With the tumultuous state of the USA elections at the moment, our association has been focusing heavily on the theme of the voting behaviour
Our first meeting of the semester took place on November 5th, two days after election night in the USA. The two days post elections has the world on its toes in anticipation over results. The 2020 elections observed a record number of early mail-in votes and the highest voter turnout in the USA since 1900. Given the prevalence of COVID-19 in the states, it seems rational for many voters to choose to vote by mail and avoid queuing up in long lines.
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However, this seemingly rational choice has raised many questions over the election process. Some states were not allowed to process ballots until the day of elections resulting in a delay in counting votes that was ongoing as we conducted our meeting. Some interpret this delay in reporting votes as fraudulent behaviour and demand that vote count must be stopped, while others interpret this call to action as voter suppression.
If the very process of democracy can be dangerously interpreted differently, can we really believe that the voters participating in this process are in complete control of their voting behaviour? In our meeting, we conducted experiments to test 5 biases that affect voting behaviour. This was then followed by extensive discussions on their implications in modern day politics.
BIAS 1: FRAMING EFFECT
The framing effect refers to how the choices we make differ based on the way information is framed. In the experiment we took part in, we can see that most participants chose the option where success was presented a guarantee (a) and the option where failure was probable (d), while in reality all four option convey the same information.
The example used in this mini experiment was one that all universities students would find themselves in at some point in their academic path. While job security post graduation may be a concerning problem, the framing effect also has some relevant implications on our voting behaviour.
The framing effects can be seen to affect voter demographics in different ways. For example, immigrant citizens in a foreign country may view a campaign ad that is not in their native language and due to this, they would probably be immune to the framing effect. Additionally, older voters are more susceptible to the framing effect. This is due to influence of availability and affect heuristics on the framing effect. As observed in the present US election, first time voters aged 33-40 years overwhelming preferred the incumbent, Donald Trump, as over 67% voted for him nationally.
In our discussions of the effect, we discussed the age factor and how that influences voting and the media campaigns of both presidential candidates. Young voters, across the USA and of different races lean Democrat in the states due to their openness to accepting ideas such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. The remain less affected by the availability heuristic which tends to rely heavily on remembering the USA economy as it once was. Older voters on the hand, are drawn by Trump’s vision of the past economic powress of the USA, something they witnessed during their lifetimes. Additionally, Trump campaigns focuses heavily on the use of the negativity bias (things of a negative nature stick with us much longer than positive experiences of the same level of intensity) adjacent to the framing effect. The campaigns do this by highlighting the failure of the Obama administration and direct attacks to Biden-Harris as well as the rest of the Democrats. This is particularly visible in social media where direct contact to ones followers helps bypass the filter of traditional media sources.
BIAS 2: FALSE CONSENSUS EFFECT
Does majority win?
The false consensus effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to “see their own behavioural choices and judgments as relatively common, even if this isn’t the case. We took part in a survey that asked us our about our preferences in different circumstances as well as how popular we thought our options with other participants. The results of the experiment showed precisely this. For example, we see that 79% of participants preferred pizza over sushi yet 18/29 assumed that greater than 70% of participants would agree with that pizza is better than sushi. Another example of this can be seen in our spending decisions. Travel was the most popular option at 48% and 9/14 (40-90% option) guessed that others would prefer this option as much as they did.
The implications of this bias are that we can quite easily trick ourselves into believing that everyone else thinks the same as we do. As a result we seek to grow our company with like minded people and assume that strangers also share our “right” opinion.
With regards to voting behaviour, this effect may play out in the sense that we perceive a political party to have strong support and as a result may not go to vote for them. This was observed in the EU referendum where one party was assumed to be the winner before elections took place but post elections, it was clear that the option was not as popular as people thought it was.
BIAS 3: GROUP THINK
Which line is the biggest one?
To explore the groupthink bias we conducted a “fake” experiment where 6/7 participants were already told what they must answer. We were asked to close our eyes and only open them when called upon. Although the closest line to the target is line B, our fake participants were told to answer C. We expected that by listening to all the other replies as C, the innocent participant would also answer C due to groupthink.
Not surprisingly, the only true participant in this experiment did answer C after hearing the “fake” participants responses.
