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Introduction to Political Science

2.2 Why Do Humans Make the Political Choices That They Do?

Introduction to Political Science2.2 Why Do Humans Make the Political Choices That They Do?

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify the principal forms of human decision-making.
  • Distinguish between instrumental, or strategic, and noninstrumental, or expressive, elements of human behavior.
  • Identify the two main interests people have in their political decisions.

Human behavior is incredibly complex and not entirely understood, and it varies from person to person. Like fingerprints, each person is unique. No description of human behavior can possibly encompass the total behaviors of every individual. In order to describe human behavior, it is necessary to simplify. In simplifying, it is not possible to explain everything about human behavior, but it is possible to highlight its main features.

Humans Make Decisions in Two Main Ways

Empirical political science tries to understand two main elements of human political behavior: the directly observable and the indirectly observable. Behaviors themselves are directly observable. Understanding why individuals act as they do when they engage in political action or when they refrain from participating requires an inquiry into mental and psychological processes, which, in the absence of brain scans, are not directly observable. In the real world of politics, it may not be possible to say why individuals do what they do, but it is usually possible to see what they do.

Humans make decisions in two main ways, what psychologist Daniel Kahneman characterizes as “thinking fast” and “thinking slow.”52 Thinking fast is intuitive; when thinking fast, people don’t realize they are doing it. Thinking slow takes cognitive energy, as when you solve a complex math problem. When politicians craft their speeches, they think slow; when they ad-lib parts of their speeches during delivery, they think fast. When you compare the policy proposals of different political parties in trying to decide how to vote: slow. If you reflexively vote for “your” party: fast.

An illustration shows a hare talking to a tortoise. The fable The Hare and the Tortoise is written below the illustration.
Figure 2.7 Humans think fast, and they think slow. (credit: “Ephemera, The Hare and the Tortoise” by Frederick Stuart Church/Smithsonian Design Museum, Public Domain)

Thinking slow is more difficult than thinking fast. It requires focus and takes time and cognitive energy. Not surprisingly, humans often avoid the hard work of thinking slowly and rely heavily on snap judgments, which are especially prone to all sorts of biases and errors. What is true for human behavior is also true for political behavior, which involves a combination of snap and reflective decisions.

Rationality and Thinking Slow

Political and other social scientists use the terms rational and irrational in specific ways that may differ from the ways you hear these terms used in conversation. In political science, rational does not simply mean reasonable, and irrational does not simply mean rash or lacking in good judgement. Instead, in political science a rational person is self-interested and strategic. The rational person makes decisions in pursuit of self-serving goals and is calculating in their assessment of which actions are most likely to obtain those goals. The rational person is defined as one who seeks to maximize their own well-being, however they define it.

In contrast, in political science an irrational person is one who is neither selfish, nor strategic, nor calculating. An irrational person is not necessarily unpredictable: on the contrary, in many ways such a person can be predictably irrational.53 Even when people know that they should take better care of their health, save more for the future, or study sooner rather than later, they tend not to do these things. Why not? Because humans often do not act in their own best interest.

Consider voting decisions. One might think that a rational voter would study the candidates, compare them against each other, and then vote for the one most likely to maximize that voter’s happiness (or welfare or satisfaction). Research indicates that most voters don’t act this way, instead relying on “factors that enable them to make choices relatively quickly and easily.”54 People tend to use heuristics in making decisions. A heuristic is a cognitive shortcut for making decisions, in which someone substitutes simple, practical rules for more complex methods. What’s the best thing to order off the menu? You could carefully scrutinize every option or say, “I’ll have the daily special.” That’s using a heuristic. In deciding for whom to vote, individuals could examine the records of all the candidates or decide “I’ll vote for the candidate from my party.”

Humans are not always, or perhaps even generally, rational. But if you wish to understand political behavior, and especially if you want to become actively involved in politics, it is helpful to assume that the most skillful political actors tend to be rational: they make strategic decisions, as discussed in Chapter 1: What Is Politics and What Is Political Science?, given the rules and the reality, to maximize their chances of obtaining their goals. Skillful political actors—a political actor is anyone engaging in political activity—will also know the value of exploiting the human propensity for noncognitive decision-making.

