Voting matters even if your vote doesn’t: A collective action dilemma

Voting is a good example of the kind of large-scale cooperation among non-relatives that makes our species so unusual a member of the animal kingdom. In their new book Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation, Lee Cronk and Beth Leech explain that cooperation is stymied by two things: coordination problems and collective action dilemmas. In their previous post on this blog, they explained how ballots solve a coordination problem by allowing people to cast their votes strategically, i.e., for candidates who may not be their first choices but who have some chance of attracting enough votes to win. In this post, they take a look at voting as a collective action dilemma: Why do we vote when our chance of having an individual impact is so small?


Why Bother to Vote?

Lee Cronk and Beth L. Leech


On Tuesday, well over 100 million Americans will go to the polls to vote (or will have voted already through early voting options).  They will do so despite the fact that voting takes time, effort, and preparation. They will need to figure out where their polling place is. They will need to find time before or after work or while the kids are at school to travel to that place. They may have trouble finding parking. They may have to stand in line. And they may worry whether they know enough about issues and whether they are making the right choice.

Each voter goes to this effort despite the fact that the chance that his or her vote will affect the outcome of the presidential election is infinitesimally small.  One scholarly estimate puts the chance that a given vote, even in a battleground state, will change the course of an election at 1 in 10 million.  Why, then, does anyone actually bother to vote?

Collective action dilemmas arise whenever everyone in a group would like some public good to be produced while also preferring that others in the group do the work to produce it.  The problem becomes worse whenever the group becomes large and whenever the impact of each individual contribution is low.  Voting in a large, democratic society thus should pose a collective action dilemma in the extreme.  The “paradox of voting,” as described by political scientist Anthony Downs more than a half century ago, asks why voting does not pose more of a collective action problem than it does. Clearly the costs exceed the benefits for the individual voter, and clearly the individual has little impact on the election outcome.  And yet, if no one voted, democracy would collapse.

Fortunately for democracy, many people tend to overestimate their own efficacy. One well-known study documenting this tendency comes from political scientist Terry Moe, who  found that members of the economic organizations he surveyed tended to overestimate the extent to which their own dues and other contributions would help the organizations achieve their goals.

Why do people tend to overestimate their own efficacy?  One possible evolutionary explanation of this finding begins with the simple observation that most people are not particularly good at understanding large numbers. Why would they be? Although the modern world may force us to deal with large numbers every day, for our ancestors, who lived in small groups and had no money, small numbers were the order of the day. Even today, many languages have counting systems that amount to nothing more than “one,” “two,” and “many.” Thus, even something as commonplace and essential to today’s society as voting may rely upon the difficulty we have with large numbers and our resulting tendency to overestimate the impact that our vote will have on an election’s outcome.

Another possible reason why we tend to overestimate our individual efficacy arises from an evolutionary insight regarding the way we make mistakes. Ideally, natural selection would have designed our minds with the ability always to make the right decision, accurately weighing the costs and benefits of our different options. In reality, we make errors, and those errors come with costs. If the cost of making one kind of error is much larger than that of making another kind, selection pressure on how we make that kind of decision will be asymmetrical. A tendency to make more of one kind of relatively low-cost kind of error rather than more of a relatively high-cost kind may be a design feature, not a flaw, of the human mind. This is the idea behind error management theory, developed by evolutionary psychologist Martie Haselton and her colleagues. Another evolutionary psychologist, Randy Nesse, explains the idea with an analogy to smoke detectors. You might like to buy a smoke detector that only goes off when there is a true emergency and not simply when you are making toast, but in reality such a perfect smoke detector is impossible to design. Given a choice between a smoke detector that sometimes goes off when there is no real threat of a fire and one that sometimes fails to go off when there is a real threat of one, which would you choose?

Applying this idea to Moe’s observation, it may be that the error of contributing to a public good and having that contribution not bear fruit is often a small price to pay compared to the error of failing to help create a public good from which one would have benefitted greatly. Given that our ancestors lived in small groups, this could easily have pushed our psychology in the direction of erring on the side of participation by overestimating the degree to which our contributions really matter to the success of the collective action. Thus, an additional reason why we vote may be that the cost of voting is so small that it is worth paying on the off chance that one’s vote will actually make a difference. Something to keep in mind on November 6.

