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Why we vote against our interests

Why do we, as voters, quite consistently vote against our own interests? We will not find a single reason, but we should not give up on the question. The search itself will move us to reflect, find courage, and change our ways. Otherwise, we are in danger of getting stuck with a crowd of Eddies from Sławomir Mrożek’s Tango.

You’ve seen that I pack a wicked punch. Nothing to worry about so long as you keep quiet and do what I say. You’ll see. You won’t have to worry. I’m a regular guy. I like a joke, I like a good time. But get this. There’s got to be order.

Eddie from Tango by Sławomir Mrożek

Louisiana, a U.S. state at the mouth of the Mississippi River. It is usually associated with the stereotypes of the American South – growing cotton, an economy once deeply dependent on slave labour, hot weather. Music lovers are likely to add New Orleans jazz, amateurs of cultural events – the annual Mardi Gras parades, and birdwatchers – the brown pelican. Nor can we forget Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire, a Tennessee Williams play that takes its title from the name of the now defunct New Orleans tram line, “Desire.” And I guess that would be it.

In her great book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Arlie Russell Hochschild, an American sociologist from Berkeley in the liberal California, describes the period between 2011 and 2016 she spent in Louisiana and shows a completely different face of that state. It is the face of the state which, according to the US News & World Report, ranks 50th on the list of the best states to live in within the USA (just to be clear: that is the last place).

Louisiana also ranks in the bottom five in the categories of health care, economy, education and development, environmental protection, and crime. So there is literally nothing to be proud of living in Louisiana. In all respects, the Pelican State is the worst place to inhabit in the whole country.

In spite of that, an overwhelming majority of Louisianans vote consistently for the Republican Party, which advocates reducing the government’s involvement in those very areas that draw their state to the bottom of the rankings. Of Louisiana’s six seats in the House of Representatives, five are held by Republicans. The only Democrat, Troy Carter, was elected in 2021 from the 2nd congressional district – encompassing nearly all of New Orleans and the state’s capital, Baton Rouge.

Hochschild calls this phenomenon The Great Paradox. The residents are aware of Louisiana’s problems, but do not accept federal aid. What is more, they vote for candidates who proclaim that the best solution to the difficulties faced by the state is to leave the entire regulation to the free market and its invisible hand. The less state interference, the better.

Even consistent surveys unequivocally indicating that there are higher incomes, higher levels of education, and better, more accessible health care in blue states, do not change much. People vote as they always have. Why? There is no one specific reason. It is a synergy of many factors – age, financial status, race, ethnicity, gender, education. Louisiana is a state in which they have converged to an exceptionally strong effect.

We can divide them into two groups: The first are those factors which we call objective or environmental. They result from living conditions, the created network of dependencies, or historical processes. The second group are – let us call them – psychological reasons. They are those that are associated with various cognitive illusions or simplified, often irrational rules of conduct which psychology studies and describes. Perhaps they will help us understand why people vote (as it seems) against themselves.

Between the Lord, the Mayor, and the Reverend

The phenomenon of irrational voting for candidates who act against the interests of voters or ignore them is, obviously, not unique to the United States.

In the 1950s, a poète maudit, Andrzej Bursa, who died in 1957, published the poem Sobota [Saturday], ending with rhythmic repetitions of the phrase “I don’t give a shit about small towns”. Today, it is difficult to be sure about the reasons for this attitude of Bursa’s towards provincial localities, but from the turbulent discussion around the book by Magdalena Okraska, Nie ma i nie będzie [There is none, nor will there be], we know that the topic itself remains relevant even today.

In her reportage (although many critics claim that this genre classification is inaccurate), Okraska looks at towns and medium-sized cities: she visits Wałbrzych, Myszków, and Ozorków, among others. She describes them as places of disintegration resulting from political and economic upheaval.

