On Tuesday, 42% of registered voters took time out of their day to travel to their assigned polling location, wait in line, exchange niceties with a grumpy volunteer, and fill in some bubbles with a Sharpie. What did they receive in return?: a sticker and a 0% chance of changing the results of the election.
Political scientists have tried to calculate the probability that one vote will make a difference in a Presidential election. They estimate that the chances are roughly 1 in 10 million to 1 in 100 million, depending on your state. This does not give an individual much incentive to vote. In a YouGov survey, we asked respondents to estimate the same probability. “If you vote in 2012, what are the chances that your vote will determine the winner of the Presidential election?” Some of the responses are illuminating.
Not surprisingly, Americans vastly overestimate the chances that their vote will make a difference. Our median respondent felt that there is a 1 in 1000 chance that their vote could change the outcome of a Presidential election, missing the true chance by a factor of 10,000. However, this dramatic overestimation does not explain the prevalence of turnout, because those who actually vote know that this probability is low. Over 40% of regular voters know that the chances of a pivotal vote are less than 1 in a million. Amazingly, turnout is negatively correlated with the perceived chances that one vote will make a difference—meaning the less likely you are to think your vote will actually matter, the more likely you are to vote [emphasis added].
the presence of expertise about the future may encourage people to be less engaged in shaping their own futures. A study of popular responses to climate change suggests that a higher degree of confidence in the reality of climate change and the reliability of climate science can promote passivity and a sense that experts will deal with the problem, rather than inspire people to change their lives (Kellstedt et al., 2008; Swim et al., 2009). In another remarkable study, Jan Engelmann and colleagues used fMRI to observe the brains of people who received expert advice during a financial simulation. They found that subjects thought differently about their decisions when they received expert advice – even bad advice – than when they worked on their own. As the researchers put it, "one effect of expert advice is to ‘offload’ the calculation of value of decision options from the individual’s brain" (Engelmann et al., 2009). Put another way, "the advice made the brain switch off (at least to a great extent) processes required for financial decision-making" (Nir, 2009). In an era in which ordinary people play a bigger role in shaping the future, the prospect of an inverse relationship between how much confidence they place in expert opinion about complex problems, and how responsible they feel for acting to solve it, presents a substantial conundrum for futurists.
Clearly just giving people information about the future, or about the choices before them, and assuming they'll then act in a rational (or even straightforward, self-interested) manner doesn't quite work. We like to think we're rational, and we like to think other people are rational; but it's not quite so. As the voting example shows, sometimes that's a good thing; more often, though, it's not, and we need to better deal with that fact.