Recently, I went through the post-poll report of the 2014 National Election Studies and found some amusing facts. First, there are more than 94 registered parties in India, and 1.4% of the poll respondents voted for parties other than these 94. More than 50% of the respondents voted for parties other than the Indian National Congress (INC) or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Second, 27% made the choice of who to vote for just two days (or less) before voting, and 4.6% of them admitted that they did not vote for the party they intended to vote for. Amusingly, 42% of the respondents voted for the party they thought was most likely to win the election, and 38.2% decided which party to vote for based on the candidate.
Making important decisions, such as who to vote for, is challenging for most of us. There are many factors to be taken into consideration: who represents our best interests? Is it only our best interest that we should care for? Who do we align with on issues that are important to us? And given that we have to contrast up to 94 candidates for this is even more demanding (of course not each party has a candidate in each constituency)!
Individual freedom of choice has often been believed to be sacrosanct; it has expressive value and every choice we make is a testament to our sense of self-determinism. Having and making choices also play important roles in our well-being. However, is choice all that? Does the importance we give to a complete and irrevocable choice that impenetrable? In recent years, many have argued that giving people too much choice does more harm than good. This paradox of choice is a now well-documented phenomenon. Giving individuals too many choices leads them to be unsatisfied, regretful, and/or choose the default option, or make no choice at all.
In a classic study, customers at a grocery store were given to choose among either six or 24 different flavours of jam. Only 3% of the customers who were to choose from the latter selection purchased the jam, while 30% bought jam when they had a lesser variety to choose from. This goes on to show that while extensive options to choose from may seem alluring at first, the subsequent motivation to actually buy the product is significantly lower.
One of the reasons why more choice might be unsatisfactory is that we may feel helpless in the face of too many options. In such a case, we often face opportunity costs. Because each option has multiple features, the opportunity costs for choosing one option over the other are higher. For example, would you choose to see Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet for tens of thousands of rupees or watch multiple different local productions at a much lower rate? Both options have many features that might appear on our pro and con lists, and both have opportunity costs associated with them.
In a similar vein, suppose we are given an option to choose from 94 political parties, chances are many of their ideas overlap, making the choice even more difficult. After much deliberation, we have come down to two parties: X and Y. The candidates also seem favourable enough, and their positions match ours by 99.2% and 99% respectively, except for their stance on whether recreational marijuana should be legalized. We, like Party X, believe that it should be, while Party Y believes only medical marijuana should be legalized. If we choose Party X (with whom 99.2% of our political beliefs match) over Party Y (with whom 99% of our political beliefs match), in giving up Party Y, we may bear opportunity costs, especially if we do not consume marijuana. In fact, as we compare the parties based on multiple features, including characteristics of its candidates, the 0.2% might not even matter, making the choice that much harder and less satisfying.
We may also be overwhelmed when given a multitude of options. In this situation, we are forced to make many trade-offs, and choosing one option over a very close other option may leave us dissatisfied. A number of studies have investigated this, and have found that when we are forced to confront trade-offs, we become unhappy and dissatisfied, to the extent that we are reluctant to make them. Moreover, higher the number of alternatives, the more are trade-offs to be made, and more the dissatisfaction. To add to this, the higher the number of alternatives, the higher the conflict felt, and the more we delay the choice or pass up the opportunity to choose altogether. This probably explains why so many people made the choice of which party to vote for much later in the cycle.
Further, when such opportunity costs are salient, the overall favourability towards our first preference also reduces. As we are forced to choose between multiple political parties, we might be increasingly frustrated regarding the available options. For example, we may want a party to reflect a progressive attitude towards marginalized genders, marginalized castes, be more secular, as well as less hyper-national. While all of these characteristics are indicative of a left-leaning individual, the chances of them finding a party that offers exactly this portfolio may be low, as they would have to sort out 94 parties along these four issues. This constitutes 376 searches, something that would involve the use of very many resources.
Moreover, given that most of the political spectrum is relatively limited in its variability, the gap between the political parties must be very small. This also makes the options seem closer to each other, such that the trade-offs for choosing one over the other are more acute, perhaps increasing the intensity of dissatisfaction. One way to understand this is through the theory of cognitive dissonance. That is, essentially when faced with a difficult choice, to reduce the psychological stress associated with making said choice, we eitherrationalize the choice that we make (making us continue to justify the wrongful actions of the chosen party), decrease the importance of the non-chosen alternatives (making us think that our choice of party is superior in every way), or avoid making the choice at all (making us not vote at all). A study exploring the pre- and post-electoral change in attitudes towards presidential candidates across six elections found that in elections where voters favoured both candidates equally (making the choice more difficult), their cognitive dissonance was much higher. In such a case, voters drastically changed their opinions about the two candidates, such that the ones they voted for were considered in a much more favourable light than the erstwhile close-call candidate.
So what can we do about this paradox? We could figure out the issues that we care about, and evaluate their importance. For example, do we care about minority rights? Do we care about whether the government should bail out failing industries? Which of these do we care about more? Further, we can arrange the options we have and evaluate how they might facilitate our goals. For example, if we care more about minority rights than the government bailing out large industries, which are the parties that also have minority rights as their agenda? By sorting out issues and parties in this way, we can choose a party that might be closest to our beliefs. Of course, that’s not easy – but it’s the least we can do as responsible citizens.
(This was first published on Pragati on 26 February, 2019: https://www.thinkpragati.com/opinion/7175/the-paradox-of-voting/)