New Study Stops Short of Calling Voters Stupid; Analyzes Decision-Making at the Polls

With the holidays over, November’s election is growing increasing distant in the rearview mirror but that hasn’t stopped analysis of voter trends. A new study from the American Political Science Review entitled “Sources of Bias in Retrospective Decision Making: Experimental Evidence on Voters’ Limitation in Controlling Incumbents” sort of sounds like a fancy way of calling voters stupid. It may not explicitly do so, but it certainly calls into question the competence of voters when it comes to assessing the performance of incumbent politicians. A description of the study says it “has thrown doubt on the ability of the average voter to make an accurate judgment of the performance of their politicians, showing that voter biases appear to be deep-seated and broad.”

Researchers Gregory A. Huber of Yale University, Seth J. Hill at the University of California, San Diego, and Gabriel S. Lenz at the University of California, Berkeley are responsible for the study, which was published by Cambridge University Press. Here were the three major findings of the study:

  1. Cumulative incumbent performance is ignored by voters because they tend to focus on most recent performance, so the most recent actions have a disproportionate effect for voters that don’t have the attention spans to consider the whole picture
  2. Rhetoric and marketing play a big part in distracting voters and affecting their ability to judge an incumbent’s actual performance. The study showed that interpreting facts can be shaped by the right words
  3. Punishment: the study showed that voters tend to “punish incumbents for uncontrollable events even under conditions where attribution of responsibility is clear.” Take hurricanes or droughts.

Overall, the authors of the study call voter behavior “irrational,” which is perhaps a nice way of refraining from calling them “stupid.” One author stated, “They do a remarkably good job given all the other things they have to think about and all the efforts that are made to persuade them.” Such a statement is kind of like patting voters on the head for at least trying to make the best of their limited mental capacity. But in a country that is seeing the consequences of rampant political dysfunction in Washington, the study is perhaps a reminder that voters are not blameless and bad choices don’t exist in a vacuum. 

The study concludes: “The findings suggest that incumbents who associate themselves with good news for which they bear no responsibility, implement policies that generate good news close to elections at the expense of overall voter welfare, and use rhetoric that encourages people to focus on how they feel in the here and now, ignoring the long-term, could benefit at the ballot box.”

Read more about the study here and here:

Sources of Bias in Retrospective Decision Making: Experimental Evidence on Voters’ Limitations in Controlling Incumbents
American Political Science Review, Volume 106, Issue04, November 2012 pp 720-741

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