How Voters Decide: What’s Wrong with Too Much Information
How do voters decide?
Knowing who someone voted for and their stated reason isn’t that same thing as knowing the mechanics behind their decision. How did they go about deciding? What kind of information mattered to them? How long did they continue evaluating the candidates? How did they deal with too much information about the race or too little?
In other words, what does the voter decision process look like from a cognitive standpoint? Do all voters decide the same way or are there differences in how they pick their candidate. And does the nature of the election itself change the way people decide?
In 2009, Richard Lau and David Redlawsk published How Voters Decide, a book based on a series of experimental studies they conducted attempting to answer these questions.
Their methodological innovations and findings should be of interest to political consultants and campaign operatives. And that’s because these breakthroughs have meaningful strategic implications for the way we run campaigns and present information to the voters.
Simulating an Election
One of the most important methodological innovations in the Lau and Redlawsk study was the use of a dynamic information board to simulate elections. This technical innovation allowed the experimenters to present political information to subjects in a way that mimics how they would actually encounter it in the real world.
What kind of information was presented? Exactly what you would expect in a typical American presidential campaign: facts and opinions about the candidates, news about current events and the candidates’ responses to it, horse race coverage, back-and-forth between the campaigns, endorsements, issue positions, biographical information, images of the contenders, quotes and slogans taken both in and out of context, and so forth. Just like in a campaign, the information was presented as a transient news feed, interrupted by occasional political ads.
No laboratory experiment can ever fully replicate the conditions of the real world. But the dynamic information board represents a giant leap forward in the following sense: it allows researchers to simulate the discordant and melodramatic media environment of a close election in a way that feels realistic to the study’s participants.
Correct and Incorrect Voting
Another important methodological innovation in this study was the development of an empirical concept of correct voting. In other words, did you vote for the right candidate — not by the experimenter’s standards — but by your own?
Lau and Redlawsk operationalized their correct voting measure in two ways. First, they asked subjects a series of questions about their own preferences before holding the mock election — and compared their answers to the way they ultimately voted. Second, after the mock ballots had been cast, they gave subjects a cheat sheet with complete information about all the candidates; and then they asked, “Do you regret how you voted?” The two measures correlated very strongly. In other words, the vast majority of subjects who voted incorrectly did so according to both ways of measuring it.
Voting incorrectly isn’t just some hypothetical problem confined to the lab. Lau and Redlawsk analyzed publicly available data from the highly respected American National Election Study. They found that, on average, about 28% of voters cast their ballot for the wrong candidate in U.S. presidential elections. This figure — and the ways in which it increased and decreased from election to election — was consistent with the evidence their simulated elections produced. That’s a very strong indicator that we should take the 28% figure seriously.
While voters across the political spectrum vote for the wrong candidate in every election, incorrect votes are neither distributed nor determined randomly. In both the real world and in simulated elections, the campaign with the most money consistently won the largest share of incorrect votes. Just as important, certain decision-making strategies in certain conditions predictably led voters astray.
Over the course of their study, Lau and Redlawsk found evidence pointing to four basic decision models. In other words, most voters go through a decision-making process that looks approximately like one of the following four alternatives.
Rational Choice Voters
Classic Example: The Newspaper Editorial Board
Rational choice voters use reason, evidence and informed judgments to make decisions. Motivated by self-interest and a need for accuracy, they base their decisions on retrospective evaluations and prospective judgments about the candidates in the race. They proactively gather as much information as possible and analyze it rigorously before making a choice, delaying their final judgment until the costs of gathering more information exceed the benefits. Rational choice voters give roughly equal time to all candidates, and use both candidate-based and preference-based search sequences. Their final decisions are explicit, conscious, and memory-based.
In practical terms, rational choice is actually a poor decision strategy for most voters. Experimental results showed that moderate and low information voters who used rational choice picked the wrong candidate and regretted their vote about half the time, regardless of the type of election or the number of candidates. They may as well have flipped a coin, because that’s about how effective this decision strategy is in their hands.
Among voters using rational choice, only those with high levels of political knowledge and experience were able to correctly interpret and contextualize what they learned about the candidates and the race — and remember what actually mattered.
