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November 04, 2012



Extra keys here are that symbolic utility can be measured in game theory but only if you understand that these are extended games with many rounds and varying uncertainty.

Too many gradgrindians try to use game theory around single events (e.g. a public protest) without understanding all the linkages.

Eric Crampton (@EricCrampton)

I'll agree with point 2, while noting that that explanation for voting breaks some of the normative desirability of median voter outcomes.

Point 1 seems unlikely though - people have to know there's no reaction function between their vote and others' decisions to vote, and the evidence, Gibson's included, is that the decision to vote is more cost sensitive than you'd expect if people expected to be decisive.

Luis Enrique

I'm don't like the idea of symbolic utility because I associate it with sanctimonious and ostentatious self righteousness, I'm sure we can all imagine the sort of person I have in mind.

The way I see it, there are lots of situations where we'd all be better off if we did X, so I'm going to do X because I think it is the right thing to do, even if its not rational in the sense that word is being used here. Is that what you're calling symbolic rationality? I don't feel like I'm doing these things (voting, not dropping litter, being honest, whatever) because they symbolise the kind of person I am, although I can see that my sense of my own identity is tied up with gown behave. I feel like I'm just doing what I think is right. Am I suggesting a different reason for doing these things, or the same one as you, just dressed up a little differently?


If voting is not rational, then going to a football game is not rational either. What's the point in singing out in the cold in support of your favorite team if you're all alone in the stadium?
Well, of course you know you won't be alone, and that it is the collective presence of supporters that may give an edge to your team playing at home.
This is once again a demonstration that the homo-oeconomicus rationality may be fine for micro-economics, but inappropriate for a description of collective behaviors (like... macro).

gastro george

The football analogy seems somewhat appropriate, as each political supporter is quite aware that any sign of weakness in support will be reported in the media - with a consequent spiral of decline.

It also seems to me that it might be more appropriate if the researchers investigated the likelihood of voting against the marginal difference between the parties. Which is more of a problem these days.

But, finally, haven't they heard of postal votes?

Brian S.

Your blog is peppered with overly-intellectual Pseud's corner material. We "go on protest marches / don't euthanise unhealthy old people" because we have compassion for others, not because of what it symbolises to others, i.e. to impress other people. Are you serious here? You're talking like someone who doesn't understand human feelings.

Visual Impact

It is not necessary to think that by “helping to bring about an outcome” one's contribution is essential. All that has to be assumed is that it has some significance. The point I make in the first part of my write up is that it has not even that. The "help" my vote gives is trivial and even that is being generous. If that is the case, and the math in mass elections suggests it is, then one is in fact not "helping to bring about an outcome." One is not helping anything happen. One is wasting one's time. To validate such behavior is at least irrational (or, perhaps strictly speaking, non-rational), and even immoral under some conceptions of morality, those that hold that what is at stake in such elections has enough moral import that to waste one's efforts by voting is irresponsible.


Interestingly, postal vote does not seem to increase turn-out. This suggests that transaction costs are not an issue. The question may thus be less related to rationality of the voter than to the understanding of its motivations (for which economists are ill-equipped).

In Switzerland, where voters are asked to cast ballots in referendums at least every three months, postal vote was introduced long ago. Voting is amazingly fast and simple. Yet, turn-out usually does not exceed 40%, either for referendums or elections.


Do you know if there any evidence that turnout is marginal seats is higher than in safe ones?

Will Davies

As someone who regularly cites Aristotelians approvingly, Chris, I'm sure you recognise a far broader definition of 'rationality' than the ones you offer here. It can be rational to act in ways that are virtuous, meaningful, enjoyable and fulfilling, but which are not utility-producing in any sense. Weber called this 'subtantive rationality' (although defined modernity as the separation between that and the narrower forms of instrumental rationality you are referring to). The ultimate example of substantive rationality would be giving ones life for a cause or other human being.

Luis Enrique


how can something enjoyable and fulfilling not be utility-producing?

Walt French

Ahem. Election is not a once-and-done thing; every vote is a signal to an action group of where the electorate's intentions are.

Arguably, the impeachment of Clinton could never have been considered except for the fact that the Perot candidacy meant Clinton had fewer than half the votes. Had the election been say, 55-45, Gingrich would never have dared to try shutting down the government or otherwise taken the aggressive, polarizing steps they did. (It was foolish enough as it turned out.)

And just this morning, we see reports that Republican leaders are demanding that should Obama get re-elected, he should NOT try to actually submit bills that correspond to his election promises; a likely failed Romney approach must be used or Obama will be “poisoning the well.”

Every vote actually does count, even if it simply signals the breadth of Americans' choices, rather than partisans' depth of passion.

Adrian Meli

I'll second Bill's question: do you have any data on the turnout in swing states vs. others?


"the Myth of the Rational Voter"
Caplan, Cato Inst., 2007


gastro george

Cato Institute tries to "prove" that markets are better than democracy - quelle surprise.

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