The Null Device

2004/10/13

Via tyrsalvia, a fascinating article on why people vote as they do. As many have undoubtedly suspected, very few people vote rationally, i.e., considering and understanding the issues or policy platforms in question, with the vast majority of votes being cast for reasons unconnected to ideology, political belief or the candidates' visions:

Converse claimed that only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system. He named these people 'ideologues,' by which he meant not that they are fanatics but that they have a reasonable grasp of "what goes with what" of how a set of opinions adds up to a coherent political philosophy. Non-ideologues may use terms like "liberal" and "conservative," but Converse thought that they basically don't know what they're talking about, and that their beliefs are characterized by what he termed a lack of "constraint": they can't see how one opinion (that taxes should be lower, for example) logically ought to rule out other opinions (such as the belief that there should be more government programs). About forty-two per cent of voters, according to Converse's interpretation of surveys of the 1956 electorate, vote on the basis not of ideology but of perceived self-interest. The rest form political preferences either from their sense of whether times are good or bad (about twenty-five per cent) or from factors that have no discernible "issue content" whatever. Converse put twenty-two per cent of the electorate in this last category. In other words, about twice as many people have no political views as have a coherent political belief system.

Philip Converse's study, published in 1964, reignited doubts into the meaningfulness of democracy, and three theories have emerged over how a democracy really works. Theory 1 says that electoral outcomes are essentially arbitrary, i.e., the amount of signal (i.e., decisions made rationally by informed voters) is overwhelmed by noise (reaction to slogans, misinformation, sensational news, random personal associations (by some accounts, the colours of politicians' neckties are more important than their policy positions in deciding their fates), and even satisfaction or otherwise with things out of politicians' control, such as the weather). Theory 2 states that democratic decisions are made by elites who control the media, and have the power to send the messages which the apolitical bulk of the public respond to; i.e., the electoral process is essentially a low-pass filter on the opinions of Rupert Murdoch and his fellow oligarchs. Theory 3 states that the cues people respond to are heuristics which, to most intents, are as good as doing one's own research; these include consulting peers' opinions and intuitive judgments, i.e., "low-information rationality".

An analogy (though one that Popkin is careful to dissociate himself from) would be to buying an expensive item like a house or a stereo system. A tiny fraction of consumers has the knowledge to discriminate among the entire range of available stereo components, and to make an informed choice based on assessments of cost and performance. Most of us rely on the advice of two or three friends who have recently made serious stereo-system purchases, possibly some online screen shopping, and the pitch of the salesman at J&R Music World. We eyeball the product, associate idiosyncratically with the brand name, and choose from the gut. When we ask "experts" for their wisdom, mostly we are hoping for an "objective" ratification of our instinctive desire to buy the coolest-looking stuff. Usually, we're O.K. Our tacit calculation is that the marginal utility of more research is smaller than the benefit of immediate ownership.

The use of these heuristics leaves plenty of blind spots in the electoral process.

Bartels has also found that when people do focus on specific policies they are often unable to distinguish their own interests. ... When people are asked whether they favor Bush's policy of repealing the estate tax, two-thirds say yes--even though the estate tax affects only the wealthiest one or two per cent of the population. Ninety-eight per cent of Americans do not leave estates large enough for the tax to kick in. But people have some notion--Bartels refers to it as "unenlightened self-interest"--that they will be better off if the tax is repealed. What is most remarkable about this opinion is that it is unconstrained by other beliefs. Repeal is supported by sixty-six per cent of people who believe that the income gap between the richest and the poorest Americans has increased in recent decades, and that this is a bad thing. And it's supported by sixty-eight per cent of people who say that the rich pay too little in taxes. Most Americans simply do not make a connection between tax policy and the over-all economic condition of the country.

belief conformism political science politics psychology values 2

2004/10/12

Factoid of the day:

Many have conjectured that the word "Duck" is the funniest word in the English language. This was popularized by the Marx Brothers comedy Duck Soup, considered by some to be the funniest movie ever made. This might have more to do with the actual animal than the English word for it, as in 2002, after conducting a scientific cross-cultural joke experiment known as LaughLab, psychologist Richard Wiseman concluded that ducks are funny in all the studied countries: "If you're going to tell a joke involving an animal, make it a duck."

- Wikipedia: "inherently funny word"

animals duck funniness humour language 1

Had the Nazis invaded Britain, they would have had a wide range of puppet leaders to choose from, from the Duke of Windsor (formerly Edward VIII) as king to the Duke of Bedford, and Maj. Gen. John Fuller (a close friend of the owner of the (then) notoriously pro-Nazi Daily Mail), who was tipped to be the British counterpart of Vichy puppet ruler Marshal Petain. Or so a list of potential traitors (to be arrested and interned immediately upon invasion), recently released by the National Archives, says. The list also includes Irish, Welsh and Scottish nationalists thought likely to bet on the Nazis and miscellaneous working stiffs overheard by neighbours making suspiciously pro-German remarks.

alternate history daily mail edward viii nazi ww2 0

Scotland may soon have its own time zone. Which isn't just some kind of token sop to the nationalists to stop them from demanding secession, but comes from people in England wanting to move to continental time to get lighter evenings, a move blocked by Scottish MPs who don't want their mornings to get any darker. If the move does happen, of course, it means that Greenwich Mean Time will never again be equal to UTC.

greenwich mean time scotland time time zones uk 0