Intuitive Decision-Making (Thinking Fast)

Think about something you do that, at times, you can do automatically, without thinking, but that at other times requires cognitive effort. Maybe for you that is commuting to school or work or doing the laundry. On the first day of your commute, you were almost certainly thinking slowly, reading bus schedules or street signs, paying close attention to finding the right exits, and so forth. If you have been commuting to and from the same place for a while, however, you may know what it’s like to commute on “autopilot,” thinking fast. On the one hand, it’s amazing that you accomplish the complex tasks of navigating without deep concentration; on the other, you’ve got this.

Thinking fast simplifies the world for us, but it leaves us prone to many risks. Political actors who are skilled in the psychology of persuasion can—and often do—seek to take advantage of the human biases and prejudices associated with thinking fast to further their aims. Conspiracy theories and misinformation seem to spread faster than the truth because determining truth can require careful analysis, while succumbing to fake news requires only the suspension of critical faculties. (For more discussion of fake news, see Chapter 12: The Media.) Politicians, seeking your support, are less likely to appeal to your head than to your (metaphorical) heart.

Humans Behave in Two Main Ways: Strategic and Expressive

People often do things to get things. They go to the store to buy food. They study in order to learn or to get higher grades. In other words, they take action in order to achieve their goals. In an ideal world, people would act in ways best suited to obtaining their objectives. If their goal is to earn a high grade, they would devise an approach to studying—or perhaps something else, like cheating—that is most likely to produce the grade they want. If their goal is to win an election, they would presumably make decisions that they deem most likely to win votes. Note that acting strategically does not necessarily imply acting morally. Acting strategically is quite simply choosing the most effective means to achieve a specific end.

Even when people try to act strategically, several factors may temper their success. In the first case, even apparently simple goals may have multiple or unclear dimensions. Say your goal is to win an election. Should you spend your time, money, and effort trying to persuade individuals to vote for you? To mobilize those already deemed to be supportive?55 To discourage voters likely to support your opponent? Some combination of all of these? Once you clarify your goal—say, to mobilize those who already support you—you have to figure out what is the best way to do this. If you send your supporters frequent text messages, will you excite them or turn them off? Finally, calculations may simply be inaccurate: people might believe that certain actions will mobilize their supporters when in fact those actions do not. Now, multiply the complexities of getting any individual to vote for you to the challenges of getting millions of voters to support you. Acting strategically would be easy if there were a single goal, complete information, and perfect judgement. In the real world, people often have multiple goals, highly imperfect information, and biased or otherwise inaccurate assessments. Still, the political actor with the superior strategy is likely to prevail over an opponent with a weaker strategy, all other things being equal.

“All other things being equal” (scholars often write this phrase as “ceteris paribus”) is an important phrase in political (and all social) science. In the example above, the candidate with the superior strategy might not win if their opponent has superior resources or support. The phrase all other things being equal means that if two candidates have equal resources and equal support—that is, if the two candidates are equal in other important ways—the one with the superior strategy is likely to win.

Those in politics as a vocation have strong incentives to act strategically. When politicians run for office, they ask, “What is the best way for me to get elected?” and then act on their answers to that question. When interest groups consider how to get the policies they want, they try to use their resources most effectively in these efforts. Given the multiple potential actions they could take, their uncertainty regarding the effectiveness of their actions, and the biases they have about which activities are likely to be effective, no actors’ strategies are ever perfect.

Think back to the chess example in Chapter 1. You might expect both players to act strategically, understanding that they both have one single, clear goal: to win the game. There are too many possible ways to do this, and they cannot know them all; they have imperfect information. Beyond that, there is another, more strategic complication at play: the success of one player’s strategies depends in large part on the strategic actions of the other player. In plotting a strategy, then, each player must consider the strategy of their opponent. So it is in politics. Strategic actions do not occur in a vacuum. To successfully achieve political goals, individuals must factor in their opponents’ anticipated strategic actions when devising their own.

