Friday, October 31, 2008

Irrational Behavior?

Case 1: Many Americans seem upset that voter turnout is often low for U.S. elections, and they often actively and enthusiastically encourage and "recruit" others to vote, and in fact engage in a form of "voter witnessing."

The statistical value (V) of your one vote is: V = 1 / N, where N is the number of voters. Obviously, as the number of voters N increases, the value of your one vote V decreases and approaches 0. Therefore, it would seem irrational and self-defeating for voters to actively "recruit" additional voters, since it only serves to dilute the statistical value of your vote.

Case 2: Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Heaven is limited to 144,000 Jehovah's Witnesses (see links
here, here and here).

If heaven is limited to only 144,000 Witnesses, why are they so committed to going door-to-door recruiting MORE potential competitors for those 144,000 seats? Seems like they should keep that 144,000 limit a secret, to increase current members' chances of getting in. There are already 1 million JWs in the US, and they are baptizing about 33,000 new Witnesses every year. Seems like chances of getting one of those 144,000 seats keeps going down and down.

Conclusion: If you want your vote to have the GREATEST statistical value for determining the outcome of the upcoming election, you should encourage others NOT to vote, or at least don't do any active "voter recruiting" or "voter witnessing." The more successful you are at recruiting voters, the less your one vote counts.

Oh, by the way, Jehovah's Witnesses can NOT vote in elections. Great. Our votes count more.


At 11/01/2008 9:35 AM, Blogger DaBlade said...

Thought provoking, as usual. But your equation doesn't address a good Community Organizer's uncanny ability to affect the numerator.

At 11/01/2008 9:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have to be dead to go to heaven. You can be alive or dead to vote. Ask your community organizer for details.

At 11/01/2008 9:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Irrationality seems to be the order of the day.

At 11/01/2008 10:16 AM, Blogger Mike Beversluis said...

I never thought of my vote as an individual action - rather, I think of myself as a member of a large number of people who'll vote like me, and that we depend on each other to vote to maximize our chance of winning. Seems rational to me.

No idea about the JW.

At 11/01/2008 11:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Professor Perry: Don't be too surprised when a new 50% income tax is enacted on college professors with Ph.D.s in economics when the political strategists find out you were the only one who voted in that demographic category. They are getting really good at sifting this type of information out of aggregate data nowadays :)

I'm not sure how political clout is quantified in empirical analysis, but it cannot be ignored in the real world. As a former UAW V-CAP Council member, I have spent a considerable amount of time making sure organized workers vote. Although there are many fewer of us today than in the past, we still have considerable political influence as a group. For that reason alone, I think you will see card-check-voting legislation for union organizing elections enacted after Obama is elected.

At 11/01/2008 11:09 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Maybe its obvious to someone else, but why is it never accepted that not voting is participation? Do we assume that because someone did not vote they simply are not taking part in the process or is not voting actual participation, saying "no one is worth voting for and so I choose not to make a selection."

At 11/01/2008 12:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those who participate will be happy to make the choice for you; I hope you will be happy with their decision. Whether you like it or not, that's how it works. I agree that it's not a perfect system by a long shot; however, a lot of people have died for your right to vote.

At 11/01/2008 6:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(a)voting: you recruit only those that will vote the same way as you. duh. Pay attention to the "get out the vote" campaigns....

(b) J.'s witnesses: to be part of the 144k, you gotta make a good faith (no pun intended) effort to get as many others in as possible--you prove your piety by saving many, many others.

At 11/01/2008 10:23 PM, Blogger Jen said...

My former babysitter was a JW and the way I understand the logic is this: yes, only a select number of individuals have the opportunity to experience heaven in the celestial sense - the rest remain in paradise here on earth.

The last time we had a discussion she flat out asked me "Wouldn't you rather be in paradise here on Earth - as God will return us to the Garden." I flat out told her "No. Not if it means I have to walk around naked."

On to voting. I look at it this way. In life I am blessed with a lot of things. Most of the time, I give items away because they are simply clutter for the moment. Yet, more often than not, after giving away the item, I am wishing for it back because there is a need.

I look at my right to vote in such a way. If I don't exercise it and decide to give it back - would I want it a year from now or even two?

I have not given up anything in order to earn the right to vote. I was born in the United States and it is a benefit of my citizenship. While I choose to exercise my right, many do not. I for one, understand my vote cannot stand alone - it takes many voices - imagine the pressure if my one vote counted...

So - with election day just around the corner - stay home if you like, but if something happens and our right is suddenly terminated, I won't listen to the whine.

At 11/01/2008 11:24 PM, Blogger Redneck said...

