Voting for cognitive dissonance


There’s a theory in modern politics that says if you don’t like the current bastards, you can always vote them out and replace them with new bastards. Scientists have discovered, however, that it might not be so easy to vote the bastards out after all.

As it turns out, people are more likely to prefer a candidate because they voted for him, writes Brian Doherty in this month’s Reason magazine. Doherty cites a study by Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard University and Ebonya Washington of Yale University, who looked at post-election voter surveys conducted from 1976 to 1996.

Their findings? Well, you can pay the $5 for a copy of the study, if you want. But I’ll tell you: The researchers found that the act of voting for a candidate “strengthens future opinions of a candidate. Those who are induced to turnout either by age eligibility or by a concurrent Presidential election, show increased polarization in their views toward the candidates two years post-election. Thus we provide direct field evidence of the importance of cognitive dissonance.” 1

Wait, cognitive dissonance? Yes, that’s right, a person’s beliefs actually change based on the decisions he or she makes. If a person makes a decision that runs counter to his beliefs, what he believes will actually change to accommodate the bad decision. Not everyone suffers from this at all times with all bad decisions. Most people are capable of admitting a mistake, at least in most circumstances. But in voting, cognitive dissonance clearly plays a role. And recognizing that it’s happened to you is the first step to recovery.

The paper points out that cognitive dissonance clearly contributes to the advantage that an incumbent holds when he runs for re-election, that having term limits might be a good thing and that high voter turnout might not be a good thing.

I would suggest that next they need to study this with respect to political parties as well; I suspect the same will hold true. Consider the person who votes for the same party his entire life, regardless of what the people in that party actually do. People identify with their actions and it shapes their beliefs. There is the truth and the danger of this sort of cognitive dissonance.

This also suggests why wasted vote syndrome, the mistaken belief that one should vote for the lesser of two evils, is so prevalent, as Charles Stricklin, who sent in this story, testified. “I’ve concluded that I voted for George Bush, not once, but twice, not because I preferred his policies or positions, but because I could not tolerate the possibility that either Al Gore or John Kerry might one day be president,” he wrote.

Unfortunately, this study raises more questions than it answers, but in trying to form a society which is more oriented toward liberty, and reducing the burden of government on our lives, the forces of human psychology should be kept in mind, and when possible, brought to bear in solving the problem.


1. “Sticking with Your Vote: Cognitive Dissonance and Voting.” NBER Website. 04/24/2006. <>. The referenced paper is copyright © 2006 Sendhil Mullainathan and Ebonya Washington.

This article originally published at Homeland Stupidity.

  1. Dude — we got two Brian Doherty links in a row. That was certainly unplanned on my part.

  2. I certainly didn’t plan it that way. I’ve had the story since yesterday, and just got around to posting it.

  3. Hmmm — this might make for a persuasive argument to get rid of primary elections or for third parties to be included in them.

  4. This same mechanism can be used to our advantage. By asking for a favor that’s easy to grant in support of the LP, you set the stage for an actual vote or votes subsequently.

    Example: if polling numbers are required in order to qualify to get into a debate, you ask people to tell pollsters that they want the Libertarian candidate in the debate, even if they don’t plan to vote for them. Once they’ve supported an LP candidate this much, they are more likely to actually “waste” their votes on L candidates in races they don’t care about (why not?), and eventually to affirmatively vote for them.

    When the tide turns, it will turn relatively quickly.

  5. Sandra — that actually sort of relates to something I said in a speech last weekend. One advantage of ballot access restrictions is that people who have signed a petition are already somewhat invested in a campaign.

  6. If you didn’t have ballot access restrictions, you’d use something else for them to sign or do in any small way, such as promise to tell pollsters they want to see the candidate debate even if they don’t think they’ll vote for him.

    I think this all relates to the story of, was it Benjamin Franklin?, who borrowed a book from an opponent. The opponent then voted to support him, having already loaned him a book. We, too, can get human nature to work for us.

  7. I see this in the software world all the time. Once people decide to use a certain software package or system, they will stick by it even when much cheaper and better alternatives are presented. “Why do you keep using windows, when Linux is free?” MSoffice vs OpenOffice etc..