For obvious reasons, my RSS feed is full of blog posts about the (ir)rationality of voting in presidential elections. The skinny of the matter is that voting takes non-trivial effort, but the likelihood that one’s vote will matter (i.e., be the pivotal vote that decides the election) is very small. The arguments for voting are that, the likelihood of casting the pivotal vote isn’t really all that small compared to the rewards, if no one else voted then one’s vote would be pivotal, people get internal satisfaction from voting, and that people vote to signal how good they are to other people.
First I should say that I am skeptical of the last one because, well, a lot of people who vote spend at least some effort deciding who to vote for and, if they were just after the “I Voted” sticker, that would be wasted effort. Second, explaining voting by saying that it gives people internal satisfaction begs the question of why it people should get internal satisfaction from voting.
Some commentators focus on the material benefits of presidential elections in the cost-benefit analysis of voting. But let’s get away from the presidential election and its obvious benefits and ask a harder question (from a cost-benefit perspective). Why do large numbers of people vote in the Eurovision Song Contest? Compared to the “benefits” side of the presidential election, they are basically voting to have a slightly larger number appear next to the name of a wind-swept Swedish pop singer instead of an adorable gaggle of Russian babushkas. Any theory explaining votes in presidential elections, should also apply to this harder case.
From here we can move on to a better understanding of why people yell at their television sets during professional (both American and rest-of-the-world) football games.