Classic Example: The Partisan Leaner
Confirmatory voters base their decisions on long-held beliefs, assumptions and biases. Motivated by the need to be consistent, they typically base their decisions on the party affiliation of the candidates, but will also consider candidate positions and real world conditions — especially when party cues aren’t available (as in a non-partisan election) or determinative (as in an primary). The basic strategy behind confirmatory selection is that voters compare the new information they learn to what they already know.
Confirmatory voters do not give equal time to all the candidates, typically using a candidate-based search sequence that starts and ends with the side they favor. They will passively collect a moderate amount of information about the election, focusing primarily on the in-party candidate. If after a moderate amount of time they like what they see, they won’t bother checking up on the alternatives. These voters will only take time to learn more when new information about the in-party candidate challenges their established beliefs and contradicts their long-held preferences.
Unsurprisingly, this decision strategy works most reliably in a two-candidate general election with partisan opponents who conform to their party stereotypes. It isn’t at all reliable in a party primary; and thankfully, very few voters attempt to use this strategy in that context.
Fast and Frugal Voters
Classic Example: The Single-Issue Voter
Fast and frugal voters based their decisions on a small number of high priority criteria. Motivated by the desire for speed and efficiency, these voters consider partisanship, issue positions, candidate attributes and qualities, endorsements and other criteria of interest to them. They actively gather a moderate amount of information — focusing on their specific priorities — and make relatively quick decisions. Fast and frugal voters don’t spend very much time and energy making up their minds, but they do give all candidates an equal opportunity to satisfy their comparatively narrow list of demands. These voters use a preference-based search sequence that in some cases resembles a process of elimination.
Fast and frugal voting works best in a multi-candidate primary, but is also a reliable strategy for dealing with lengthy ballots that have dozens of races. Although the classic example of the fast and frugal voter is the single-issue voter, most of these voters have secondary or tertiary criteria reserved for elections when their “single issue” doesn’t result in a decision — such as when two or more candidates take the same position.
In addition, there may be implicit disqualifying criteria lurking in the background. For example, most people won’t vote for a candidate known to be serial rapist or a convicted murder — even if they agree with the candidate’s views. And some voters harbor prejudices — consciously and unconsciously — that disqualify certain candidates in their eyes.
Intuitive Satisficing Voters
Classic Example: The Low-Information Swing Voter
Intuitive satisficing voters based their decisions on heuristics, stereotypes and emotions. Motivated by the desire to avoid uncomfortable value tradeoffs, these voters trust their gut reactions which are often influenced by peripheral, ambient factors and first impressions. Lacking an organized search strategy and sometimes even an organized conception of politics, they haphazardly encounter bits and pieces of information about the election and decide impulsively.
Intuitive satisficing voters often make heavy use of cognitive shortcuts, speculative notions about the way the world works, and peripheral cues that better informed voters would deem irrelevant. How much effort these voters will expend on their decision depends on the perceived importance of the decision. Because their search strategy is haphazard, they do not give equal time to all the candidates.
It’s partly that these voters don’t know what’s going on and don’t much care. It’s partly that they don’t like being forced to choose. It’s partly that they have no strategy for arriving at a decision. It’s partly that they are influenced by factors that don’t matter. But in spite of it all, this decision strategy works reasonably well in a two candidate primary — voters who use it generally end up settling on the candidate who best lines up with their preferences and don’t generally regret their vote.
How Voters Decide
So who is using these strategies? The evidence suggests there are demographic differences. Among them, age is by far the strongest predictor.
Young voters seem to have a very strong preference for rational choice, while old voters strongly prefer intuitive satisficing. While the jury is still out on the reasons for this stark age difference, Lau and Redlawsk believe it may be related to the declining cognitive abilities of the elderly. Here’s what they were able to determine conclusively: the older the voter is, the less information they consider. Period.
Men show a strong preference for rational choice, while women tend to prefer confirmatory selection or intuitive satisficing. Political experts and sophisticates show a modest preference for rational choice and fast and frugal, while political novices show a slight preference for confirmatory selection and intuitive satisficing.
But voters change their decision strategy depending on the type of election, the number of contenders, and the level of contrast between the candidates. How they adapt reveals something about voter behavior that nobody knew before. But first, let’s spell out the actual findings.
