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How Voter Shortsightedness Skews Elections 269

sciencehabit writes "'Are you better off than you were 4 years ago?' Ronald Reagan's famous question in the U.S. presidential election of 1980 is generally a good yardstick for picking a candidate, or at least for judging a leader's economic policies. But few voters follow it. Instead, they are swayed by economic swings in the months leading up to the election, often ignoring the larger trends. Why are we so shortsighted? A psychological study of voting behavior suggests an answer and points to a simple fix. ... Healy and Lenz challenged their subjects to evaluate hypothetical governments based on slightly varying information. For example, some received information expressed as yearly income while others received the same information expressed as a yearly growth rate. The same information in a plot of steadily increasing average personal income over 3 years—$32,400, $33,100, $33,800—can also be expressed as a steadily decreasing rate of growth—3%, 2.3%, 2.1%. That did the trick. Just changing the units of the data was enough to cure voter fickleness. When economic trends were expressed as yearly income rather than rates of change, the subjects made accurate judgments. But if the same information was expressed as a change over time—the bias reappeared."
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How Voter Shortsightedness Skews Elections

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 04, 2014 @06:19PM (#46155745)

    News at 10

  • Not quite that (Score:5, Insightful)

    by damn_registrars ( 1103043 ) <> on Tuesday February 04, 2014 @06:20PM (#46155755) Homepage Journal
    It's not

    are you better off now than you were 4 years ago

    that drives my selection. The matter for me is closer to

    • which candidate on the ballot will harm you the least
  • Re:Not quite that (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ackthpt ( 218170 ) on Tuesday February 04, 2014 @06:26PM (#46155855) Homepage Journal

    It's not

    are you better off now than you were 4 years ago

    that drives my selection. The matter for me is closer to

    • which candidate on the ballot will harm you the least

    Pretty much sums up my voting. I look for whomever I figure is most qualified - this doesn't mean is qualified , but that hedges toward someone who might actually have some idea what the F they are doing, rather than being an utter tool and electing candidates based upon Hot Button (sucker) issues, like guns, abortion, creeping socialism, etc.

  • by ZahrGnosis ( 66741 ) on Tuesday February 04, 2014 @06:30PM (#46155917) Homepage

    Most voters stick with long-standing ideals that they think will work long-term -- most people will poll to the same party over and over. Only a small percentage of people that are willing to break with their party could be influenced this way (unless their party was doing something particularly silly near a vote). Swing voters matter, of course, but this article generalizes something that is not generally true.

  • Obligatory Pynchon (Score:4, Insightful)

    by srussia ( 884021 ) on Tuesday February 04, 2014 @06:32PM (#46155951)
    "'If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers."
  • by JoshuaZ ( 1134087 ) on Tuesday February 04, 2014 @06:36PM (#46156019) Homepage
    But that's exactly what this sort of thing shows is not the case! The data about cognitive biases is robust. This one is a variation of the framing effect [] and the data shows that even smart people as individuals don't do well on such tests. We are all as individuals subject to cognitive biases. What's even worse is that knowing about cognitive biases can even be counterproductive [] because we are much more prone to see them in other people than in ourselves even though we're all subject to them.
  • by RocketRabbit ( 830691 ) on Tuesday February 04, 2014 @06:36PM (#46156027)

    The voters make decisions based on the information they are fed. Not the information they *GATHER* by and large, because that is an active process. Most people seem to tune in to the media outlets that favor their political leanings, which are driven by the corporate and special interests that own these media empires. Whether your corporation is Fox, MSNBC, or American Public Media, people are really being spoon-fed an official line that serves somebody else's self-interest, packaged in a way that makes them feel like this media empire puts its own self-interest below that of its audience.

    Part of the problem is that news is a form of entertainment, and in the USA at least, news outlets are legally allowed to deliberately lie to you. Journalists are hypnotists, plain and simple, and if they do tell the truth it is because it happens to align with their employers' interests that day.

    If people were given the tools to understand this game during their formative years, they might be more willing to take the time to independently research the issues they care about, but even this is a stretch. After a long day at the office, most folks want to just sort of zonk out and, tired and often filled with alcohol, the news is turned on and they absorb the day's "news" without a single functioning critical thought neuron in action.

