Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Elections and Cognitive Costs

Research has suggested that the prevailing economic conditions are a strong predictor of the incumbent's reelection chances. 

I don't think that people are optimizers when it comes to elections. That is, people don't immediately begin to evaluate the various choices available and to compare and decide on the best candidate(s) or party to vote. That's cognitively expensive. Elections are not about choosing the best person(s).

Instead, I think the very first question people ask themselves is, 'Is everything good?" If nothing is really wrong, then most people would consider that acceptable and vote for the incumbent. It doesn't matter if the other candidates have a possibility of being superior; if it's not broken, why fix it? That's the power of the status quo. It isn't exactly wrong; cognitive costs and information costs do exist, even if it trivializes elections.

That's why challengers face an uphill battle; something needs to be wrong for them to have a good chance. Only when people have doubts about the incumbent does the second question come in: 'Which of these choices is better?' As a gatekeeping rule to conserve cognitive resources, this seems to be a valid strategy for making decisions, though it is somewhat reactionary. 

Of course, there are still many who rely exclusively on the first judgment. If things are good, they vote one way; if not, they vote the other. It suffices to say that such a simplistic, binary thought process fails to achieve much. Some of us only have the capacity to know that things are wrong, but not why, and not how to fix it.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Frequent Polling to Encourage High-Information Voting

Of the several polls available on the US presidential elections, the RAND poll is probably unique in that it samples the same, consistent group of potential voters each week over the course of the election. By tracking the preferences of the same people, it is possible to obtain a less noisy estimate of how public opinion on each presidential candidate has changed over time in response to their campaign efforts and other events.

One criticism of the RAND poll is that because the same voters are being polled on a weekly basis, this act of constant polling has itself an effect on the results. It may create a psychological incentive for the polled to pay more attention to the current state of the election, and to consider more deeply the merits of each candidate.

In other words, they are more likely to be high-information voters. 

This final conclusion seems interesting to me. One often cited flaw with democracy is that of the electorate; we all hope for the wisdom of the crowds, yet we also secretly doubt the intelligence of our compatriots. Low-information voters are more easily swayed by irrelevant variables, and may waver towards poor choices and decisions. At the same time it does not seem right to impose tests of any sort, as that is prone to manipulation and abuse. Of course, what should be done is to raise voter education, or at least attention and interest.

Constant polling seems to force this attentional factor, and may be helpful in reducing voter apathy.