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Agent-Based Modeling in Political Decision Making  

Lin Qiu and Riyang Phang

Political systems involve citizens, voters, politicians, parties, legislatures, and governments. These political actors interact with each other and dynamically alter their strategies according to the results of their interactions. A major challenge in political science is to understand the dynamic interactions between political actors and extrapolate from the process of individual political decision making to collective outcomes. Agent-based modeling (ABM) offers a means to comprehend and theorize the nonlinear, recursive, and interactive political process. It views political systems as complex, self-organizing, self-reproducing, and adaptive systems consisting of large numbers of heterogeneous agents that follow a set of rules governing their interactions. It allows the specification of agent properties and rules governing agent interactions in a simulation to observe how micro-level processes generate macro-level phenomena. It forces researchers to make assumptions surrounding a theory explicit, facilitates the discovery of extensions and boundary conditions of the modeled theory through what-if computational experiments, and helps researchers understand dynamic processes in the real-world. ABM models have been built to address critical questions in political decision making, including why voter turnouts remain high, how party coalitions form, how voters’ knowledge and emotion affect election outcomes, and how political attitudes change through a campaign. These models illustrate the use of ABM in explicating assumptions and rules of theoretical frameworks, simulating repeated execution of these rules, and revealing emergent patterns and their boundary conditions. While ABM has limitations in external validity and robustness, it provides political scientists a bottom-up approach to study a complex system by clearly defining the behavior of various actors and generate theoretical insights on political phenomena.


Computational Models of Political Decision Making  

Sung-youn Kim

A growing body of research uses computational models to study political decision making and behavior such as voter turnout, vote choice, party competition, social networks, and cooperation in social dilemmas. Advances in the computational modeling of political decision making are closely related to the idea of bounded rationality. In effect, models of full rationality can usually be analyzed by hand, but models of bounded rationality are complex and require computer-assisted analysis. Most computational models used in the literature are agent based, that is, they specify how decisions are made by autonomous, interacting computational objects called “agents.” However, an important distinction can be made between two classes of models based on the approaches they take: behavioral and information processing. Behavioral models specify relatively simple behavioral rules to relax the standard rationality assumption and investigate the system-level consequences of these rules in conjunction with deductive, game-theoretic analysis. In contrast, information-processing models specify the underlying information processes of decision making—the way political actors receive, store, retrieve, and use information to make judgment and choice—within the structural constraints on human cognition, and examine whether and how these processes produce the observed behavior in question at the individual or aggregate level. Compared to behavioral models, information-processing computational models are relatively rare, new to political scientists, and underexplored. However, focusing on the underlying mental processes of decision making that must occur within the structural constraints on human cognition, they have the potential to provide a more general, psychologically realistic account for political decision making and behavior.


Nudging in Public Policy  

Alice Moseley

“Nudging” in public policy involves using behavioral, economic, and psychological insights to influence the behavior of policy targets in order to help achieve policy goals. This approach to public policy was advocated by Thaler and Sunstein in their book Nudge in 2008. Nudging is underpinned by a conception that individuals use mental shortcuts (heuristics) in day-to-day decision-making, shortcuts that do not always serve their long-term interests (for instance, in relation to eating and exercise patterns, road safety, or saving for the future). Nudging does not involve seeking to persuade individuals about the merits of pursuing particular courses of action that will better serve their long-term welfare. Rather, it involves altering the choice environment so that when people follow their instincts, using familiar mental shortcuts, the most prominent option available to the policy target will be one that is likely to promote their own welfare, and that of society more widely. Nudging has come to be considered a core part of the policy toolkit in many countries but academic scholarship has also debated the ethical dimensions of nudging, and there is a flourishing research literature on the efficacy, public acceptability, merits, and limitations of this approach within public policy.


Expected Utility and Political Decision Making  

Jona Linde

Expected utility theory is widely used to formally model decisions in situations where outcomes are uncertain. As uncertainty is arguably commonplace in political decisions, being able to take that uncertainty into account is of great importance when building useful models and interpreting empirical results. Expected utility theory has provided possible explanations for a host of phenomena, from the failure of the median voter theorem to the making of vague campaign promises and the delegation of policymaking. A good expected utility model may provide alternative explanations for empirical phenomena and can structure reasoning about the effect of political actors’ goals, circumstances, and beliefs on their behavior. For example, expected utility theory shows that whether the median voter theorem can be expected to hold or not depends on candidates’ goals (office, policy, or vote seeking), and the nature of their uncertainty about voters. In this way expected utility theory can help empirical researchers derive hypotheses and guide them towards the data required to exclude alternative explanations. Expected utility has been especially successful in spatial voting models, but the range of topics to which it can be applied is far broader. Applications to pivotal voting or politicians’ redistribution decisions show this wider value. However, there is also a range of promising topics that have received ample attention from empirical researchers, but that have so far been largely ignored by theorists applying expected utility theory. Although expected utility theory has its limitations, more modern theories that build on the expected utility framework, such as prospect theory, can help overcome these limitations. Notably these extensions rely on the same modeling techniques as expected utility theory and can similarly elucidate the mechanisms that may explain empirical phenomena. This structured way of thinking about behavior under uncertainty is the main benefit provided by both expected utility theory and its extensions.


