Sevenscore and ten years ago today, Abraham Lincoln coined the phrase "government of the people, by the people, for the people." He omitted to add that the people can be systematically wrong, as a new paper neatly shows.
Michela Redoano and colleagues estimate that, in the UK, women whose husbands died in the previous two years are 10-12% less likely to vote for the government than other women. There's a simple reason for this. The less happy people are, the more likely they are to vote for opposition parties; this is a variant of the affect heuristic. But people don't distinguish fully between being unhappy and being unhappy because of bad government. As a result, they - in effect - blame the government for things it is not responsible for.
This is not an isolated finding. Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels have found (pdf) that voters, in effect, blame governments for things they cannot control such as natural disasters. And Neil Malhotra and colleagues show that surprise victories for the local team in US college football games increase support for incumbents in gubernatorial, presidential and senatorial elections. This is consistent with the fact that Harold Wilson blamed Peter Bonetti for losing him the 1970 general election.
I suspect that UK governments have long tried to exploit this misattribution effect.One reason why they prefer to hold elections in the spring is that lighter nights improve our mood, which makes us better inclined towards incumbents. It's no accident that the preferred month to hold general elections - May - is also the month in which share prices often peak.
You might object that the bias from this source is small. Maybe. But if voters are irrational in this respect, isn't it likely they'll be irrational in others. It's insufficiently appreciated that the problem with democracy is not just the shortcomings of our politicians, but those of the voters too.