The fatalistic overtone of the book was immediately opposed by many commentators of social life and authors, including Wojciech Szot and Mariusz Szczygieł. Some of them also pointed out technical and methodological deficiencies. Even more common were voices about the author’s one-sidedness, a classic cherry picking of evidence that fits the preconceived thesis. As Agnieszka Wiśniewska, editor-in-chief of Krytyka Polityczna, wrote in the article Nigdy nie interesowała jej Polska sukcesu. Ale czy w ogóle Polska ją interesuje? [She was Never Interested in Successful Poland. But is She Interested in Poland at All?]: “So she [Okraska – Ed.] goes out to see failure, and sees it – because she is not looking at anything else.”

Even voters who see the flaws of the current government can calculate whether it is not actually more beneficial to vote for the status quo.

I myself come from a town of about twenty thousand people, I grew up in it and spent a significant part of my youth there. I am thus not unfamiliar with the specific atmosphere of a place where everyone knows each other, and the relations between the Lord (these days, a local businessman), the Mayor, and the Reverend enmesh the whole town and commune in a subtle web of connections. I do not necessarily mean corruption in the sense and definition of the Criminal Code. Rather, I am referring to the common conviction that everyone more or less accepts the status quo and has no interest in making a difference. It is exactly this type of relationship between different stakeholders (my, this word fits well in this context!) that was described for “Pismo” by Michał Szczęch in his article about power and the populace in the commune of Siedlisko.

This state of affairs also means that, especially in those municipalities where local government entities play a significant role on the local labour market – a school, a health centre, a municipal water supply company – a large part of the population is dependent on the current authorities.

If the entity administering the local cultural centre is the municipality or district (and this is almost always the case), and you are the owner of, say, a printing business where this institution (and specifically its manager or director) orders banners announcing events, you realize that changing the mayor may be a real risk for you. Because, as Stanisław Anioł from the TV show Alternatywy 4 said, “Skąpski is going to be an ambassador, he’s out, get it? And if he’s out, Korszul is out, Broński is out, and guess who’s out after them? I am!”

This staffing domino may seem amusing where there is a reasonably healthy jobs and services market. But let us remember that it is not so everywhere. Finding another job can be difficult when the market is closed, there is no competition, you are past fifty, and on top of that you operate under transport exclusion – there is no public transport, and you do not have a driver’s license, car, or money for fuel.

The state of precarious equilibrium is therefore threatened at every local government election. The fate of many families in a municipality or district depends on the outcome. It thus seems plausible that even voters who see the flaws of the current government can calculate whether it is not actually more beneficial to vote for the status quo. It may not be optimal, but it is known, familiar, and predictable.

Pork barrel

Combine this picture with another characteristic element of local government elections in Poland – winning with a small turnout. In the last three local elections (in 2010, 2014, and 2018), the percentage of Poles who cast their ballots in the first round was 47, 47, and 55 percent, respectively.

In the runoffs, even fewer people voted (35, 40, and 49 percent). And although the trend may be encouraging (since, after all, we are heading in the right direction, with more and more people voting), let us remember that this was the result of political tension and strong social polarization caused by the rivalry between the two biggest parties on the scene, Civic Platform (PO) and Law and Justice (PiS), spilt over to the local government level.

It is instructive to compare them with parliamentary or presidential elections held at a similar time. The turnout in those is always higher than in local elections. (To present the full picture, I should add that there are elections which Poles disregard even more than local elections – those to the European Parliament).

While in large cities the clashes between candidates for local presidents arouse great excitement (because they are most often a reflection of the disputes between the largest Polish parties and are treated a bit like skirmishes before the “real elections” – parliamentary or presidential), in smaller towns, a significant part of the electorate is not particularly interested in elections. As Urszula Panicz wrote in her 2011 article in “Refleksje” titled Frekwencja wyborcza a stan polskiej demokracji [Electoral Turnout and the State of Polish Democracy], “The problem may lie in perception and external factors, such as the fact that election campaigns at the national level are widely publicised. The media hype surrounding such elections relegates local voting to the side-lines, overshadowed by other types of ballots.