Lee Cronk is professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. He is the author of That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior. Beth L. Leech is associate professor of political science at Rutgers University. She is the coauthor of Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and in Political Science (Princeton).

More on the (Overblown?) Trouble With Campaign Advertising from John McGinnis

From our Elections and Technology blogger John O. McGinnis, author of Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Governance Through Technology, a further response to the many objections that people have to our our current campaign finance system. In last week’s post he discussed the various informational benefits to widespread campaign advertising. But does permissive advertising empower special interests? What about the potential for a lack of disclosure of expenditures? Read his follow-up here:

In my last post, I argued that spending substantial money for campaign advertisements is necessary to inform inattentive voters and that these advertisements can improve as the information about the results of policies improves through  the new technology described in my forthcoming book.

Opponents of freewheeling campaign advertisements by politicians and their supporters have raised three thoughtful concerns about the expenditures needed to support such a flood of communications.  First, many have worried about the lack of disclosure of such contributions and expenditures.  They are right to do so.  All campaign contributions and expenditures should be posted immediately and transparently on the internet so that the public can see who is supporting whom.   With new mechanisms of aggregating information, opponents can highlight the connections between contributions to a candidate by special interests and the special interest programs that he supports. Intriguingly, as I discuss in my book, there is some suggestion that special interest spending on campaigns is less effective than other spending. Better disclosure should make it still less influential.

But one still might be worried that a permissive advertising regime will empower special interests, because they will be the most capable of supporting politicians.  Of course, special interests cannot be defined as any interest with which one disagrees.  Special interests are best understood as groups that can use special mechanisms provided by the government to aggregate money for their narrow goals.  Labor unions and for-profit corporations are examples. The corporate and union form permits these organizations to use people’s funds without their express agreement for political purposes.

Nevertheless, the concern expressed by President Obama and others about for-profit corporation spending is overblown. Corporations are forbidden from giving to candidates directly and despite the recent Supreme Court decision permitting independent expenditures by corporations, for-profit companies do not spend much money for independent expenditures on and behalf of candidates. Presumably, they do not want to alienate possible customers and employees.

The vast majority of corporate spending on campaigns is by non-profits. Non-profit corporations- so-call SuperPACs– generally represent like-minded individuals banding together to expressly pursue some social vision though political speech.  They are not presumptively special interests any more than are politicians themselves.  Like advertisements by politicians, advertisements directed by groups of citizens can provide valuable information about candidates and the policies they support. They have the additional advantage that they sometimes inject information into the campaign that neither candidate would provide.

One way of weakening the influence of special interests is to empower individuals to give more than they are now permitted to do so under our campaign finance laws. If individuals could give more, special interest spending would become a smaller percentage of campaign spending. The current $2, 500 ceiling for contributions to candidates in federal elections could be increased by four or even eightfold without any serious danger of corruption so long as contributions are disclosed.

But one might be concerned that the citizens who contribute to candidates and SuperPACs are richer on average than other citizens, thus skewing politics toward the wealthy. This is the most serious concern about permitting private money to finance politics. But we must compare its consequences with the alternatives.  The wealthy have a wide variety of views. In the last election people with incomes over $250,00  a year favored Obama, not McCain, although the former promised to  raise their taxes. This diversity of views flows from the nature of a market economy. New businesses are always arising and with them people who have different backgrounds, material interests and social visions.  Silicon Valley has a fundamentally different culture from Detroit.

Moreover, if one constrains donations by the wealthy to rent the media to propagate their views, insiders who own or who have otherwise more access to the media will then gain disproportionate influence.  Journalists, entertainers, and academics lean much more strongly to one side of the political spectrum than do the wealthy.  And since their work is less variegated than that in the business sector, we are also likely to get less varied perspectives as a result.  In Britain with limitations on campaign expenditures, politicians spend a lot of time currying favor with press barons, like Rupert Murdoch.

