Friday, February 24, 2006

Should I vote for my favorite Dancing With the Stars team?

My sister demands (and receives) a post about voting. She continues to complain that, even though I might have opinions about who should win shows like American Idol or Dancing With the Stars, I refuse to vote. She wants your opinions.

Many economists share the view that voting is irrational. The probability of my vote deciding an election is essentially zero, so the expected benefit to me of voting is zero. Voting is costly, so MB less then MC implies don't vote.

We observe people voting, though, so we need to explain this. Some argue that voting is consumption. I.e., even though it doesn't matter, I enjoy the fact that I get to express my opinion. Others argue that society imposes costs on those who don't vote. This is why we give out stickers saying "I voted" and why a large fraction of people lie about the fact that they voted (it is an empirical regularity that surveys asking people if they voted show a much higher percentage of people voting then actually voted -- guilt is about the only explanation for why someone would lie to an anonymous surveyor).

This is essentially what is happening to me right now. I know my sister is going to ask if I voted, and I know that she is going to "punish" me for my lack of interest. Why not avoid the nagging and take the five seconds to vote? My best guess is that either after 25 years, I am totally immune to my sister's whining or (and this is more likely) I actually enjoy annoying her. Further, no one else in my reference group is going to punish me for not voting (in fact, they are likely to punish me for voting and for watching these shows in the first place), my vote is not going to influence the outcome, and my life is not affected either way (I view the emotional response to my favorites winning or losing as perfect substitutes -- I either get validation or I get to complain, looks like a win-win to me), so it is pretty easy for me to not vote.

That said, I disagree with my economist colleagues who argue that people shouldn't waste their time voting. To me, it only makes sense if I don't care about the outcome or I know the distribution of those voting matches the population distribution.

The only way voting is irrational is if I know that a lot of other people are going to vote. Obviously, if everyone thinks everyone else is not going to vote, then the best strategy is to vote. The argument outlined above relies on me knowing that a large number of other people are going to vote, so I can get a free ride off them.

But what if the distribution of preferences of the group of free-riders is different from the group of for sure voters? In this case the failure of the free-riders to show up, actually changes the outcome. Thus when economists try and convince people to not vote, they may be shooting themselves in the foot.

Consider the following super-simplified example. Imagine a population that consists of roughly equal proportions of two types of people -- rational maximizers and others. A vote is to take place. If forced to vote, the rational maximizers are much more likely to choose A, and the others are more likely to choose B. However, one day, Ed, one of the rational maximizers starts thinking and realizes that his vote is very unlikely to matter. Ed explains his logic to several of his collegues. They marval at his rationality and spread the word. On the day of the election, all of the rational maximizers stay home, most of the others vote. B is chosen by an overwhelming majority. Was it still rational not to vote? Maybe individually, but collectively it was likely not a good choice. So unless you are confident that the set of people who are likely to opt out of voting are taken equally from both sides, you probably should vote and convince others who share your views to vote.

You don't really have to think a lot of people are going to vote in order for your vote not to count individually. For example, even if only 1,000 people are voting in an election, the chance that my vote matters is 1/10 of a percent.

The argument that one should convince others to vote is separate: while it's entirely possible that my vote won't matter, the votes of me and my 500 friends have a higher likelihood of affecting the outcome. But coordinating that effort is much more costly.

Since you've already revealed that you watch Dancing with the Stars, I think it's low-cost for you to vote: your friends will abuse you regardless.
Look, I will not take the full blame for watching Dancing with the Stars. My former roommate, the ballroom dancer, is the one who put it on tivo and wanted to watch it. It turns out that the show is entertaining enough for me to watch occasionally (skipping all the blah, blah and commercials).

Further, I forgot to mention that, given the unlimited voting on Idol and 5 votes per phone line on Dancing, it is even crazier for me to think that my vote is worth casting. You know there are people who actually make the effort to vote the maximum possible number of times. That is a much more interesting question, how much effort (or money) are people willing to spend voting on these shows and why?
This, I think, is where behavioral economics really comes to bear. There's nothing in standard theories of rationality that can justify that. And yet people get invested in these characters / contestants and invest real time. You could describe it as such: their emotional disutility at seeing someone else win is high, so they spend what it takes to get their team to the top!
You know, this is such a good quesiton, because I never voted for Dancing with the Stars, and I'm a competitive ballroom dancer, and Charlotte Jorgensen (John O'Hurley's partner, who faced Kelly Monaco and Alex) is my coach! Why is it that even with my personal connection with one of the competitors, I still did not vote? While everyone else will spend half-an-hour voting?

Are there people who only vote once? Or are the people who vote mostly the people who will call back again and again to try to increase the effect of their vote?
To further respond to Dave's initial post, I understand that my argument does not rebut the argument that it is individually irrational to vote. My point was slightly different. I was trying to argue that one should not, as some economists do, try and convince others to not vote because the set of people who are likely to respond are not uniformly taken from across the distribution. As such, the median voter (and potentially the outcome) changes.
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