Furthermore, voters have a greater opportunity to familiarize themselves with the programmes and profiles of national politicians due to their frequent presence in mass media. The task is more demanding in the case of local politicians, about whom the voter has to learn on their own, for which usually they have neither the time, nor the energy, nor the attention.” Surveys by the Public Opinion Research Centre (CBOS) Foundation confirm these claims: in 2010, 66 percent of voters did not know who was going to run for the office of mayor or city president.

Under these circumstances, it is often possible to be elected mayor by a margin of several dozen votes, not always legally obtained. Such practices and thin vote margins are described by Ireneusz Sadowski in the book Społeczna konstrukcja demokracji lokalnej. Rola kapitału społecznego w działaniu instytucji przedstawicielskich [Social Construction of Local Democracy. Role of Social Capital in the Functioning of Representative Institutions]. He writes about mayors who ensured their re-election with pork understood quite literally – sometimes chased with beer offered to voters.

Andrzej Andrysiak delved even more deeply into the issue, describing the mechanisms of unqualified municipal hires for well paid jobs in the aptly titled text Spółdzielnia pracy „Samorząd” [Labour Co-op “Self-Government”].

Picture a situation in which the livelihood of many people depends on political connections. These individuals mobilize themselves, their family, and their friends to vote for the current administration. Many of these people are against a high voter turnout. In addition, there is a more or less legal system in place which mobilises people to vote for the “right” candidate. Before local elections, municipalities experience an intensification of various types of meetings, festivals, public handovers of keys to buildings.

These symbolic gestures are meant to reiterate who built those buildings, who administers the jobs created, and what can happen to them when that someone is no longer there. It is like in the advertisement which made the rounds some time ago: “Every term, we hold a vote to elect the chairman, meaning me”.

I yam what I yam

The second group of reasons, rooted in psychology, can be reduced to one sentence: same is better than different, because change involves risk. When the world was told in the autumn of 2002 that the Bank of Sweden had awarded the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (dubbed the “Nobel Prize in Economics”) to Daniel Kahneman, we psychologists were jumping for joy.

Please, understand us. Psychology is a discipline with a lot of conceptual clutter, with many research schools criticizing or ignoring each other, with a methodology questioned by the hard sciences. Awarding the prize in the field of economics was therefore a form of recognition which communicated that, in spite of all of the above, one can practice science at a decent level, there is no need to be ashamed of one’s field and – no less importantly – one can dream of the Nobel Prize.

More important than the reception in the field, however, was the reason why Kahneman received the award, which was prospect theory, proposed by him and the late Amos Tversky. It was (and still is) a revolutionary theory. Especially so for economists, who have so far been attached to the vision of the rational agent, making decisions based on clear and well-defined premises. One achievement of prospect theory was to show that a human choices are mainly motivated by loss aversion. Crucially, avoiding losses is far more important to many people than potential gains.

Marking the name of the incumbent on the ballot is a form of limiting losses. The challenger is always to some degree an unknown.

Let us try to illustrate this with an example from everyday life. Imagine the following situation: you are at a supermarket. You put everything you need for the next few days into the basket or cart and go to the checkout. While scanning your products, the cashier presents you with an offer. “We have this campaign now,” she says. “We are creating a customer database and if you leave your contact details: name, address, and phone number, the store will reward you with 1 zloty.” How many of us would agree to such a proposal? It is a safe bet that few would accept it.

But let us imagine a different situation: as you are shopping, you pick up a large, three-hundred-gram chocolate bar of your favourite kind. Of course, you add a whole lot of other things to the cart and after some time you go to the checkout. There, after scanning all the products, it turns out that the price on the receipt is different from the one that was on the store shelf. The bar of chocolate was supposed to cost 11.99 zlotys, and the receipt says 12.99.

You report the discrepancy to the cashier and hear: “Oh, yeah, it’s probably a system glitch. Please go to the service desk and report the matter. You will need to fill out a form, provide your contact details: name, address, and phone number, and they will immediately reimburse your 1 zloty.”

