Leiden Psychology Blog

It’s rational not to vote

It’s rational not to vote By Elger van der Wel via Flickr

The turnout for the recent Dutch municipal council elections was very low. From a rational perspective this is not surprising. The chance of casting the pivotal vote is minuscule, so why vote?

Motivation to vote

On March 19 the elections for the Municipal Council were held in the Netherlands. These elections take place every four years. Besides the municipal councils, the citizens of the Netherlands also have a vote for the House of Representatives, the European Parliament, the Provincial Council, and the Dutch Water Authorities. The turnout for the elections for the House of Representatives is the highest: around 75%. The turnout for the municipal council elections, however, is normally much lower than in national elections: usually about 50%.

Some might find it surprising that the turnout for elections in the Netherlands is not higher. People care about the effects of current government policies. By voting, you can influence how and by whom the country is ruled. This should be a strong motivation to vote. In addition, many have fought to win this right for us. Women, such as Wilhelmina Drucker, Annette Versluys-Poelman and Aletta Jacobssacrificed a great deal so that women would be able to vote. For many women this is also an important reason to vote.

The impact of a single vote

A single vote, however, cannot determine which politician and/or which political party will rule the country. You need more votes. This can cause a reduction in people’s willingness to make the effort to go to the polling station. In the 1970s the scientist Max Ringelmann speculated that people put in less effort when they are in groups. This reduction of effort is called “social loafing”. In a group, people feel more able to free ride and let others do the work, since their input is less identifiable. It therefore makes sense for voters to decide not to bother to go to the polling station themselves, since they think others will do it for them.

Voting can thus be seen as a social dilemma. A social dilemma is an interpersonal situation where individuals must choose between maximizing their personal outcomes and maximizing their group’s outcomes. With regard to voting: on the one hand people may think it is too much effort to vote; they will not go to the polling station, thereby maximizing their personal outcomes. On the other hand, they realize that if nobody votes, the political party of their choice will not  win; this may lead them to cast their vote, thereby maximizing their group’s outcomes. Although apparently most citizens in the Netherlands decide to maximize the group’s outcomes, a large number of people still choose to maximize their own outcomes and stay home (especially during the municipal council elections).

Why vote at all?

This tendency of citizens not to vote because it takes too much personal effort has sometimes been referred to as the Paradox of Voting, or the Downs paradox. According to this paradox a rational, self-interested voter will not vote, because the costs of voting exceed the expected benefits. Given that the chance of casting the pivotal vote is minuscule, the perceived benefits of voting are lower than the cost.

From a rational perspective, it is thus perhaps more surprising that people vote at all. If each person only votes with a view to influencing the election outcome, then even the slightest cost—like mildly bad weather or a long route to the polling station—should dissuade anyone from voting. So why do half the citizens nevertheless show up at the polling stations?

Pride in 'taking control'

This is because people are not rational beings. Social psychologists, but also psychologists in general, have shown repeatedly that people do not always act rationally. With regard to voting, people may have different reasons to vote, for disregarding the cost-benefit analysis. People may feel pride in having voted. They may feel they have more control over the outcomes of the election than they actually do. Even the exercise of walking to the polling station, if the voter so chooses, could be seen as beneficial (assuming no other form of exercise is available).

People do not always act rationally. In contrast to rational choice theorists, psychologists are thus still surprised by the low turnout during the elections. Fortunately politicians can use insights from psychology to persuade citizens to vote more. The politicians’ goal must be to dissuade the electorate from making cost-benefit analyses and to emphasize that every vote counts. And next time you think it is too much effort to vote, remember: Although the costs are high and the personal benefits are low, if nobody voted our country would not have a government.

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