The best way to address concern about inequality is to give a tax credit to people of more modest incomes to encourage their contributions to parties or candidates. That program is likely to expand the amount of information in the campaign season rather than contract it, as would restrictions on independent expenditures or more severe limitations on contributions or expenditures. Such tax credits would be a cost to society, but as we gain more and more probative information about policy through putting politics in the domain of computation, it is rational to spend more money to help that information reach voters.  Because the decisions government makes affects us all,  money to help voters make wiser decisions is money well spent.

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.

[Video] A quick history of voting rights in the United States

Source: Democracy

This is a terrific quick video showing the progression of voting rights from 1776 to now. Princeton University Press books are also a terrific source for more information on who votes and why in the 21st century. Here’s a quick reading list:

New Faces, New Voices

The Hispanic Electorate in America
Marisa A. Abrajano & R. Michael Alvarez
Why Movements Succeed or Fail
Opportunity, Culture, and the Struggle for Woman Suffrage
Lee Ann Banaszak
Creating a New Racial Order

How Immigration, Multiracialism, Genomics, and the Young Can Remake Race in America
Jennifer L. Hochschild, Vesla M. Weaver & Traci R. Burch
Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State

Why Americans Vote the Way They Do
Andrew Gelman
Pocketbook Politics

Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America
Meg Jacobs
Still a House Divided

Race and Politics in Obama’s America
Desmond S. King & Rogers M. Smith
Strength in Numbers?

The Political Mobilization of Racial and Ethnic Minorities
Jan E. Leighley
Latino Catholicism

Transformation in America’s Largest Church
Timothy Matovina
Not Even Past

Barack Obama and the Burden of Race
Thomas J. Sugrue

Are Campaign Ads Worth the Money?

Candidates spend daunting amounts of money getting out their message, with tens of millions invested in campaign advertisements alone. This year, even the Olympics were peppered with political ads, amid questions of whether all this advertising is ethical or even effective. While it’s standard to hear criticism of the money spent on extravagant promotions, John McGinnis, author of Accelerating Democracy, has some thoughts on the important informational benefits to our current campaign finance system. Read his post here:


Are Campaign Ads Worth the Money?

John McGinnis


It’s the campaign season and with it come the perennial complaints that there is too much money spent on politics, particularly on campaign advertisements. I am skeptical about this claim. Just as democracy is said to be the worst system except all the others, so a structure where candidates and groups can spend large sums to make their positions and that of their opponents known is the worse system of campaigning except for all the others.  In particular, it represents the only system we have for getting information about which candidates support which policies to the many voters who do not focus on politics except at election time and even then are hard to reach.

My book argues that democracy should take advantage of the computational revolution to improve information about policy results. Thus, a system of governance that promotes empirical testing of policies, prediction markets, and dispersed media on the internet, like blogs, can all help us better understand the likely consequences of policy and improve political choices. But to make the most difference, this information must get to voters at the election time.  But many voters are inattentive, particularly in a world that offers far more interesting distractions than politics. It is fact that very little money is spent on political advertising compared to advertising for material goods or for entertainment. Political advertisements must be numerous enough to break through a cacophony of nonpolitical information and that volume requires substantial funds to sustain.

Campaigns  and their advertising outreach are still the best way of reaching voters who mostly disregard politics.  Politicians and their supporters have incentives to inform them about the relevant policies and their consequences. To be sure, they will do so in a biased manner, but their opponents have incentives to correct them and they frequently do, running advertisements that show newspaper articles that debunk false claims. Sadly, the alternative to campaign advertisements is not a policy seminar but a beer commercial.

In my book I discuss the evidence that political advertisements make people better informed about candidates’ positions on policy.  Better information about policy consequences will not have much effect on voters if it cannot be connected to candidates’ positions on policies.  Political advertisements also directly address policy consequences, such as the state of the economy and its relation to policy. To be sure, they do so in a very rudimentary way, but these messages can be improved as the knowledge about likely the consequences of policies improve.    If empiricism and prediction markets can better evaluate policy results, political advertisements will focus on them more.  A President will be eager to tout that a market’s prediction that his election will lead to more economic growth than his opponent. A mayor will want to make it known that his school program has improved educational outcomes, according to the best empirical studies.   But campaign spending will still be necessary to convey this information by cutting through the clutter of nonpolitical information.