    If I were naive I would suggest some legislative fix to this but knowing how the legislative process works, and its typical results, this would almost inevitably lead to a much worse scenario than that which is being played out right now.

  • by Assmasher ( 456699 ) on Tuesday February 04, 2014 @06:43PM (#46156105) Journal

    You're presuming that people usually vote and/or act as individuals. I would argue that they do not. There's clearly a herd mentality, especially when it comes to voting. Why else would so many people develop an 'us versus them' attitude instead of 'me versus them.'

  • by trims ( 10010 ) on Tuesday February 04, 2014 @06:46PM (#46156145) Homepage

    The fact that a large majority of voters make judgments on what happens in the immediate past (i.e. 3-4 months) prior to an election, rather than the entire term of office (2, 4, or 6 years for various US Congress/Presidents) is well documented, so no surprise here.

    Much of that has to do with the difficulty virtually all people have distilling a complex, hugely multivariant problem, into easily understood metrics and views. That's not going to change, because even a super genius is going to only be able to accurately remember a half-dozen major points, while there may be as many as several DOZEN relevant metrics/issues that you probably can consider important.

    The proposed solution in the paper is yet another form of a simplification and lie, NOT a real solution. The simple answer is that I see no indication that the claimed "yearly growth" rate is any more accurate than the absolute income. Do the grow rates take into account inflation? (I see no indication they do) What about changes in the job market over those years? What about overall economic indicators? I.e. if the average income managed to grow ANY over the period 2007-2009 (in the middle of the most severe recession in 80 years), then that a huge accomplishment vs say merely keeping up with inflation in 2003. The authors are merely substituting one questionably useful statistic with another (of the same dubious relevance).

    Never trust someone selling you a simple numerical answer to a complex problem. Politicians and Statisticians are both extremely adept at contriving lots of meaning from simple numbers. There's a reason this post is titled the way it is.


  • Flawed Question (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Tempest_2084 ( 605915 ) on Tuesday February 04, 2014 @06:47PM (#46156157)
    I always thought the question "'Are you better off than you were 4 years ago?" was flawed. In my case the answer is Yes, I am better off than I was four years ago but it has nothing to do with the current president. In my case it was a lot of hard work, an advanced degree (which I paid for myself), and a lovely new wife that got me ahead over the last four years. We could have elected Donald Trump, Don King, or Kang and Kodos and I would more than likely be in the exact same position I am now.
  • by globaljustin ( 574257 ) on Tuesday February 04, 2014 @07:03PM (#46156335) Journal

    the researchers themselves dont...from the abstract:

    Voters, we find, actually intend to judge presidents on cumulative growth. However, since that characteristic is not readily available to them, voters inadvertently substitute election-year performance

    blame the candidates and the news media...both are obviously not doing their jobs.

    candidates, because...holy crap they're supposed to be *running* for office. they can't blame others for everything...they are responsible for how they present their case.

    news media...obviously idiots. If you want to call people stupid, call ***NEWS PRODUCERS*** stupid fucking idiots. You can thrown in the TV company executives in there too. They have *no idea* what they are doing in regards to the 4th Estate & informing the populace.

    I have to fault SoulSkill & all nerds here as well. Its a cop out to say "all people are idiots" as a solution or explanation to every problem. It's reductive and unworthy of our industry. Blaming the user by default *hurts our industry* because it alienates us from the users, and from our own work.

    Systems need correction. Blaming the people the system is designed to serve when a feedback loop occurs is illogical!

  • by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Tuesday February 04, 2014 @08:04PM (#46156991)

    "Don't blame people for their own shortsightedness and stupidity? I think I'll do just that."

    Well, wait, though. If you are going to do that, at least blame them for the correct stupidity, rather than the wrong one.

    It's difficult for many people to "do their own research" if the news is blathering untruths and misleadings all the time. People don't expect the news to lie... and it does, often enough that we should be concerned as a country.