It's not the value of my single vote, it's the value of my total contribution to the process. Thus, I have more power if I can convince more people to vote the same as me, P=V+O>V=1/n, where P = power and O = Others who vote like me.

At 11/02/2008 8:46 AM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11/02/2008 8:47 AM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> Thought provoking, as usual. But your equation doesn't address a good Community Organizer's uncanny ability to affect the numerator.

True, but that is largely irrelevant as a result of being pretty much undefined given that the Community Organizer's taxation plans have a divisor which approaches zero rapidly and asymptotically.

At 11/02/2008 10:39 AM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> I think you will see card-check-voting legislation for union organizing elections enacted after Obama is elected.

True, *IF* Obama is elected.

There's still plenty of indications it may not happen. Get out and vote, even if you think it's useless. There are some strong indicators that it may not be swinging as the polls say it is:

Strata's page: About Those Polls & Turnout Models

DJ Drummond's Stolen Thunder: A Few Thoughts About the State Polls

Zombietime has an interesting piece up, too:
The Left's Big Blunder

I dunno, maybe it's all wishful thinking. But something FEELS wrong if Obama is actually winning so obviously.

Here in Florida, in the only county north of Orlando to go for Gore and Kerry, I'm seeing at least as many McCain/Palin signs as Obama signs. And almost no Obama bumper stickers (there were a LOT of Gore and Kerry ones).

Yes, that is an impression, not any effort towards a statistical variance or anything.

Strata also notes this one:
More Bad Polls For Obama

First, a highly Dem slanted AP/Yahoo poll shows a tie race. The AP/Yahoo poll shows the race to be 44-42% in favor of Obama, well within the margin of error of 2.5%. What has got to have the dems shaking in their boots is the sample break down, which is 40% democrats, 27% republican and 21% independent. A 13% spread is a joke, which means Obama could be as much as 4-8% behind (just a ROM estimate in my part). Anyone buying that is just deluding themselves.

Also, the WSJ has a good article about the nature of today’s polls and some words of warning on turnout models. A key snippets:

Surveys giving Sen. Obama a large and growing lead tend to assume that a growing proportion of voters are Democrats, and a shrinking percentage Republicans. They also point to a big increase in turnout, particularly among voters under the age of 30. Surveys showing a closer race assume less change in party affiliation in particular.

Things That Make Polls Go D’Oh

My (Phone) Schlep to Florida (utterly anecdotal)

Funky Gallup Medina

Completely Anecdotal. Weight as you see fit

Now VA Swinging Towards McCain

Now, I'm not saying anyone is WINNING. I'm only saying, there's a LOT of evidence that it's not a DONE DEAL.

So make sure you GET OUT AND VOTE, especially if you live in one of the "swing" states -- PA, OH, VA, MO, NV, FL -- in those states, turnout will be key. And if you think "Ah, what's one vote gonna make?" I would remind you that the chief reason why Gore was not in charge on 9/11 was about 8000 voters in Florida.

Obama supporters: I'm just nuts. It's in the bag. Stay home. Drink a brew.


At 11/02/2008 12:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

More importantly, how will these guys be voting:

Looks like someone we all know is on this list.

At 11/02/2008 12:39 PM, Blogger the buggy professor said...

1) There's an underlying problem with all this conventional wisdom --- purveyed by rational-choice economists and political scientists --- that it's even irrational for one individual to vote . . . what with the teeny-tiny probability (approaching zero) that his or her vote will make a difference in a national election. Never mind, please note, trying to encourage others to vote.

That problem --- which reduces to an article of faith among a large majority of economists (except for those who are influenced by behavioral economics)? The assumption that rational-choice reduces to optimizing selfish-interests . . . AKA, individual self-interest, and nothing else.


2) It would take to long to dissect the fallacious logic that underlies this assumption, which generalizes from a narrow economic realm --- choice of job or occupation, household budget concerns, and the like --- to the political realm.


And so suffice it, much as I dislike to just quote other authors in place of a reasoned argument of my own --- backed by at least some good evidence --- to quote from a good recent summary of what copious survey evidence has discovered about why people even bother to vote. The source:

To wit:

"And many people do see it that way. Surveys show that voters choose based on who they think will do better for their country as a whole, rather than their personal betterment. Indeed, when it comes to voting, it is irrational to be selfish.

"The probability of your vote being decisive is roughly inversely proportional to the size of the electorate (see Gelman, King, and Boscardin, 1988, Gelman, Katz, and Bafumi, 2004, and Mulligan and Hunter, 2002, for details and empirical evidence), and your personal benefit remains flat, but the “social benefit”—the total gain for the country that you would anticipate, if your candidate wins—is proportional to the population, so that the product p*B approaches a constant, not zero, as the number of voters increases. (It is not necessary for this social benefit to be accurately perceived—see Caplan, 2007—for it to determine people’s votes.)"


