The status quo bias when casting a ballot.

The status quo bias when casting a ballot.

Jane and Robert enjoyed living in a country with a direct democracy system. They valued their right to directly vote on important issues that effect everyone. Whenever there was a public ballot they’d always attend to ensure their voices were heard by casting their ballots. They cast their ballots on issues such as drug policy, health care, finance and domestic policy.

Public ballots are important because they allow the public to directly influence, and have their say on, the direction of important government policies at the national and local level. Some ballots even include multiple propositions. Countries like Switzerland, Italy and the United States have regular public ballots. In the Italy there were 15 ballots between 1971 and 2004, in the United States there were 159 state-wide ballots in 2015 (across 42 states), and between 1960 and 2004 there were 125 ballots in Switzerland. At the local level there have been over 700 ballots in California and Oregon between 1970 and 1998.

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Given that some of the ballots ask the public to decide on multiple issues (propositions) behavioural scientists have begun to investigate the impact that cognitive biases may have on voting behaviour. Since ballots can be concerned with a wide range of topics and the outcomes of ballots are often close even the smallest impact of cognitive biases can have a big effect. The status quo bias refers to one such bias, which is the tendency to prefer one option over another because the option is the status quo (Samuelson & Zeckhauser, 1988; Kahneman et al., 1991). Barber and colleagues (2017) investigated the impact of the status quo bias in a study by manipulating the wording of experimental ballots. They gave participants ballots on the topics of gambling, mental illness and same-sex marriage with neutral or biased (against or in favour) wording. The results indicated that the wording of the ballots had an impact on voters, furthermore the status quo bias influenced participants who were not well informed about the proposition (e.g., mental illness).

table 1
One study that investigated the length of public ballots reported that multiple propositions on a ballot can interfere with the ability to translate political preferences into consistent policy choices (Selb et al., 2008). This is important because although some countries run regular ballots simply changing the order and number of propositions can influence the outcome. At the national and local levels alike, the length of these ballots vary greatly (see Table 1). In the Californian and Oregon ballots there was a status quo effect on almost 700 ballots between 1970 and 1998 (Bowler & Donovan, 1998). For every additional proposition that was added to these local ballots the share of ‘No’ votes increased on average by 0.4 percent.

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The status quo bias is not the only cognitive bias to influence voting behaviour on public ballots. The endowment effect and loss aversion can also explain some of the resistance to change through ballots (Heinemann, 2001). So, like Jane and Robert if you live in a country or state that has a direct democracy system and you enjoy taking part in public ballots one way in which you can avoid the effect of cognitive biases is to read and think carefully about the proposition at hand.


Heuristics in political voting.

Heuristics in political voting.

On the way to vote in the general election John and Sarah were discussing which candidate and political party they were going to vote for. There were two main candidates up for consideration in the general election. The first candidate was seeking a second term in office whilst the second candidate was opposed to the first on policies but had higher approval ratings. Sarah mentioned to John that she was going to vote for the first candidate because the economy had done well under his administration. John said that he was going to vote for the second candidate because she had higher approval ratings, as such, was more popular than the first candidate. They both went on to cast their votes for their favoured candidates and continued on in the day as normal.

In the example of John and Sarah above we see a typical quick discussion with some reasons given for choosing one candidate over another in a general election. Like many voters, John and Sarah think about the state of the economy and approval ratings when trying to decide on who to endorse for public office. Voting in this way is not necessarily the most rational way to vote, however, this demonstrates some of the cognitive biases that influence our decisions during the voting process. When pressed to give a reason why we have voted in the way that we did many of us would say that we weighed up the policies of each candidate (and political party). We like to think of ourselves as rational decision makers however this is not so. Cognitive biases influence our decisions far more than would like to think so.

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General elections are some of the most important decisions that we can make. Although general elections in the United Kingdom are every four years the political party that goes on to win an election can influence our lives in almost every way. The incumbent Prime Minister takes charge of the direction of economic, health, judicial, educational and defence policy. If you have been saving up for the deposit for that nice first home and you are planning to take out the mortgage on the home in the next couple of years the housing policies of the Prime Minister are important, some ministers may help first time buyers whilst others may not.

