Our wants versus our needs


As Election Day is upon us, we think it fitting to assail a time-honored political question: Why do we vote the way we do? Scientists provide some pretty compelling answers. You probably won’t like them.

In an article titled, 5 Reasons Your Vote Will Be Irrational, Tia Ghose, writing for MSNBC.com, cites a 2008 study published in the journal American Political Science Review that suggests there may be a more fundamental cause: genetic proclivity.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, family upbringing has no statistically significant effect on a child’s future political involvement. James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, and his colleagues analyzed voting patterns of identical and non-identical twins from a sample in Los Angeles County and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

Since identical twins come from the same egg, they have nearly identical DNA, while fraternal, or non-identical, twins are no more alike than any two siblings in terms of their genes.

The study included voter information for eight elections between 2000 and 2005, including three primary, two statewide and three general elections. Fifty-three percent of the differences in voter participation could be explained by genetics. Additionally, the genetic-based differences extended to various types of political participation, including donating to a campaign, contacting an official, running for office and attending a rally.

“We expected to find that genes played some role in political behavior,” Fowler said, “but we were quite surprised by the size of the effect and how widely it applies to all kinds of participation.”

Collateral to this, John Hibbing, a University of Nebraska political scientist, found that identical twins share more political beliefs than fraternal twins. “Forty, perhaps 50 percent of our political beliefs seem to have a basis in genetics,” said Hibbing. While genetics are unlikely to “hardwire” people into being liberal or conservative, Hibbing said genes could make people more or less likely to have certain values or react to situations in a particular way.

Beyond genetics, John Jost, a psychologist at New York University, conducted an overview of previous studies involving a total of more than 22,000 participants from 12 countries. Jost’s results published in the journal, American Psychologist, observes that people who are more conscientious and prefer order, structure and closure in their lives tend to be more conservative, whereas creative people who are open to new experiences tend to be more politically liberal.

Of course then there’s the question of how we process all these inputs and act upon them. Princeton University political scientist Bryan Jones adds a dimension to the discussion with the observation that political practice is largely based in what scientists call “bounded rationality.” In other words, we believe we are acting rationally, but in strict terms, we aren’t.

In the journal, Annual Review of Political Science, Jones explains the concept: “Bounded rationality asserts that decision makers are intendedly rational; that is, they are goal-oriented and adaptive, but because of human cognitive and emotional architecture, they sometimes fail, occasionally in important decisions.”

In other words, because we lack perfect information and perfect minds with which to process it, our decisions are essentially an act of muddling through based on what we think our best interests are. As these scientists attest, we are often — arguably — wrong.

Of course, all of this must then be cast against the sage words of Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”

Yeah, sometimes…

So go vote, already!