How to Vote Well

Jason Brennan,

Release Date
October 25, 2012


Democracy and Voting

To vote well, we need more than just information. We also need to process information in an open-minded and reliable way. Unfortunately, research shows that individuals aren’t very good at doing that. Professor Jason Brennan outlines four important biases citizens need to overcome in order to vote well: optimism bias, confirmation bias, in-group bias, and action bias. These biases come naturally to most people. How can we prevent them from affecting our votes?
Professor Brennan makes several suggestions to help us become better voters:

  1. Don’t label yourself. Stay independent.
  2. Listen to the other side and challenge your own views. Take a break from reading things that support your current opinions.
  3. Stop and think. Step back and carefully analyze options before making an opinion.
  4. Avoid the news and focus on the social sciences. To be a good voter, invest in learning the basics of economics, sociology, and political science.
  5. Assume things will go worse than expected. Double the expected costs and halve the benefits; if a program doesn’t seem worth it after that, don’t vote for it.

Voting irresponsibly doesn’t help anyone. We’re all capable of voting well, Professor Brennan says—if we’re willing to do a little work.

Myth of the Rational Voter [essay]: Bryan Caplan writes that voters tend to gravitate to the same mistakes.
Why People are Irrational About Politics [article]: Michael Huemer discusses voter behavior and systematic biases.
Cognitive Biases – A Visual Study Guide : A short but comprehensive overview of cognitive biases.
Why Voters Vote the Way They Do [interview]: Bill Steigerwald explains how voters frequently come to irrational conclusions.
To Err is Human [essay]: A pragmatist essay on the psychology of cognitive biases.

Want to vote well? It takes more than information. We need to process information in an open-minded and reliable way or it does us no good, and most of us are really bad at doing this.
Imagine two doctors both want to heal sick patients. The first, Quinton, doesn’t follow scientific evidence. He follows his heart. When he forms his beliefs about medicine, he just believes whatever feels right. The second, Edna, has a scientific mindset. She doesn’t just follow her heart; she bases her beliefs on the best available evidence.
Which doctor would you want to help you – Quinton or Edna? I bet you’d say Edna. Quinton means well, but he isn’t helping anyone. But unfortunately, as voters, there’s reason to think most of us are more like Quinton than Edna.
Research shows that most voters suffer from many cognitive biases, regardless of their political bias. A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from rational thought. For most voters, it doesn’t matter if they read the news or study candidates’ platforms. Their votes reflect their biases. To vote well, we need to overcome our biases.
So what are some of the worst biases? I’ll name four important ones.
First, optimism bias means we systematically overestimate the likelihood our decisions will produce good results and underestimate the probability things will go badly. We ignore the possibility of unforeseen consequences.
Second, confirmation bias means that we tend to look for and accept any new evidence that favors our pre-existing current opinions and we ignore, reject, or are suspicious of evidence that undermines our current opinions.
Third, in-group bias means we’re prone to treat political disagreements as battles between rival teams. We’re biased to believe that anything our team does, no matter how bad, is good just because our team does it. We’re biased to believe the other team is bad no matter what they do. We’re quick to forgive our side and quick to condemn the other side.
Fourth, action bias means we always feel like we have to do something rather than nothing. Sometimes the best response is to sit and wait until we know more because something we might want to do might just create new problems.
These four biases come naturally to most people. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can probably recognize one or more of them in our own past decisions and behavior.
So, how can we help avoid these biases when voting? Well, here are some steps that every voter should consider.
First, don’t label yourself. Once you identify with a group, you’ll feel compelled to show fidelity to the team even when you should be skeptical. Stay independent.
Second, listen to the other side and challenge your own views. Find and read the smartest criticisms of your own current views and the smartest defenses of other positions. For a while, take a break from reading things that support your current opinions.
Third, stop and think. Our problems may be urgent, thus precisely why we must avoid hasty decisions and false solutions. Take time to step back, let your emotions cool, and carefully analyze problems before your reach an opinion.
Fourth, avoid the news and focus on the social sciences. News is often just noise. Sensationalist news is what sells and it’s often misleading. If you want to be a good voter, invest in learning the basics of economics, sociology, and political science.
Fifth, assume that things will go much worse than expected. Whatever your side proposes to do, take your best estimate of the benefits and then cut them in half. Take your best estimate of the costs and double them. If it’s not still worth doing, then don’t vote to do it. Remember, you don’t do anyone a favor by voting irresponsibly. Most of us can vote well but, just like anything else, doing it well takes work.