THOUGHTFUL VOTES

Politics have been offloaded to: Diggeracity. The following remains because it’s about social psychology.

Elections interest me mostly because they’re where the rubbery cognitive complexities hit the pavement. Voter behavior is intriguing. There are no competing social actions at the scale of elections. One way or the other everybody’s individual world view, meaning scheme, folk psychology, folk sociology, personal philosophy, idiosyncratic heuristics, and their version of rationality and/or emotionality are, for a moment, extruded from the sensibility so as to converge on a mark or a touch of the screen.

What are the various reasons voters vote the way they do?

It is a fascinating subject because there are so many different kinds of answers reported to researchers. Anybody who thinks there is a general class of answers into which fall the reports of a rational calculation of policy factors and conclusions, and that this class predominates in voter decision making, would be wrong. It’s much much more complicated and, at times, counter-intuitive than the reduction to a rational calculation of interest could encompass.

One of the consequences of this is that the variety of decision making regimes cannot generally be framed by the most common folk sociological scheme, ideology. This is to say the decision making rarely conforms to the instrumental propositions given by an ideological scheme. Most people are more pragmatic than ideological schemes warrant. (For example, most people haven’t thought about whether they are optimistic or pessimistic abut human nature. Or:they haven’t thought about whether knowing their right place in a natural order is important.) So, their decision making isn’t usually a case of referring to what an idealized conservative or liberal does or would do.

This is commonsense. Vote deciding is context-sensitive and deciders will be ‘plastic,’ flexible, oft able to diverge away from inflexible assumptions and converge upon the assumptions which fund their self-interest. This self-interest might only implicate the sense, for example, that the favored candidate is the ‘one I’d like to share a beer with.’ This same voter might report to a researcher, “I’m a Republican.” He or she might elaborate a rationale for voting for the Republican, this rationale might fit well with an ideological scheme, but, if the actual reason was a hunch about sharing a beer, it’s easy to see both the null role of ideology, and, the research challenge the eliciting of after-the-fact reasons supposes.

Whereas some people employ a lot of (their) cognitive complexity to decide, others do not. (Each of us carries different toolboxes, so-to-speak.) Yet, at the same time, ideological schemes exist in a “pre-psychological” domain in modern cognitive terms, so, their categorical and classification and constructive schemes do not correlate with actual cognitive constructive schemes, schemes which are instrumental and behavioral; behavioral in the general sense: having to do with an intentional act. Ideological schemes over-generalize and their implicit generalizations do not match with behavioral schemes. Well, they weren’t intended to, but, constantly, we are subject to the false assumption that holds they are one in the same, that ideology is, constructively, found at the core of decision making.

Voters are largely pragmatists and most aren’t concerned with what is either ideologically ‘true’ or subjectively ‘true’ for someone else.


They vote their interests and their vote expresses what is, for them, presumably true. Voters may calculate rationally interests and build calculations from the kinds of suppositions which themselves constitute a kind of foundational ideology, yet, because most do not do this, it can’t be presumed each and every voter is an idealogue or is a foundationalist. Nor is it always true that a voter’s calculation is actually a calculation, calibration, or rational estimation based in coherent propositions. Often a vote is the result of a hunch, intuition, and often the voter’s articulation after-the-fact of their reasoning is, in a normative sense, unreasonable.

Of course our political language is so general that it doesn’t capture this cognitive variety. Ever since Plato’s Republic, political philosophy has expressed a generalizing foundationalistic tendency and the language of ideology expresses categories in those pre-psychological terms. The linguistic turn found in some cognitive psychology, in psychological semiotics, found elsewhere in social psychology, doesn’t rebuff the importance of ideological categories, but it does frame decision-making to be a complex cognitive phenomenom, for which coherence to ideological propositions, (or constructs,) may be or may not be crucial factors.

In a recent Nov.6 article by Bryan Caplan, from CATO Unbound, The Myth of the Rational Voter, the entanglement of cognitive perspective, ideology, and a potted subjective agenda posed as optimal and objective, (a category error* the author is unaware of,) showcase this complexity.

* Thought problem. Two well informed and expert economicists evaluate rates of taxation as to their benefit for productivity. Other factors are taken into consideration and each comes to the opposite conclusion of the other. Both conclusions are expert and rational.

A total amateur can reach the same conclusions inexpertly and irrationally.

Does this tell us anything about how to measure rationality?

Another thought problem. Consider an expert in economics who holds that high marginal tax rates have been demonstrated at times to be a non-destructive factor in a healthy economy. Incontrovertible evidence is presented to back this claim up. What, then, is the status in terms of rationality of any claim to the contrary?

Absolute right or wrong is a tough sell here.

(Caplan) I can understand when people make this argument about self-regarding choice. Even if an individual does not know his own best interest, I normally think that he should be free to make his own mistakes. The problem with irrational voting, unfortunately, is that people who do it are not “just hurting themselves.” If the average voter is irrational, we all have to live with the consequences.

The problem with rule by experts is that, for example, the ideological construct “free market,” when set as proposition, and operationalized, might be oversold by those who have come up with one right answer (on some question) while the better, more correct (and opposite) answer, held by a minority, doesn’t even make it to the shelf.

The consensus of experts is often found wrong. The history of science is full of examples. Caplan wants to work toward a valuation of a singular result of rationality that lies in a different domain, that of free market ideology.

For example, I would suggest the disparity in wealth between the first and third world could come back to bite us in the ass someday. We can identify all sorts of rational choicemaking that a majority of experts would endorse as leading the haves to greater wealth (‘haviness?’) and we could recognize that it is irrational to expect everybody to make an equal claim on the resources which fund this wealth-building.

But, an expert endorsement from the other side might hold that the disparity–over time–will cause effects which might mortally threaten first world economies. I would suggest a strong case for the rationality of this view could be made were its propositions to be fully evaluated.

There are lots of category errors possible when ideology makes love with social science!

This entry was posted in current events, psychology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *