy to survive.

Melissa Acevedo, PhD
Bergenfield, N.J.

Are we keeping silent?

In light of the Monitor's celebration of how the APA helped overturn California's same-sex marriage ban, allow me to offer one unknown historical point and a related observation. I co-authored one of three comments published in the American Psychologist (Vol. 62, No. 7) to Gregory Herek's earlier article summarizing the APA's amicus curiae briefs used to challenge state bans on same-sex marriage. I learned from the managing editor that out of a membership of 92,000, only three comments to the article had been submitted, mine being the only one that questioned the wisdom of redefining this institution.

These statistics lead me to two mutually exclusive explanations:

  • The APA membership supports same-sex marriage to a staggering degree of uniformity virtually unheard of for any other issue that divides the American populace, or

  • Many APA members are reluctant to speak publicly about their concerns regarding same-sex marriage out of (reasonable) fear they would be jeopardizing their professional careers and risking collegial reproach.

Based on my experiences, I suspect this data is best accounted for by the second explanation. While I understand the immense social pressures that keep these voices silent, it is nonetheless disheartening that so many psychologists seem not to have the courage of their convictions. Perhaps the general membership of APA has a lot in common with the proverbial councilors, ministers and men of great importance who advised their emperor about his new clothes.

Christopher H. Rosik, PhD
Fresno, Calif.

Response from Dr. Herek

It is curious that Dr. Rosik attributes the paucity of critiques of my 2006 American Psychologist article to psychologists' unwillingness to publicly state their beliefs. As he surely knows from his own involvement with the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, many psychologists who personally oppose legal equality for sexual minorities are hardly reticent about their views.

Here's an alternative hypothesis: Whatever their own personal beliefs, most APA members who read my article or the APA's amicus briefs related to marriage equality recognized that they accurately portrayed relevant scientific knowledge.

I encourage Monitor readers to review the exchange about my article (American Psychologist, 2007, 62, 711-715). I believe they'll agree with my conclusion that the commentary by Dr. Rosik and his co-author relied on vague and undefined constructs, was based on arguable value assumptions, mischaracterized the research literature, and ignored relevant empirical data.

Contrary to Dr. Rosik's assertion that psychologists lack courage of their convictions, I believe our profession's willingness to communicate scientific knowledge to judges and lawmakers-even when it concerns controversial policy issues-demonstrates not only a commitment to social justice, but also considerable courage.

Gregory M. Herek, PhD
Davis, Calif.

Helping 'lost boys'

Judith Kleinfeld's unfortunate comment on Ritalin in the June "Lost boys" article requires a response. Therein she darkly alluded to "unknowns of how it affects their brains" with the obvious implication that "unknown" was code for malignant. She seems to be unaware of the fact that in an era of evidenced-based treatment, Ritalin and other stimulants have a track record of positive brain effects unmatched by any other psychotropic medication given to children. Thus, at least 200 double-blind, placebo-controlled studies have demonstrated the striking short-term efficacy (one to two months) on the core symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder with corresponding positive effects on many aspects of academic performance. These same positive effects have also been demonstrated in studies that have lasted for up to two years. Furthermore, there is scientific unanimity that this efficacy is due in part to known effects on brain functioning, i.e., amelioration of a dysfunctional dopaminergic system.

In sum, there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that Ritalin is making a significant contribution to helping "lost boys" find their way in the school system because of beneficent effects on their brains.

Lastly, granted that long-term effects (several decades of use) on the brains of children of both sexes are as unknown as they are for any psychotropic medication given to children, it is simply gratuitous to assume that the effects might be malignant rather than benignant.

Robert Eme, PhD
Evanston, Ill

Please send letters to e-mail or Sara Martin, Monitor Editor, at the APA address. Letters should be no more than 250 words and may be edited for clarity or space.