In my next post, I will address three possible downsides of permitting ample private money to pay for political advertisements—lack of disclosure, spending by special interests, and the excessive influence of the wealthy.


John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.


The Gamble authors liveblog the Presidential Debate at the NY Times

Authors John Sides and Lynn Vavreck were invited by the New York Times Campaign Stops blog to live-blog the Townhall Presidential Debate last night, alongside Stanley Fish, Gary Gutting, and Kevin Noble Maillard.

Sides contributes a post tracking voters’ perceptions of the candidates’ empathy: While Romney has made many strides in his likability, Sides shows that he continues to lag behind Obama in the key trait of empathy. Here’s a graph of his findings:

And Vavreck continues her examination of the undecided voter group in a post that argues that party affiliation is more important than we think when it comes to undecided voters.

She writes:
“As you can see, party identification is more closely related to vote choice for people who can make up their mind a year out from an election, but even among undecided voters coming to a decision, party is a strong driver. For each party, 65 percent of the self-identified partisans choose their party’s candidate, compared to a stunning 93 or 94 percent among those who decide well in advance.

Interestingly, independents who were initially undecided are breaking more heavily for Obama compared to the independents who were able to make an early choice (they’re evenly split). In general, each party group makes up about a third of the set of undecided voters (although independents are closer to 40 percent).”

These two posts demonstrate the value of data and scholarly analysis of that data in understanding what’s happening beneath the surface of the presidential campaign. Having access to this type of data during the election instead of months later (the machinery of academia moves slower than the news cycle), is invaluable and this is precisely why we’ve made two chapters from The Gamble: available months before publication.



The Gamble: The Hand You’re Dealt
John Sides & Lynn Vavreck



The Gamble: Random, or Romney?
John Sides & Lynn Vavreck


These ebooks are are available for free via the Princeton University Press web site and other retailers. Click through to see if they are available via your favorite retailer.


Quintus Tullius Cicero, campaign strategist and younger brother of the celebrated Roman orator, to blog live on Facebook during tonight’s presidential debate

Quintus Tullius Cicero, author of the bestselling campaign manual HOW TO WIN AN ELECTION: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians, will be blogging Live on Facebook during tonight’s presidential debate.

Here is a snippet from Quintus Cicero’s blogging session during last week’s running mate debate:
In Rome we had a very simple solution to the problem of public funding for health services for our citizens. There was none. If you had enough money, you got medical care. If you didn’t, you prayed to the gods you wouldn’t die.

Dennis Thompson at Cambridge Forum

Compromise is a necessary ingredient of a functioning democracy, but it’s in scarce supply in Washington, DC. Why? And can we fix it? Dennis Thompson appeared at the Cambridge Forum to discuss the history and future of compromise in the US Government. This should be required viewing for everyone in the run-up to the election.



The Spirit of Compromise
Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It
Amy Gutmann & Dennis Thompson

Will the Ground Wars Help?

This weekend, the GOP plans a massive volunteer effort to make 2 million voter contacts, in the hopes of capitalizing on Romney’s strong performance in the first debate. But how important is personal campaign contact in this day and age? Is knocking on doors and making phone calls a quaint throwback to simpler times, or a powerful opportunity to sway the undecided voter? Rasmus Kleis Nielsen‘s new book Ground Wars is a look at how personalized political communication continues to impact electoral outcomes and with it, American democracy. Now as the presidential campaigns switch into high gear, he takes to Election 101 to look at how the ground wars are being waged, and to what effect, especially in the highly contested swing states.


Every Little Bit Counts…Especially for Romney

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen


The Presidential election is nearing the home stretch, and both campaigns know every little bit counts as most likely voters are finally paying attention. Barack Obama is ahead in the polls in every swing state, and the Romney campaign will have to pull off a major upset to win in November.