4) Note, by way of clarification: "the p*B" mentioned above refers to a variable in a probability model that the authors set out earlier in the paper:

“U = p*B - C + D,

“where p is the probability that your single vote is decisive, B is the benefit you gain from your preferred candidate winning the election, C is the cost incurred by going to the trouble to vote, and D is the direct benefit of voting irrespective of the outcome. C – D is the net cost of voting.”


5) The substantive conclusion they arrive at, including some comments about why extremely low voter-turnout isn't an equibrium point in the model?

It's analogous to the finding that buying a lottery ticket --- given the huge payoff --- isn't irrational, despite the very low probability of anyone winning:


To quote the authors again:

"But here's the good news. If your vote is decisive, it will make a difference for tens of millions of people.

"If you think your preferred candidate could bring the equivalent of a $100 improvement in the quality of life to the average person in your country—not an implausible hope, given the size of national budgets and the impact of decisions in foreign policy, health, the environment, and other areas—you’re now buying a billion-dollar lottery ticket. With this payoff, a 1 in 10 million chance of being decisive isn't bad odds.

"And many people do see it that way. Surveys show that voters choose based on who they think will do better for their country as a whole, rather than their personal betterment. Indeed, when it comes to voting, it is irrational to be selfish...

"In “Voting as a rational choice: why and how people vote to improve the well-being of others,” co-authors and I show how this reasoning implies a feedback mechanism: if turnout declines, then the probability of a tied election increases, which in turn implies that, on the margin, it then becomes rational for some people to vote. The feedback with voter turnout is why voting is not a simple free-rider or prisoner’s dilemma problem: the more people who free ride (by not voting), the higher the expected benefit to you of voting, and so extremely low turnout is not an equilibrium."


6) So much for the substantive points. There is also a key theoretical point that emerges.

Namely? however much it might flatter economists (and libertarian devotees) who assume that rational-choice theory equals maximizing self-interest and nothing else and can be generalized to virtually all of our behavior --- even, supposedly, in choosing a spouse --- the assumption, it turns out, markedly misconstrues the complexity of our motives in most areas of our lives outside the narrow economic realm itself.


7) Nor is that all. We can delve deeper even in a fast, top-skimming commentary of the current sort:

Tersely put, even in economics, the standard-model assumptions about rational decision-making are being challenged.

Those assumptions identify rational-choice with strictly narrow, self-centered, utilitarian, and self-consciously calculated decision-making is being challenged by a growing number of more psychologically informed behavioral economists . . . yes, even in the realm of economic behavior itself.


Come to that, the core premise, rationality itself --- construed without taking into account the emotional side of our lives as influencing our motives in decision-making of all sorts --- has come under more and more challenge too.


8) Enter a more general point by way of illustration . . . this time in a realm I specialized in as a scholar --- the decision to go to war, deterrence theory, coercive diplomacy, and the like.

As it happens, such narrowly conceived cognitive approaches bereft of emotional content as powerful influences on those decisions turn out to be usually misleading when judged against the historical record.

Among those shaping emotional influences?

Fear, anger, denigration of the adversary as morally inferior, overconfidence in one’s judgment, selective and biased decision-making rooted in powerfully defended beliefs and the like --- not to mention group-think concerns --- usually come into play.

The "best-case" assumptions that entered into the closed, narrow group-think that motivated the Bush-W decisions about the very favorable nature of occupied, post-Saddam Iraq in 2003 are, alas, a very costly, very up-to-date example.


Michael Gordon, AKA, the buggy professor

At 11/02/2008 12:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ad Case 1: Well, actually the weight of your vote is not derived from the number of voters but from the difference between both candidates.

Even if there is billion voters, your vote has big weight, when both candidates have same number votes (tie, 50:50)

At 11/03/2008 11:06 AM, Blogger Todd said...

There are larger issues to consider:

Someone who believes in a democratic system may care about more than getting his own way on specific issues or candidates. It can be argued that people who become part of the process by voting are less likely to feel disenfranchised even when their side doesn't win. If you support democracy, you might encourage more people to vote in order to increase popular buy-in to the process and reduce the chances of unrest that would threaten the institution. If you believe that you personally will be better off in a stable political system, then it might be in your best interest to promote voting among a wide group of your fellow citizens.

At 11/03/2008 12:33 PM, Blogger Kevin Murphy said...

I don't want my vote to have the biggest statistical effect, I want my preferences in policians to win the vote. Therefore, I try to get the most people to vote for my preferences.

I'm still strictly rational and self-interested, but I focus on what's important.


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