Unsurprisingly, there are far more voters using a confirmatory strategy in general elections than in primaries. That’s because the party cues that confirmatory voters rely on aren’t available or relevant in most primaries. In elections where there are just two candidates, voters gravitate toward rational choice and fast and frugal. However, in elections where there are multiple candidates, voters are more likely to use confirmatory selection and intuitive satisficing.
In elections where the candidates are very ideologically distinct (high contrast), voters are more likely to use rational choice. But when the candidates are similar to each other (low contrast), voters are more likely to turn to confirmatory selection and intuitive satisficing. And whenever one candidate repeatedly violates party stereotypes by embracing the opposite party’s positions (e.g. a pro-choice Republican or a pro-life Democrat), voters systematically avoid using rational choice.
There’s an important pattern in this behavior. What the above scenarios have in common is that they all make the voter’s decision more difficult. It’s harder to decide between several candidates than it is to decide between just two. It’s harder to decide when the candidates are very similar than when they’re very different. It’s harder to decide when the other side keeps agreeing with you.
All of these are examples of what psychologists call increased task difficulty. And as the task of voting gets more difficult, voters react in the same way: they shift to easier, less cognitively demanding decision strategies. What confirmatory selection and intuitive satisficing have in common is that they’re easy on the brain. They don’t require a lot of critical thinking or cognitive effort. But when the going gets tough, those are the strategies voters prefer.
This is deeply counter-intuitive, and is certainly not rational in any sense of the word. You’d think that a more difficult decision would require extra attention: a more deliberative and critical approach to decision-making. But that’s not what actually happens — and it’s not what voters do.
Voters tackle tough decisions with simple-minded thinking and easy decisions with long, hard thought. And yet for the vast majority of voters, this thorough, more deliberative, more rationalistic approach to decision-making results in dramatically worse decisions.
We live in an information rich world where the demand for faster, newer, better information is always growing. Yet psychologists have demonstrated over and over that there are real limits to the volume of information a typical person can understand, contextualize and remember.
It’s sacrilege in some circles to question the strategic value of rapid response, big data, and saturating the airwaves. Yet these information-driven strategies have an unquestioned assumption baked into them: that more information must be better.
There are times and places when more information can make a positive difference. But when it comes to voter decision-making and the value of information, more is actually worse — much worse, dangerously worse. Deliberative, information-rich decision-making leads most voters astray. It is not in the interest of any campaign to encourage their own supporters and likely voters to make decisions this way.
It’s when voters have too much information and over-think things that they make the most errors at the ballot box. It’s what leads partisans to accidentally defect, activists to inadvertently betray their own cause, and casual voters to misjudge the candidates. Rational choice voters who think this way are by far the most likely to defect, but they’re also the most likely to regret it.
On the other hand, high information tactics that encourage rational decision-making may be a great way to peel off the other side’s marginal voters, provided these tactics are narrowly targeted.
In the end, the structure of the election itself — the number of candidates, how conventionally partisan they are, and how similar they are to each other — is the biggest determinant of correct and incorrect voting and the decision strategies voters prefer.
When the choices are harder, voters are more likely to see the election in soft focus with emphasis on the parties and the candidates themselves. Campaigns should behave in ways that are conventionally partisan and focus on validating voter preconceptions.
On the other hand, when the choices are comparatively simple and clear, specific issues and candidate attributes are likely to come into sharper focus. Campaigns should identify which ones matter most to their constituents and keep those priorities front and center throughout the campaign.
Keep It Simple
Lau and Redlawsk’s research is a reminder that in politics there really is such a thing as too much information. If their findings demonstrate anything, it’s that “keep it simple, stupid” is still very good advice.
It’s not that people are uniquely bad at making political decisions. It’s that human beings are fairly sloppy decision makers in most areas of our lives, and politics is no exception. Political behavior is not exempt from the laws of psychology that govern the rest of human behavior.
Compared to other branches of political psychology, the study of voter decision processes is still in its infancy. But if these findings are any indication, we can expect big things from researchers who pursue this line of inquiry.
First Person Politics is available to present this material — along with additional findings from Lau and Redlawsk’s research — in a live seminar or an online webinar. Click here for more information about our seminars. To book one, contact us today.