In the final weeks, the bulk of media attention will focus on the debates, the daily battle to control the news agenda, and the ads released by the two campaigns, but under the cover of this “air war”, both sides are also preparing the final offensive in the “ground war” waged to capture every last persuadable swing voter and make sure every single sympathizer turns out to vote.

On the ground, the Obama and Romney campaigns are pursuing the same goal, but by different means. Both want to make that extra phone call and door knock to reach the undecided and go that extra mile to make sure the so-called “lazy partisans” get off the couch and cast their vote. But the ways in which they do it differ in important ways.

Barack Obama’s field operation is building on the staff, technology, and volunteer infrastructure of his highly successful 2008 campaign. President Obama does not seem to inspire the volunteer enthusiasm that Senator Obama did, but his campaign is more experienced, more generously staffed, and has had four years to further fine-tune their organizing and targeting technologies and test their tactics (in the battle around health care as well as in select races in the 2010 mid-terms). Efforts by local Democrats and especially organized labor will complement the Obama campaign in important ways, but the backbone of the President’s field operation is controlled by the Chicago headquarter and has been developed over the last four years at a deliberate pace.

Mitt Romney’s field operation, in contrast, is not even technically his. The Republican ground game is instead organized primarily through the Republican National Committee, which has invested millions in offices in swing states, hundreds of staffers on the ground, and updated technologies for targeting voters and organizing outreach. In addition, Romney will rely on help from outside allies including American Crossroads, the National Rifle Association, and the Christian Coalition, all of whom are engaged in well-financed voter outreach programs to make sure various Republican constituencies are turned out for Romney. Like the Republican National Committee, these outside groups have been able to plan their field operations well before it was known who the Republican nominee would be, but they have not had the advantage afforded their Democratic counterparts, who knew exactly who their candidate was.

These two campaigns wage very different ground wars—one campaign is relatively centralized, organized around the party’s presidential candidate and his campaign organization, whereas the other is more decentralized, organized partly around the national party organization but also a number of important outside allies, with less involvement of the candidate’s formal campaign organization.

Interestingly, we have seen a similar confrontation before, between two very different field operations—in 2004. Back then, it was also the incumbent, the Republican George W. Bush, who fielded a relatively centralized ground operation fueled mostly by volunteers, whereas the challenger, the Democratic John Kerry, relied on a wider coalition build in large part outside his formal campaign or even the auspices of the Democratic Party and partly reliant on paid canvassers. In retrospect, the relatively centralized apparatus spearheaded in 2004 by Bush’s two key political operatives  Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman is widely seen as having been more effective than the more sprawling coalition that Michael Whouley at the Democratic National Committee and Steve Rosenthal at the temporary outside campaign organization (pre-super PAC) “America Coming Together” strove to coordinate.

That difference is worth keeping in mind when the numbers start rolling in from campaigns keen to talk up their own ground game. As Election Day draws near, you will hear more and more talk about how many staffers each side has working in the field, how many offices they have in the swing states, how amazing their new technologies for targeting are, and how many millions of contacts they have made.

Experimental research documenting the impact of door knocks and phone calls proves that all this matters, and the monumental investment made in the ground war reflects that campaign operatives are increasingly focused on using personalized political communication as an integral part of their communications arsenal.

But ultimately, the political ground war is, like most other conflicts, not only about quantity—it is also about quality, about which campaign is better organized to get the most out of every dollar, every staffer, every volunteer hour invested in the ground war. That’s why we need to pay attention to every little detail, including how the two campaigns are organized and how they collaborate with their outside allies. Everything suggests that the Romney field operation is better than the McCain ground game in 2008, and benefits from more outside support. The question is whether it is good enough, faced with what appears to be a generously funded, battle-tested and supremely well-prepared Obama campaign.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and assistant professor at Roskilde University in Denmark.


More Guesstimating Election 2012

Lawrence Weinstein’s new book, Guesstimation 2.0: Solving Today’s Problems on the Back of a Napkin, shows how to estimate everything from how closely you can orbit a neutron star without being pulled apart by gravity, to the fuel used to transport your food from the farm to the store, to the total length of all toilet paper used in the United States — handy tips for anyone prepping for a job interview in technology or finance, or trying to astound their kids. Today he offers the next in his series of election-themed problems. Read on to see how to estimate an answer to  How many telephone robo-calls will be made during the campaign season? 