Acting strategically does not necessarily mean acting ethically. Politics is full of stories of politicians engaging in dirty tricks, employing intimidation and violence, or otherwise engaging in corrupt activities when they believe that doing so will be to their advantage. Political candidates in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, and Mexico have all been accused of engaging in dishonest social media campaigns—and that’s just in Latin America. (And, of course, dishonesty in social media is not unique to any one part of the globe.) 56 No country is immune, and the savvy political observer understands that political actors around the world face temptations to engage in corrupt acts and that the quality of a political system might be judged in part by how much it does to prevent such deception.57

Two people play chess on a bench at the side of a street. A group of people surrounds the bench, watching the match.
Figure 2.8 Chess players use strategic thinking. (credit: “Playing chess” by Slava Myronov/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The complexity of human action goes far beyond the strategic. Sometimes people act not to get things, but to express emotions. If you have ever sung karaoke, looked up at the stars, played in the snow, or engaged in any of the countless activities that bring joy, demonstrate anger, or simply show you being you, you have engaged in expressive activities. Expressive activities are not done to accomplish anything in particular, but just because you feel like doing them. An alternate view is that all human behavior is goal oriented, and that the goal of expressive behavior is to express emotion, as compared to strategic behavior, which has goals separate from the behavior itself.

Expressive behavior sends out signals about the kind of person you are or want others to believe you are (e.g., the kind of person who sings karaoke). Humans are social beings who usually care about how they are perceived by others. Those around us may not actually know us, but they can form perceptions of us based on our expressive behaviors (see: Instagram).

A screenshot of an Instagram profile page for the user hmoong shows thumbnails of 12 photographs, many of them apparent self-portraits, below basic profile information.
Figure 2.9 Expressive behavior can show how people want to be perceived. (credit: “I moved to Instagram @hmoong” by Khánh Hmoong/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Expressive behaviors are important in politics for a couple of reasons. Much behavior is predicated on how people want to appear, not just (or mainly) what they want to accomplish, and this is as true in politics as it is on Instagram. It is not always possible to say what strategic goals individuals hope to accomplish when they attend political rallies, but it is clear that they wish to express their identities as supporters of a candidate, a party, or a cause.58 What is called a person’s party ID, shorthand for the political party with which that person identifies, is more closely associated with expressive choices than with strategic ones.59

Strategic and expressive behaviors can overlap, and at times they are difficult to distinguish. Consider, for example, why people vote. Voting might be a strategic behavior that aims to help elect a particular candidate, but voting is also a way to demonstrate to others what kind of person you are. Individuals’ decisions on whether to vote or for whom to vote are also context dependent. In most democracies, voting is optional, but in Argentina, Australia, and Austria, citizens are required to vote.

At times, what appears to be expressive behavior is deliberately strategic. Political candidates choose their attire to send messages about who they are as well as why people should support them.

Peru's President Pedro Castillo stands with other campaign officials. President Castillo wears a large straw hat, while the other officials wear suits and ties without anything on their heads.
Figure 2.10 Peru’s President Pedro Castillo always campaigns in a traditional Andean straw hat. (credit: “28/07/2021 Cerimônia de posse do Presidente da República do Peru, Pedro Castillo” by Vice-Presidência da República/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Humans Seek Two Different Interests: Self-Interest and the Interests of Others

In simple terms, humans apply intuitive and cognitive thinking and strategic and expressive actions to seek two different types of interests: self-interests and public-spirited or altruistic interests.60

At a basic level, humans are selfish (but not only selfish: humans are also naturally cooperative and compassionate, with individuals varying as to how selfish or cooperative they are).61 This is not a moral judgment; it’s an empirical statement. People are selfish in both the narrow biological sense (for example, if they are hungry, they seek food, and if they are tired, they seek rest) and in a broader social way. Although people might seek different things in life, they tend to want more, rather than less, of the things they desire. These desires may be for material goods (money, property) or relational ones (power, fame).

In the political world, individuals typically prefer to support the kinds of politicians and policies that they believe will benefit them personally. The benefits can be tangible: better services, safer communities, improved schools, lower taxes, and so forth. The benefits may also be intangible, as, for example, when voters favor politicians who pledge to enhance the social prestige of their supporters or to make their country more respected around the world. Candidate Donald Trump did not campaign primarily on a platform of tax cuts (or any other policies): he campaigned on the promise to “Make America Great Again.” Chinese President Xi Jinping vows not just to make China prosperous: he pledges to make it respected.62 As Evo Morales, the first Indigenous president of Bolivia, put it, “In Bolivia, Indigenous people govern completely differently. It is something historic, unprecedented—[with] pride.”63

Yet many political behaviors are difficult to square with the idea that political actors are solely acting in their own personal self-interest.64 Those seeking government protection for endangered species are unlikely to personally benefit if those species are saved from extinction. Those who want to prohibit flag burning are not materially better off if that policy is adopted. Some of the most intense political debates occur not over the distribution of material resources but instead over symbolic or cultural issues. The contest is less about who gets what and more about what kind of country people want to live in.