When putting the ‘X’ next to the preferred candidate’s name and political party at the ballot box we all have a preference for some policies over another (e.g., conservative or liberal policies). John may like the idea of the nationalisation of railways, as such he decides to vote for the party that has historically been in favour of nationalising the railway network. By voting in this way John has made an affective (i.e. emotional) response towards a political party and voted by using the likability heuristic rather than thinking through all of the policies of each political party (Brady & Sniderman, 1985). The likeability heuristic has help John make a quick decision about who to vote without the need for agonising over the decision.

Another rule of thumb (or heuristic) is to evaluate the incumbent Prime Minister on the basis of the economy’s current performance – if the economy is doing well than the Prime Minister is a good candidate (Popkin et al., 1992; Schneider et al., 1985). One problem with this ‘economic performance heuristic’ is that it makes the assumption that the Prime Minister controls the economy, for the most part this is incorrect. The Prime Minister can decide on policies, but they do not control the economy. This ‘economic performance heuristic’ merely rewards good economic luck whilst punishing poor economic luck. For the Prime Minister’s cabinet, this rules of thumb provides incentives to sacrifice long-term economic growth for small boosts in activity, particularly, in election years (Fiorina et al., 1981).


A third heuristic that many of us use when deciding on who to vote for in a general election, or even local elections, is the ‘approval rating heuristic’. One cleverly designed study in 1993 by Jeffery Mondak at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania showed that participants used Ronald Reagan’s approval ratings as a cue to performance. When Reagan had high approval ratings, participants said that they would be more willing to vote for him, compared to when he had low approval ratings, Reagan’s policies did not differ with popularity. The study by Mondak demonstrates one important heuristic, that is that, we are more likely to vote for a candidate with high approval ratings than low approval ratings simply because they are more popular than the other candidates.

Heuristics aren’t only important when making decisions in elections they also play a role in the outcome of referendums. Under the direct democracy system of Switzerland, the Swiss have more referendums than any other country. In 2016 alone the Swiss had 13 referendums on a variety of subjects such as highway construction, wine production and economic policy (see Table 1 for an example). At first thought the idea of having a lot of referendums seems like a good idea because the public get their say on all government policies, however this system has its problems. When voting in a referendum we are expected to become informed about a diverse and highly complex serious of issues in our spare-time. One study by Gruner and Hertig (1983) collected data from the regular referendum voters in Switzerland after each vote from 1977 to 1983, they found that only 20% of the voters were actually well informed about the issues at stake, many of the voters only knew the name of the referendum.

(Table 1)


So, how do we make these decisions about the referendums that are crucial for the direction of government policy? Two of the heuristics that are important decision-making tools for referendum voting are the status quo bias and the likeability heuristic (Passy, 1993; Clarke et al., 2012). The status quo bias suggests that we favour the known over unknown, and reject the new and untested in favour of the familiar. As we can see in the table above many voters choose to stick with the familiar and reject the new without any clear reason. One example of this is the Swiss referendum on joining the European Economic Area (EEA) in December 1992. Following the voting academics asked the voters for their reasons and how they voted (Passy, 1993). On average 30% of the voters could not give any reason for how they voted (despite voting), 50% were able to give one reason and 20% gave two reasons, we can take this as an indication of the level of knowledge that each voter had. Many of the voters voted to reject joining the EEA by using the status quo heuristic.

The second of the heuristics that is involved in decision-making in referendums was demonstrated in Britain’s Alternative Vote referendum on the 5th of May 2011. This referendum is unique because there were some strong political personalities involved in campaigning for and against the alternative ballot. By the time of the referendum Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat party had become decidedly unpopular, he was part of the coalition government and went back on many of his campaign policies. Nick Clegg campaigned for the Alternative Ballot. Following the voting many voters stated that they voted against the alternative vote because they no longer liked Nick Clegg (Clarke et al., 2012). Voters used the likeability heuristic rather than weighing up the consequences of voting for or against the referendum.

Like John and Sarah if you are agonising about who to vote for in a general election of which way to vote during a referendum bear-in-mind that there are many cognitive biases (heuristics) can help you make the decision. For better or for worse even when making highly important decisions cognitive biases such as the likeability heuristic, approval rating heuristic, the status quo bias and economic performance rule of thumb influence our decisions. To avoid these cognitive biases, we can start by thinking about the reasons why are considering voting the way we are.