Question: How many telephone robo-calls will be made during the campaign season?


Answer: We could try to estimate this by considering each state individually, looking at the competitiveness of its elections in both the primary and the general election and considering the number of candidates running in each election. Voters in very competitive states would receive dozens of robo-calls and voters in other states would receive very few.  We could further break this down by estimating the proportion of households with land lines and with cell phones.  However, this is much too much work.


Instead let’s estimate that each household receives more than one and less than 100 robo-calls.  Taking the geometric mean, this gives 10 robo-calls per household.  The population of the US is about people giving about 108 households.  At 10 calls per household, this gives

N=(10^8 households) (10 calls/household)

=10^9 calls

of one billion robo-calls.  That seems like a lot.


At a mere ten seconds wasted per call, that is 1010 wasted seconds or 300 wasted years of our time!


Copyright 2012, Lawrence Weinstein.


Lawrence Weinstein is University Professor of Physics at Old Dominion University. He is the coauthor of Guesstimation: Solving the World’s Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin (Princeton).


FACT: “[C]hocolate chip cookies (CCCs) have eight times the energy as the same weight of TNT. How can that be true? Why can’t we blow up a building with CCCs instead of TNT? Almost everyone who hasn’t studied the subject assumes (incorrectly) that TNT releases a great deal more energy than cookies. That includes most physics majors….Even though chocolate chip cookies contain more energy than a similar weight of TNT, the energy is normally released more slowly, through a series of chemical processes that we call metabolism.”

Physics and Technology for Future Presidents:
An Introduction to the Essential Physics Every World Leader Needs to Know

by Richard A. Muller

We invite you to read the preface online:

“Modern science and technology have the power to shape the world we live in, for good or for evil. Muller, himself a brilliant, creative scientist, has distilled the most important scientific principles that define our choices, and has presented them clearly and objectively. To make wise decisions, not only future presidents, but future business and community leaders, and thoughtful citizens generally, need the information in this book.”–Frank Wilczek, Nobel Prize–winning physicist



Remember Romney’s Dog?

Of course you do. You could probably refresh your memory of the story in a few clicks. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is the author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, which argues that the all-too-perfect memory of the digital realm has serious implications for all of us. Case in point: Just last week, Mitt Romney suffered a setback at the hands of a certain widely released fundraiser video. It’s a familiar story. Politicians and public figures have suffered countless humiliations courtesy of cyberspace’s refusal to let bygones be bygones, a comeuppance that can seem unfair when the result can mean an entire career of public service cancelled out by one all-too-visible error in judgment (or tweet). Perhaps with so much of life digitally preserved,  mankind can learn to adjust and filter accordingly?  Read Schönberger’s Election 101 post here.


Remembering Romney’s Dog

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger


Mitt Romney’s dog, tied to the roof of the family car during a long vacation drive, is one picture (even if only imagined, based on the light-hearted story told by Romney’s son) that fails to fade. A year ago, aspiring young Democratic Congressmen Anthony Weiner, married to Hilary Clinton’s long-time personal aide abruptly resigned; he had sent partially nude digital pictures of himself together with explicit messages to at least six women he barely knew.

This election cycle is no different from the last. Stories and pictures from a politician’s past appear and shape our perceptions of who he (or she) is. And these images don’t go away, they stay in our collective mind, and no matter how hard politicians try, these images continue to define them in the public eye. At best they go away when the politician does. Rep. Weiner’s images have faded from the public eye, because so has he.

With so much of our daily lives captured digitally, so many digital photos taken, so many billions of emails exchanged, Tweets sent, Facebook Status messages posted, many of the digerati, the self-proclaimed Internet experts, predicted that humans would swiftly adjust to comprehensive digital memory, and develop robust cognitive filters. We would, the argument went, simply disregard the meme of Romney’s dog or Weiner’s explicit messages as an irrelevant little piece of digital trivia that is not representative of Governor Romney or Representative Weiner. If everyone has such skeletons in the closet, why should we bother? Wouldn’t we be better advised to scrutinize politicians’ agendas than their digital memories?