What Can I Do?

Political Behavior: Developing Communication Skills

A flow chart shows potential consequences of different courses of action the United States and the USSR could have taken during the Cuban Missile Crisis. If the United States chose not to threaten Cuba, there would be no conflict. The best possible outcome for the US would occur if the United States threatened Cuba and the USSR removed its missiles from Cuba. If the USSR kept missiles in Cuba, the US would have three choices. The best possible outcome for the USSR in that situation would be if the US decided to back down. If the US followed through on its threat, the result would be war. If the US increased it’s threat, the USSR would need to reevaluate whether to keep or remove its missiles from Cuba.
Figure 2.11 Throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis, both the United States and the USSR considered many possible outcomes of their actions. This game tree models how the two actors would have considered their decisions. It is broken down into a simple form for basic understanding. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The study of political behavior involves interpretation. While we may know whom an individual voted for, we may never really know why they voted for that person. We can look to exit polls for clues, or we can look to socioeconomic or demographic characteristics to make predictions about voting behavior, but in the end, this is just our interpretation of their behavior.

Consider the tense communications involved in the most high stakes situations, like the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was essential that President Kennedy and his advisors were able to communicate with each other the substance of and reasoning behind potential strategies, as well as what specifically they hoped each strategy would achieve. They based their strategies on all the information available to them about the situation and about the Soviets and their perceived values, goals, and ways of thinking. The need for clear communication between the United States and the Soviet Union during the crisis, and the importance of being able to interpret those communications, could not have been greater. A misunderstanding in that situation could have resulted in nuclear conflict.

Being able to effectively communicate and being able to effectively interpret the behavior of others are skills that can be beneficial in multiple settings. Regardless of industry, trade, or career path, being able to utilize relevant information to be able to communicate an understanding of a particular topic is a skill that is highly prized and sought after.

In some parts of your life you might usefully assume that self-interest dominates our decision-making. If you are ordering a slice of pizza that only you will eat, there is no need for you to consider the welfare of others when you place your order: “Yes, please, put jalapenos on my pizza!” When you are ordering an entire pizza to split with your friends, you might think only of yourself (“I want jalapenos, and I don’t care if you don’t like them”) or only of others (“Order whatever you want, and I’ll eat it”), or you might take into account some combination of your self interest and the interests of others (“We all like cheese, so extra cheese for the entire pizza, but put jalapenos only on one half and pepperoni on the other half”).

Of course, it is not possible to directly observe whether individuals care only about their own personal interests, the interests of others, or some combination of the two. It is not possible to see—at least not yet—exactly what is going on in anyone’s mind regarding the factors that influence their behavioral choices,65 nor is it possible to necessarily infer from a behavior the motivations behind it. If you order jalapenos on the pizza because you believe that others also like them, your decision might be a public-spirited one, even if the decision itself is misguided. Or you might just be thinking of your own interests. Or both. People are pretty good at fooling themselves regarding their own motives.66 Did you really think your friends liked jalapenos, or did you just tell yourself that so you could feel good about your desire to order them?

Self-interest or public spirit are more likely to dominate in different areas. When you purchase most consumer items (say, shoes or a phone), there may be little reason for you to consider the interests of others. When you engage in communal activities (with your family or a religious, social, or political organization), you likely put these interests ahead of your own, at least from time to time.

While it is generally helpful to ask “What is the self-interested reason why that person or group might be doing that?” it is unwise to assume that all political behavior is purely self-interested. When Black people join in a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest, they are saying at least in part that MY life matters. When non-Black people join in a BLM protest, it is possible but unlikely that they do so because they believe themselves to be the main beneficiaries of the protest (although it is certainly possible that they will indirectly benefit from living in a safer and more equitable society). More likely, BLM allies—or the supporters of any social movement, whether conservative or liberal, democratic or authoritarian—join because they support the cause that the movement represents (a strategic reason) and because they want to show that they are the kind of person that supports this movement (an expressive reason).

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