Why Do People Vote? (Hint: 'Cause We're Not 'Rational Maximizers')

Why do we inherently selfish people bother to vote? Maybe, just maybe, because we're not inherently selfish.

Low voting turnout rates is a problem that threatens the legitimacy of American democracy. Yet more than a few political scientists puzzle over the fact that anyone bothers to vote at all.

Rational choice theory (RCT) looms large in microeconomics but also has hotshot adherents in political science. Born at the Rand Corporation in the 1950s, RCT holds that self-interest guides us. It posits a kind of a hyper-individualism that calls to mind that other Rand.

Voting presents a paradox to RCTers because the chance that a single vote will determine the outcome is effectively zilch. So, given that voting entails "costs" in the form of time and effort, "Why do rational actors contribute to the public good of electoral outcomes, especially since the likelihood that their vote will be decisive is nearly zero?"

Oh oh I know! Because people—many of us—want to contribute to the collective good, because we don't want to "free-ride" on the efforts of others, because at least when it comes to voting, we're not selfish rational maximizers; we're idealistic rational citizens.

RTCers scoff at such notions:

One reason people often offer for voting is "But what if everybody thought that way?"...[I]n this manifestation of magical thinking, people believe that if they bother to vote, everybody else in the country will also vote, and the American democracy will thrive, but if they don't bother to vote, then everybody else in the country will think like them, nobody will vote, and the American democracy will collapse.


But of course no one believes that voting will lead others to do the same; we vote, just as we recycle or volunteer, because we want to do our part. That's the essence of social responsibility, and the RTCers just can't wrap their heads around it.

To come to the conclusion that people vote because they feel they should, we don't have to rely on common sense. Research shows that applying social pressure, tapping into people's sense of obligation, is one of the most effective ways of getting them to vote.

But there's no need to use shame. We can increase turnout by making voting even more of social norm, entrenching it in the culture. At the same time, we could put our thumb on the scales so that for more people, the incentives to vote outweigh the disincentives.

And we could accomplish all this by making Election Day a holiday, a civic celebration.

Second in a series. One

This post is part of the Take Back Tuesday campaign to make Voting Day a national holiday. Sign up or encourage your company to join in at

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

via YouTube / Real Time with Bill Maher

Two great thinkers who agree America has it wrong about race appeared on the October 18th episode of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher," philosopher Thomas Chatterton Williams and astrophysicist, author, and "Cosmos" host Neil deGrasse Tyson.

While both people come from separate disciplines, each agreed that the basic concepts of race that are deeply ingrained into American culture are inherently wrong.

Keep Reading Show less
via Asim Bharwani / Flickr and Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Isn't it rather arbitrary that men and women both have nipples and a man's can be seen in public but a woman's cannot?

Is it because women's nipples have a function and men's are essentially useless that we can see one and not the other? Or is it because since the beginning of time men have policed women's bodies and have decided that they are sexual in nature?

Yep, that's the reason.

Keep Reading Show less
via Shoshi Parks

Climate change means our future is uncertain, but in the meantime, it's telling us a lot about our past. The Earth's glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, but as the ice dwindles, ancient artifacts are being uncovered. The Secrets of the Ice project has been surveying the glaciers on Norway's highest mountains in Oppland since 2011. They have found a slew of treasures, frozen in time and ice, making glacier archeologists, as Lars Pilø, co-director of Secrets of the Ice, put it when talking to CNN, the "unlikely beneficiaries of global warming."

Instead of digging, glacier archeologists survey the areas of melting ice, seeing which artifacts have been revealed by the thaw. "It's a very different world from regular archaeological sites," Pilø told National Geographic. "It's really rewarding work.

Keep Reading Show less
via Law and Crime News / Twitter

In August, Anne Sacoolas, 42, the wife of and American intelligence official, collided with motorcyclist Harry Dunn on the road outside the Royal Air Force base in Northamptonshire, England.

Sacoolas was driving on the wrong side of the road and said she had "no time to react" to Dunn coming down the hill. The teenager died at the scene of the accident.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

On Tuesday morning, President Trump tweeted about some favorable economic numbers, claiming that annual household income is up, unemployment is low, and housing prices are high.

Now, just imagine how much better those numbers would be if the country wasn't mired in an economy-killing trade war with China, bleeding out trillion-dollar-a-year debts, and didn't suffer from chaotic leadership in the Oval Office?

At the end of tweet, came an odd sentence, "Impeach the Pres."

Keep Reading Show less