It’s an admirable viewpoint – and always struck me as terribly naïve. For one, not all of us strap our dogs to car roofs for long rides, or send sexually explicit messages to people we barely know. And the ubiquity of digital cameras (and the ease of sharing photos) does not turn us into Exhibitionists or Peeping Toms. But even more importantly, human cognition is primed to remember the exceptional, and to forget the ordinary. That is how we think. For thousands of years it helped us to quickly recognize changed conditions; it made us aware of dangers and saved our ancestor’s (and perhaps our) lives. We have this particular ability to see the red rose in a field full of yellow tulips – and that rose is what we later remember in detail, not the thousands of tulips around it. Because we recognize and remember exceptions, we can’t quickly forget Romney’s dog and Weiner’s explicit messages, even if we wanted to.

Thus, if more of our lives is captured digitally, preserved, and kept accessible, neither politicians nor we ourselves can hope for a cognitive adjustment that lets us put aside extraordinary bits of the past.

In politics this means that we may continue to remember Romney’s dog as much (or more) as his political agenda, even though that’s not how most of us like to see ourselves: rational and objective. It does not only complicate a politician’s life (she has to assume to be constantly watched), it also makes politics an unattractive career. That is troubling for a democracy.

But retaining an ability to forget in the digital age is important not just for democracy, but for all of us. We all have trespassed in the past, and unlike in the analog age these misdeeds are more frequently captured digitally now, and preserved long-term. It may be time to think how we best can rid ourselves of some of these digital memories that are no longer relevant to who we are today.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is professor of internet governance and regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, and a member of the academic advisory board of Microsoft. His other books include Governance and Information Technology. A former software developer and lawyer, he spent ten years on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.


FACT: “Upon his inauguration, Obama was in a position somewhat similar to Ronald Reagan’s in 1980. Both took office when Americans were pessimistic about the economy and dissatisfied with the incumbent president. In a late November 1980 Gallup poll, only 31% of Americans approved of the job Jimmy Carter was doing. At the same point in time in 2008, only 29% approved of George W. Bush.”

“The Hand You’re Dealt” from The Gamble:
Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election

by John Sides & Lynn Vavreck

“The Hand You’re Dealt” is the first of a series of free eBook preview chapters from John Sides and Lynn Vavreck’s groundbreaking Fall 2013 book, The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election. These eBook chapters are scheduled to be released between August and December 2012.

What are the odds that Barack Obama will be reelected in November, despite a weak economy? Many answers to this question are backed by little more than speculation and spin. But what does current and historical data—and political science—suggest? In this chapter, political analysts John Sides and Lynn Vavreck show that Obama is surprisingly popular given the state of the economy, and they offer several explanations—including Obama’s likability and the fact that more people blame George W. Bush for the country’s economic problems than blame Obama. But Sides and Vavreck also show that the mixed economic picture and the events of Obama’s first term make it likely that the election will be close. These are just some of the points that Sides and Vavreck make in this incisive chapter as they gauge the most important factors in the political and economic landscape going into the election campaign—and what they portend for Obama’s (and Mitt Romney’s) chances.

This book represents an unprecedented effort to use a “Moneyball” approach to tell the story of what promises to be a dramatic election campaign, drawing on large quantities of data about the economy, public opinion, news coverage, and political advertising to determine the factors that really make a difference. At the same time, Sides and Vavreck will be visiting the campaign trail to find out what matters most to both of the campaigns and to voters. The result promises to be the only book about the election that combines on-the-ground reporting, social science, and quantitative data in order to look beyond the anecdote, folklore, and conventional wisdom that too often pass for analysis of presidential elections.

To find out more, download this chapter and begin reading the authors’ special introduction to this and the other free chapters that will follow as the election campaign unfolds.

The Gamble is scheduled to be published as a complete print and ebook in September 2013.

Be sure to check in every Tuesday for a new tidbit from our great selection of politically-minded books.