    So yes, people SHOULD do their own research. But 2 things are required before they will do that: (1) they must first be aware that what they were told (or misled to believe) is wrong, and (2) the correct information must be available.

    I assert that condition (1) has all too often not been met.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 04, 2014 @08:54PM (#46157441)

    The question asked by Reagan represents a dangerously short-sighted mindset. For example, it is possible to temporarily boost economic activity by lowering taxes and interest rates and/or increasing spending, but this is not without its dangers. For example, much of the apparent prosperity of the Bush Jr. years was a result of a completely unsustainable real estate bubble. If you follow this through to its logical conclusion, you can see why budget deficits have been the rule with the economy lurching from one bubble to another.

    Aside from this, Reagan and Thatcher were lucky in that the development of oilfields in the North Sea, Alaska and elsewhere helped bring about a large reduction in oil prices. This probably would have happened regardless of who was in office, but the economic boost from this made them look better than they would have otherwise.

  • by Imrik ( 148191 ) on Tuesday February 04, 2014 @10:28PM (#46158157) Homepage

    Because if they didn't randomly send you there no one would use it.

  • by Mr. Slippery ( 47854 ) <> on Wednesday February 05, 2014 @01:24AM (#46159271) Homepage

    The American population is essentially either taking welfare or working for the Gubment.

    That's the Fox News view of the world, sure. In actual reality, American workers are more productive, yet thanks to conservative economic policies have been losing income (measured in constant dollars) since the Reagan era. The number of people employed by the federal government is lower [] than it was in the 60s, 70s, or 80s. The number state or local government employees per capita grew a little from 1980 to 2008 [], almost entirely because of more teachers being hired, but declined from 2008 to 2011.

    So, in reality, Americans are working more productively, getting paid less, and fewer of them are working for the government.

    But keep the American voter ignorant and angry, and they'll re-elect you, even as you fsck them over.

  • by Smauler ( 915644 ) on Wednesday February 05, 2014 @01:50AM (#46159447)

    Calling people stupid does not solve the problem, which is that "stupid" people as you call them get to decide who runs the country.

    I'm not sure what you're hoping to achieve here..

  • by gIobaljustin ( 3526197 ) on Wednesday February 05, 2014 @02:43AM (#46159705) Homepage

    Where should they get information? If you ask me, no one source is trustworthy; pretty much all of them will lie or tell half truths. I think it is therefore best to get your information from a combination of many sources and try to discern the truth on your own.

    There are also websites dedicated to telling the public about politicians' voting records, among other things. Very useful, and certainly more so than listening to or watching any campaign promises or speeches.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Wednesday February 05, 2014 @05:58AM (#46160483)

    Since it is virtually impossible to get unbiased news, do what I do: Listen to both sides. For example, concerning the Ukrainian protests, it's usually quite healthy to take a western news source and then compare it to reports from a Russian source. It's amazing how different the stories are.

    In the end, in today's news, you're a bit like a judge sitting in a trial. You know that both sides somehow lie to you and it's your job to find out what really happened. Kinda sad that you're now supposed to do the job the reporter was originally tasked with.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Wednesday February 05, 2014 @09:12AM (#46161333)

    That's not what I said.

    Just like a judge can't make a fair (as in: impartial but right) judgement by simply meeting the two parties in middle ground (else I'll sue my neighbor for all he got and get half of his junk, a pretty sweet deal if I have no case at all), you can't simply mesh everything together and assume that the truth is by definition where the lies "cancel each other out".

    But it gives you two point of view and then you, as an intelligent being with a halfway decent education (yes, I know, I expect a lot, but then again, I think someone who at least goes to the length of finding two conflicting sources has that intelligence in the first place or he would have been happy with a single source telling him "the truth") have to weigh them. You have to judge whose "story" is more credible, who you think tells you more of the truth, or maybe even all of it. Personally, I think the cases where one side told the unblemished truth and the other side nothing but propaganda lies are rather few.

    But you're right, you can't simply dump them together and extract "the truth" out of it. You can only hope to learn it by doing the judging yourself, that's not an automated process. And yes, it will be biased.

    But at least it will be your bias.

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