Why do people vote?

Beyond the Voter's Illusion

Voting makes people feel good.
Voting makes people feel good.
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Whereas people may have a more vested interest in local races that hit closer to home, a national presidential election isn't such an easy sell. Sure, there are the patriotic pitches that emphasize the value of democracy, civic duty, and allegiance to a political party or candidate. But when sizing up rhetoric against the real-world, drop-in-the-bucket impact of a single vote, pulling that lever every four years in the United States makes so little logical sense that psychologists nicknamed it the voter's illusion [source: Munsey].

The theory of the voter's illusion describes checking a ballot box as an exercise in altruism [source: Munsey]. Consequently, what drives people to the polls isn't so much a desire to benefit a candidate, party or issue, but rather to keep a civic ripple effect going and thus benefit the entire nation. Like sports fans doing "the wave" in a stadium, active voters supposedly inspire those around them to follow suit. And just as a solo fan might not want to look like a spoilsport by refusing to hop up and flap his arms in the air, voting is also a way of fitting in with a national identity and dodging societal guilt heaped on non-voters who aren't proudly flaunting "I Voted" stickers. In other words, people vote because it looks good, and it makes them feel good.

Or, the decision to vote might just run in people's blood. Studies published in 2008 comparing the civic habits of identical versus fraternal twins carried out at the University of California, San Diego, calculated that genetics accounts for roughly 60 percent of a person's voting record [source: Choi]. Other behavioral genetics research also suggests that parents, particularly when they have party affiliations and political outlooks in common, pass along their voting habits to their kids [source: Alford et al]. And tying together the biological and psychological underpinnings of voting, a 2009 Duke University study demonstrated how male voters become emotionally invested in the outcome of a presidential election. Saliva samples showed elevated testosterone levels in men who had voted for the winner, while the hormone dropped in those who supported the loser, possibly sparking feelings of victory and defeat, respectively [source: Kanazawa].

Finally, if someone simply doesn't get that much of a thrill out of performing his or her civic duty, election results also play a significant role in deciding whether people return to the polls four years later. According to multiple studies, people who vote are much less likely to do it again if their candidate loses. Meanwhile, if someone refrains from voting, and his or her preferred candidate wins, he or she also is less likely to vote the next time around, because the electorate apparently got the job done without that additional ballot. The best-case scenario for turning non-voters into voters is for their candidates to lose, allowing them to perhaps experience tinges of guilt that might propel them to the polls the next go around [source: Kanazawa]. In which case, people might not vote so much because it makes them feel good, but because they'll feel bad if they don't.