Rip It Up And Start Again?

Tomorrow, Scotland goes to the polls to vote for or against independence. Opinion polls are close – close enough, in fact, that they make pollsters nervous. The slight advantage to the “No” (anti-independence) campaign they show is tight enough that they could be left embarrassed either way.

Scotland’s finest.

If you believe – as most of us now do – that people are poor predictors of their own decisions, voting intention is obviously a great test case. One of our favourite studies, on US elections, showed that whatever the outcome, people were exceptionally poor judges of whether they would vote at all: come the day, half the declared “non-voters” actually turned out. (And a fair number of voters stayed home). Continue reading

The Social Voter

One of the things I talk about a lot is what poor witnesses people are to their own behaviour – especially predicted behaviour. But why does this happen?

Here’s a great example, from an unusual source – American politics site Politico, which is covering the US presidential race in exhausting detail, and latched onto a particular study comparing voting intentions to behaviour.

What’s the big deal? We all know voting intentions don’t match behaviour. But what the study looked at wasn’t the candidate people were voting for, but whether they planned to vote at all. And it turns out that over half the people who tell pollsters they don’t expect to vote – and drop out of the survey because of it – end up voting after all.


Now – perish the thought! – I dare say some people are saying they won’t vote to get a pollster off the line. But obviously a lot of people are not judging their intentions correctly – they don’t intend to vote and yet, on election day, there they are. Why?

It’s because, the study says, they get swept up in the excitement. We are social animals, we like to copy what other people are doing, and if a lot of your neighbours and friends are going to vote, so will you even if you hadn’t really meant to.

This matters, says Politico, because an awful lot of US polling is based on “likely voters”, i.e. polls taking these claims at face value. But the implications are wider. It suggests that predicted behaviour gets far more unreliable when the prediction involves an event or something else highly social. When a Triple-A game or a new iPhone is announced, for instance, how many of the people who declare their lack of interest end up getting it anyway? Turn a launch into an event and you may find your predictions go pleasantly awry.

As for researchers, it underlines – yet again – how important it is to take the emotional context of an action into account when you’re trying to collect data around that action. It’s likely that no amount of contextual hacking in a survey can replicate the social weight and excitement of election day, but that doesn’t mean pollsters have to be quite so dry…

Voting Fast And Slow

Today is local election day in the UK – and several of Britain’s cities are electing a mayor. Then Sunday sees the Presidential run-off in France, and there are crucial elections coming up later in the year in Greece, Egypt, Mexico… and the small matter of a US Presidential Election too.

So what better time to revisit this classic experiment in priming, in which close analysis of American polling data suggested that people are more likely to vote for a school funding initiative if they were assigned to vote in a school. As the authors put it, “These findings underscore the subtle power of situational context to shape important real-world decisions.”

There are no such location-based implications for national polls, but the experiment does get you thinking about the choice architecture of the polling booth. The electoral ritual of the secret ballot has been scrupulously designed to avoid bias and in particular to avoid a particular kind of social effect – you make your decision unable to see anyone else’s. Voting, in the popular and political imagination, ought to be a system 2 activity – the conscious weighing up of choices. Look at the comments on this thread about a referendum for Scottish Independence – outrage and mockery at the idea that people might change settled opinions in the voting booth: “The idea that people will be persuaded en masse to abandon deeply held beliefs based on a minor rewording is ludicrous.” – this reporting on a poll whose results suggested precisely that!

But electoral experts believe that about a quarter of voting intentions shift in the immediate run-up to an election, with some minds surely changing in the booth itself. So it’s well worth thinking about the choice environment the voting booth offers. As you’d expect for such an important decision there has been an awful lot of work on this, looking at phenomena such as the “Ballot Order Effect” – the candidate at the top has an advantage. But the work has been unevenly distributed, with some behavioural areas getting much less attention.

For instance, what impact do queues have on voting intentions? High turnouts are generally felt to favour less conservative candidates (as conservatives do better at mobilising their vote) – some recent experiments, though, suggest that time pressure and higher cognitive load make people more conservative. Given all the time in the world to arrive at a choice, the undecided voter might think carefully through the options. If they feel time-pressured, though – and with a winding queue behind them they very well might – wouldn’t they be far more likely to reach for an easy choice?

There’s no evidence this effect operates in elections, so it’s no more than a hypothesis to test. But there is more to making independent decisions than simply sealing individuals off from other people at the moment of choice.