What would you do? Even if not everyone would march over to the customer service desk, the percentage of those who would is much higher than in the first case. Why? Because our actions are motivated by the desire to avoid a loss that we would suffer had we not acted. While in the first case our decision concerns potential profit (or lack thereof), in the second – if we do nothing, we actually lose. And while this is not an example that fully describes Kahneman and Tversky’s theory, it shows one of its most important elements: our overwhelming need to avoid losses.

How can this phenomenon be associated with a reluctance to vote for different candidates than before? In some ways, marking the name of the incumbent on the ballot is a form of limiting losses. The voters know this person, they know what they are like, what to expect from them, what their strengths and weaknesses are.

The challenger is always to some degree an unknown. Even if we know her or him, it’s usually in a different context. We do not know how they will behave when in power, with official authority behind them, and with the opportunity to decide the fate of others. And the campaign promises? Well, we have gotten used to politicians not living up to them, so we do not put much stock in them anymore.

Let us also not forget that fear of change is usually skilfully fuelled by politicians, both locally and nationally. Ireneusz Sadowski reports on a situation from a local race, where the incumbent mayor told the residents that the opponent would deprive them of health care.

On the other hand, we regularly hear from PiS politicians that whoever defeats them in an election will immediately abolish the “500+” benefits programme and other allowances which distribute budget funds into the pockets of citizens. For example, the Minister of Family and Social Policy Marlena Maląg said at a conference in July 2022: “When the Civic Platform comes back to power, they will take – as Deputy Lenz announced today – they will suspend the fourteenth pension.” To put it simply, the message goes something like this: “I yam what I yam. But you just wait and see what happens when I go.”

Eddie won’t mind if you diet

This latter mechanism leads to another psychological phenomenon that may explain why people consistently vote for politicians acting against their interests – a social form of the Stockholm syndrome. In the literature, this concept is used in various ways, often quite erroneously. It took its name from a specific event – the robbery of Kreditbanken in Stockholm, which ended with hostages being held at the bank’s headquarters from August 23 to 28, 1973.

During the protracted negotiations with the attackers, involving the then Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme, one of the hostages, a bank clerk named Kristin Enmark, played an important role. The woman had a long, forty-minute conversation with PM Palme. She said that she was not afraid of the criminals, she trusted them, but her greatest fear was the potential action by the police, the shooting and deaths that it could bring. Enmark suggested that the best solution would be to allow the criminals to leave the bank unopposed, with four hostages in tow, and escape (still with the hostages!) to wherever they wanted.

Let us note, therefore, that Enmark, despite being the victim of a robbery and hostage-taking, still wanted to stay with the attackers. Palme did not agree to this solution. Eventually, tear gas was used, the hostages were freed, and the kidnappers were stopped – without any casualties. Two of the attackers were found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment, including the ringleader of the attack, Jan-Erik Olsson (sentenced to ten years). In prison, he received many letters from his admirers, one of whom he married. He also became friends with Kristin Enmark.

What does this situation have in common with voters supporting the same candidates despite the obvious lack of benefits (or even losses) they experience as a result?

Here, we can think to the inimitable Sławomir Mrożek and the character of Eddie from his play Tango, an uncouth bully with primitive instincts. Mrożek’s drama ruefully shows that crudity and force will always prevail over intellect and hesitancy. It stands as a warning against failure to respond in the face of danger. Eddie and his ilk are always waiting for an opportunity to take power and snatch us into their farcical dance.

What is most interesting, however, is the way Eddie, after his brutal takeover of power, arranges relations with the other dramatis personae. With his usual grace, he declares that he is really a regular guy, he likes a joke, and they will be fine with him if they just obey. Does Eddie win the trust of Stomil and Eugene? No, certainly not. But he creates a situation where Eleanor can only say to her husband, Stomil, “Maybe it won’t be so bad. He certainly won’t mind if you diet.” The power structure has been put in place, we have to accept it. Somehow, we can probably manage.

