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Altruism and voter turnout: is it a good thing that nicer people are more likely to vote?

Are nicer and better-informed citizens more likely to vote?

James Fowler (political science, UC Davis) wrote an interesting paper about a lab experiment he conducted, demonstrating the connection between other-regarding preferences and voter turnout. Here’s the abstract:

Scholars have recently reworked the traditional calculus of voting model by adding a term for benefits to others. Although the probability that a single vote affects the outcome of an election is quite small, the number of people who enjoy the benefit when the preferred alternative wins is large. As a result, people who care about benefits to others and who think one of the alternatives makes others better off are more likely to vote. I test the altruism theory of voting in the laboratory by using allocations in a dictator game to reveal the degree to which each subject is concerned about the well-being of others. The main findings suggest that variation in concern for the well-being of others in conjunction with strength of party identification is a significant factor in individual turnout decisions. Partisan altruists are much more likely to vote than their nonpartisan or egoist peers.

I especially like this paper because it is consistent with the model of Edlin, Kaplan, and myself of the rationality of voting based on social motivations. As we (and Fowler) point out, there’s no reason that “rationality” has to mean “selfishness.”

Many researchers in political science and economics seem to feel that it is “cheating” to introduce other-directed preferences into a rational choice model, but given both the logic and the evidence (Fowler’s paper gives some experimental evidence, and our paper has lots of observational evidence), I don’t see that selfishness makes much sense in this setting.

Some other comments

Fowler’s experimental results show voting to be correlated with various attitudes and behaviors. But his conclusion is all about why people vote. I’m also interested in the implications about who votes. If selfish people don’t vote, is that perhaps a good feature of our system?

A related point (also discussed in our paper) is that, if people are voting because of altruism rather than selfishness, this has implications for how people vote, as well as why they vote. In particular, one would expect political pitches to be made on more altruistic grounds.

On to the graphical presentation . . . I like Fowler’s Figure 2. It could be slightly improved by having the y-axes range from 0 to 1 (since this is the range of probabilities, with 0 and 1 being the sharp endpoints of the y-range (in R or S, you can do this using ylim=c(0,1), yaxs=”i” in the plotting command). Also I’d recommend making the graphs slightly wider than they are high. The x and y axes are on different units, so it’s a little confusing to make the plots square.

Fowler’s Figure 1 can be done better. There’s no need for three colors, and the up-and-down patterns are confusing. Better would be to have 3 histograms (on a common scale), one for each of the 3 conditions, with labels on top. This’ll be much clearer.

Tables 1 and 2 would be better as figures; see Gelman, Pasarica, Dodhia, “Let’s practice what we preach: turning tables into graphs” from The American Statistician (2002). I mean, the tables are ok by the usual standard of social science papers, but the substance of the paper is so strong, that why not take the model presentation to the next level with some clear graphs? (If you were to insist on keeping the tables–and I think this would be a big mistake–then you must round off all the numbers to 1 decimal. Given your se’s, there is essentially no information in the 2nd decimal places. Yes, that means that correlations of 0.09 and 0.06 will be rounded off to 0.1, and correlations of 0.3 will be rounded off to 0.0. That’s fine–there’s really nothing statistically distinguishing these numbers anyway.)

Also . . .

At his website, Fowler has several other papers on related topics.


  1. David Regal says:

    > As we (and Fowler) point out, there's no reason that "rationality" has to mean "selfishness."

    Exactly, da comrade! Yeah, collectivism is the solution to all of our problems. All these people who are pursuing selfish interests are slime. Certainly, profs who spend their time preaching to their students are a lot more productive element of the society.

  2. David,

    I don't quite understand your comment. Do you disagree with our statement, 'there's no reason that "rationality" has to mean "selfishness"'? There's a lot of evidence that people can behave rationally even for nonselfish goals. I do not see why you think this implies that "collectivism is the solution to all our problems" or that "All these people who are pursuing selfish interests are slime." Seems a bit of a conceptual leap from our model of voting behavior!

  3. Bernard Guerrero says:

    2 Comments/Questions:

    A) How "arm's length" were the offer of cash and the collection of the subject's decision in the study. After mentioning the basic setup to several co-workers, the consensus was that the presence of a data-collector, particularly one that the subject might be familiar with or might have the potential to run into again on campus, would definitely introduce a bias towards splitting the prize more generously.

    B) Are you aware of any work on how quickly the "altruism effect" might fade with psychological distance? From personal reflection, I can say without a doubt that I do not exhibit pure _homo economicus_ type behavior. However, not all targets of my generosity are treated equally, by a long shot. My wife and kids are, for the purposes of describing this sort of behavior, essentially extensions of myself. OTOH, I can say that I simply don't lose a lot of sleep over, say, the plight of the Amazon forest indigenous peoples. There's a world of difference between a payoff function that values "me" at 1.0 and all others at zero and one that values all outcomes using a 1/n weighting, and I suspect that neither models reality very well.

  4. James Fowler says:

    Thanks for the comments — I'll try to make those graph changes on the next iteration.

    Let me address Bernard's two questions

    A) Students were in a 6 terminal computer lab with partitions between computers to improve a feeling of anonymity. The door to the lab was closed and the research assistant sat outside to check people in and out. The students were not from my class — they were recruited from large undergraduate introductory political science classes. It is very likely that most of them had no idea who I was since I only teach upper division classes. There is a literature on the dictator game which suggests that stronger anonymity conditions reduce alocations to other people but not to 0 (see Camerer, Behavioral Game Theory, especially).

    B) I test the social distance hypothesis in another paper on my website. <a>

    By varying information about the target, it is possible to increase or decrease giving in the dectator game. For example, when the recipient is the Red Cross, allocations go up. In my case I compared giving to an anonymous individual with giving to an anonymous Republican or Democrat. Not surprisingly, there is own-party bias in altruism. I have some cites in that paper to the literature on social distance.

  5. Bernard Guerrero says:

    Thank you, James. I've always suspected that something like this is happening, my anecdotal evidence being the increasing "Sally Struthers-ization" of charitable drives. More celebrity front-people, more programs structured to provide (or at least simulate) a close connection to an identifiable recipient, increasing emphasis on direct support vs. larger-scale projects, etc. Or possibly I should call it the “About Schmidt” Syndrome.