So, what is groupthink? Groupthink is defined as the tendency to conform to what the majority believes in at the moment, regardless of what one may individually believe in. Often times, People conform to this bias in order to avoid confrontation and based on the level of importance they place on social acceptance. Additionally, groupthink doesn’t allow for a critical evaluation of information as new perspective are discouraged from entering the discussion.
In relation to voting behaviour, this can most prominently be seen in the 2016 US elections. Across the USA, many perceived the democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had a secure spot in the White House. Polls carried out throughout the 2016 presidential race showed Clinton as the candidate with a strong majority appeal. However, after the elections, many were surprised by the Trump winning the presidency through the electoral college and the fact that the majority vote so close. It was expected that most people were in fact supporting the democrats simply because the media and general public consensus did not allow for republican and trump-supporters to voice their support for him or republican members of the senate.
In our discussion about groupthink, we touched upon the interesting topic of when minorities are able to create a snowball effect in changing the perception of the majority. Recently, this can be see in the rise of the BLM protests, where for years the BLM movement was only something that USA was engaged in but after the murder of George Flloyd, we witness an international condemnation of racism in one of the largest demonstrations of anti-racism across the world.
BIAS 4: BANDWAGON EFFECT
The bandwagon effect is similar to groupthink. However, the difference between the two lies in the role that time plays. In the case of groupthink, we conform to what is presently expected to us while the bandwagon effect relies on past or future expectations of majority behaviour. The experiment we participated in to explore this bias failed (given that after the trickery in the groupthink experiment, we were a lot more cautious) we can see that the second part of the experiment poses the question in a way where a participant is told what the majority outcome is.
This relates to voting behaviour as false perceptions the candidate with the popular vote may lead people to vote for a candidate they don’t believe in as voting for their favourite could be seen as a waste of a vote. Additionally information about the failure of one candidate may be under-provided in order for them to be showcased positively at large.
As discussed previously, groupthink affects us in a way where current political discussion and perceived beliefs of political actors led many to underestimate the support that the Trump-Pence administration had in 2016. To tackle this issue in 2020, the democrats initiated a campaign to promote young voter turnout. Celebrities and campaign ads with young people from different backgrounds were used to build the perception that political engagement is required from young voters and their registration for voting is an imperative. This lead to 53% of young voters casting mail-in ballots as votes for Biden.
BIAS 5: DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT
And the invisible powers of lemon juice
The Dunning-Kruger Effect relates to self-perception of our own abilities. As seen in the graph shared in the slides. The less you know about a topic, the more competent you perceive yourself to be. However, as you learn more about the topic, your confidence weakens. Reaching an expert level of knowledge/skills will lead your confidence to grow but would still remain largely underestimated in comparison to your your actual skill level.
A hilarious case where we can see this bias in real life is when a man attempted to rob a bank without a mask. He believed that he would not be caught after applying lemon juice on his face…since it used in making invisible ink. Funny as this may be, the implications this has in voting behaviour are quite threatening.
For instance, candidates may promise to implement a policy that sounds great in speeches but less so in implementation. Additionally, living in a world that where social media is a part of our daily life, it is easy to consume bit-size facts and summaries about a topic or the news and take that as the complete picture. This may falsely lead one to assume that they are an expert on the topic.
In our discussions, we came to mutual agreement that this effect is one of the most threatening ones, since at the end of the day it is often those with louder (9/10 times dumber) voices who get their misguided beliefs out in the open while those with something important to say are likely to recede from public discussion and debate amongst themselves. Especially at a time when we have political and judicial leaders who wish to contest scientific fact, such as “climate change”, how could we rely on scientists who are working silently on research to expand branches of knowledge that are soo distinct from what the public know? As students of economics, we sometimes hear many other of our politically active peers from a non economic background, propose “printing more money” as the solution to national and global debt. However as just students, we lack the complete economic understanding to completely dismantle this argument. This thus allows ideas like MMT gain traction.
A special thank you to the internal events members: Filippo Bianchi, Giovvani Besana, Francesca Ettore, Andrea Calgaro, Silvia Meneghesso and Andrew Yeorkin for putting this meeting together!