Ingroup and outgroup

The question arises, does this mean Eddie is part of the “ingroup” rather than the “outgroup”, and that is why we acquiesce to him? As Jonathan Chait wrote in Confessions of a ‘Partyist’: Yes, I Judge Your Politics, an article published in 2014 in the New York Magazine, when in 1960 Americans were asked whether they would mind if their child married a supporter of the opposite political party, only 4 percent of Democrat voters and 5 percent of Republican voters answered “yes.” When the same question was asked in 2010, respectively 33 percent and 49 percent of respondents answered in the affirmative.

In 2012, political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Jeremy Westwood analysed the results of repeated surveys of Republican and Democrat views. It turned out that more and more people (from both sides of the political dispute) subscribe to the sentences: “I do not trust people who support this party”, “I am afraid of people who support this party”, “I wonder how one can support the ideas of this party”. Of course, “this” meant the opposing party to the one the respondent supported. So much for research conducted in the United States – what about us?

At the end of 2018, similar observations were made by Dr. Paulina Górska from the University of Warsaw. Together with a team from the Centre for Research on Prejudice, Górska analysed mutual opinions of PiS and Civic Platform (PO) voters. To the surprise of many (especially on the left side of the political scene), she noticed that the level of resentment and even aggression towards people supporting the opposite party was higher among PO voters or, more broadly, the opposition.

Górska applied the scale of “human origin”, a graphical representation of the evolutionary development of a human being from an ape to the fully erect Homo sapiens sapiens (this type of drawing is commonly used in articles describing human evolution). It turned out that supporters of opposition parties were more likely to dehumanize – rank lower – PiS supporters than vice versa.

The balance of positive and negative feelings was also different among supporters of both parties. Of course, it was always negative towards the opponents, but it was more pronounced in opposition supporters (6.29 and -14.93, respectively; the value of 0 being an indicator of neutral feelings). Thus, this peculiar tribalism affects everyone, regardless of the political views they hold.

What is the result? First, we get the division of the world into the “ingroup” and the “outgroup”. The ease of creating this polarisation and the consequences it has for our perception of reality was shown in the mid-1950s by the psychologist Muzafer Sherif. He conducted an experiment at a summer camp attended by 12-year-old boy scouts. They were divided into two teams (Eagles and Rattlers), neither of which was aware of the existence of the other. This stage of the study aimed to create an internal bond within both groups.

In the next stage, the teams competed against each other. A distance, and even hostility, was created between them, only to confront them with the need to cooperate in the final stage of the study. The overall conclusion of the experiment was quite clear. Creating prejudices and distance towards an external group is relatively easy, especially when it is accompanied by a conflict over resources.

The reverse process is definitely more difficult to accomplish. To encourage cooperation and treatment of an outgroup member as a helpful partner is hard, although not impossible – especially when an important goal can only be achieved through cooperation with the other group.

The ingroup/outgroup filter also influences the perception of seemingly objective and indisputable issues. Even that which we see with our own eyes.

Why do I bring up this experiment? I find one methodological detail in Sherif’s analysis especially relevant, even though it may become lost in the search for general conclusions. Sherif and his team conducted the whole experiment very carefully, wanting to precisely establish what range of reality perception is affected by the belief that someone is “in” or “out”.

One afternoon, they organized a baseball throwing competition for the boys from both teams. A very cleverly constructed, large target was prepared. On one side it had concentric circles, showing where to throw, and on the other – a precise electronic system, indicating how close to the centre the ball hit.

The ingenuity of the whole mechanism was that only the experimenters had access to objective data from the system, while the jury consisting of delegates from the Eagles and the Rattlers had to rely on their own eyes. The results were unequivocal. Jury members systematically overestimated the accuracy of their own group’s throws and underestimated that of the other group’s.

This seemingly unsurprising result is nevertheless very important. It shows that the ingroup/outgroup filter also influences the perception of seemingly objective and indisputable issues. Even that which we see with our own eyes. An example of how this mechanism can work in practice is a study conducted in the 1980s by the Institute for Journalism at the University of Mainz.

The participants were German journalists who were provided with materials on an important politician (a state prime minister – although it was not specified which federal state was referred to) and suspicions regarding his election campaign finances. The information package was constructed in such a way that the legal situation seemed at least unclear, but did not conclusively indict the politician. It stated that one hundred thousand marks were obtained for the party. On the basis of the submitted materials, the journalists were to write an article describing the whole case.

The mechanism of the experiment was that the party affiliation of the politician was manipulated (the political sympathies of the journalists had been verified in advance). Journalists were randomly tasked with covering either a person from their preferred party or from the opposite one. The results were again unequivocal. More than twice as many articles expressed certainty about the politician’s guilt when he came from the opposite party versus the one supported by the writer. When journalists were asked to describe a politician with whom they sympathized, they proved much more restrained in their opinions.

Let us note that the study involved people who, presumably, should be guided by objectivity and a cold assessment of facts, without expressing their own views. In addition, we can assume that journalists, in the normal course of their work, have both the cognitive capacity and the tools to verify these facts. How much more disadvantaged, then, are the members of the general public, who cannot always lean on such assets?

Is it any wonder that they consistently ignore messages which insist they should question the pure intentions or competences of the politicians they vote for?

In 2016, a major scandal erupted in the United States when a recording surfaced of Donald Trump saying his infamous line: “Grab’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” The comedian Jordan Klepper went to a Trump rally in Pennsylvania to ask his voters what they thought.

Their reaction (both men and women, which is important in this case) was: “It’s just locker room talk.” He is “my guy”, so I will defend him, diminish his guilt, regardless of the fact that it increasingly requires me to do logical splits. Besides, one can always use the final line of defence: “Well ok, maybe they steal, but at least they share!”

Not giving in to Eddies

Are we able to point to the reasons for The Great Paradox in Poland and abroad with 100% certainty? Why do people vote against themselves? One of the tensions between social science and journalism results from a phenomenon known as the fallacy of the single cause.

It is the expectation that there is one variable, one factor entirely explaining the phenomenon which we are investigating. This is indeed a very tempting prospect – to know for sure that A causes B, that the election results in Poland are dictated by the former partition boundaries, and that all voters of a particular political party have exactly the same demographic characteristics. In fact, however, when explaining social behaviour, we will almost never encounter a situation where the results fully match the research assumptions.

Let us look at the remarkable success of the infamous Cambridge Analytica in its micro-targeting of voters. This British online research company collected a huge amount of information about Facebook users: the likes they gave to certain content; the time they spent reading specific posts or watching specific videos. Users were suggested quizzes in which they answered a plethora of questions (sometimes resembling trivia, sometimes psych tests).

This data was then combined with information about the geographical location of the connection, which enabled the creation of a sophisticated (and very accurate) psychological profile of the user. This profile was then used during the election campaign to display advertisements and messages precisely tailored to a specific person.

While this is difficult to verify post factum, many commentators on the political scene in the US believe that it was the use of this tool that allowed Trump to win the election. The key to success was a large set of seemingly unrelated variables – what music a potential voter listens to, what industry they work in, what television shows they watch, what their family situation is, what is their attitude to risk, and so on. Only these variables, aggregated, with their weights corresponding to their significance, made it possible to create a quantifiable model predicting the behaviour of a specific person.

The same is true when looking for reasons why some people quite consistently vote against their own interests. We will not find a single cause, but rather a conglomerate of various factors that may produce this result. Is that a reason to give up on the question? Of course not. The causes are worth looking for, if only to move voters, meaning all of us, to reflect, find courage (as in the case of local rebels in Michał Szczęch’s article), and finally change our ways. Otherwise, there is a risk that some places will be stuck with a crowd of local Eddies forever.

Translated by Piotr Nowak

This essay appeared in the November issue of the monthly magazine “Pismo. Magazyn Opinii” (11/2022) under the title Jak nie dać się Edkom? [How Not to Give In to Eddies].

Fragment of Tango by Sławomir Mrożek translated by Ralph Manheim and Teresa Dzieduszycka, Grove Press, 1968.


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