Bounded Rationality and Cognitive Limits in Political Decision Making  

Brooke N. Shannon, Zachary A. McGee, and Bryan D. Jones

Bounded rationality conceives of people engaging in politics as goal oriented but endowed with cognitive and emotional architectures that limit their abilities to pursue those goals rationally. Political institutions provide the critical link between micro- and macro-processes in political decision-making. They act to (a) compensate for those bounds on rationality; (b) make possible cooperative arrangements not possible under the assumptions of full or comprehensive rationality; and (c) fall prey to the same cognitive and emotional limits or canals that individual humans do. The cognitive limitations that hamper individuals are not only replicated at the organizational level but are in fact causal.


Behavioral Analysis in the Study of Politics: The Conflict Laboratory  

Alessandro Del Ponte, Reuben Kline, and John Ryan

Behavioral economics is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that incorporates insights from psychology to enrich standard economic models that assume perfectly rational individuals. Empirical research in behavioral economics typically employs incentivized experiments that use economic games with real money on the line. In these experiments, subjects are awarded financial payoffs based on the decisions they make (either individually or as part of a group) in an institutional context designed by the researcher. Behavioral economics is well suited for political science because behavioral economics is interdisciplinary by nature and political science is not bound by any particular research paradigm. At the same time, the method is still novel to many political scientists despite many years of its use to study political topics in a variety of research areas. What unites the application of the method to these areas is the explicit consideration of conflict. For instance, scholars have uncovered social conflict between groups (e.g., voter polarization in the United States) using behavioral games as measures, or they have designed experiments around elections to test theories of candidate and voter behavior. Because of the clear financial incentives, economic experiments are especially useful for studying people’s actual preferences in areas such as redistribution as opposed to their stated preferences. Finally, the method can be used to design institutions that will help overcome conflict over scarce resources. In sum, the strengths of behavioral economics include: (a) the ability to vary institutional contexts; (b) clear incentives that ensure valid measures of preferences; (c) direct measures of behaviors instead of stated intentions which could be confounded by outside pressures such as social desirability.


Strategic Voting Versus Sincere Voting  

Damien Bol and Tom Verthé

People do not always vote for the party that they like the most. Sometimes, they choose to vote for another one because they want to maximize their influence on the outcome of the election. This behavior driven by strategic considerations is often labeled as “strategic voting.” It is opposed to “sincere voting,” which refers to the act of voting for one’s favorite party. Strategic voting can take different forms. It can consist in deserting a small party for a bigger one that has more chances of forming the government, or to the contrary, deserting a big party for a smaller one in order to send a signal to the political class. More importantly the strategies employed by voters differ across electoral systems. The presence of frequent government coalitions in proportional representation systems gives different opportunities, or ways, for people to influence the electoral outcome with their vote. In total, the literature identifies four main forms of strategic voting. Some of them are specific to some electoral systems; others apply to all.


Genetics and Heritability Research on Political Decision Making  

Levente Littvay

In 2005, political scientists claimed that parent-child similarities, in addition to parenting, socialization, or shared social factors by the family, are also driven by genetic similarity. This claim upended a century of orthodoxy in political science. Many social scientists are uncomfortable with this concept, and this discomfort often stems from a multitude of misunderstandings. Claims about the genetics and heritability of political phenomena predate 2005 and wave of studies over the decade that followed swept through political science and then died down as quickly as they came. The behavior genetic research agenda faces several challenges within political science, including (a) resistance to these ideas within all of the social sciences, (b) difficulties faced by scholars in the production of meaningful theoretical and empirical contributions, and (c) developments in the field of genetics and their (negative) impact on the related scholarship within the study of politics.


Psychophysiology in Political Decision-Making Research  

Mathew V. Hibbing, Melissa N. Baker, and Kathryn A. Herzog

Since the early 2010s, political science has seen a rise in the use of physiological measures in order to inform theories about decision-making in politics. A commonly used physiological measure is skin conductance (electrodermal activity). Skin conductance measures the changes in levels of sweat in the eccrine glands, usually on the fingertips, in order to help inform how the body responds to stimuli. These changes result from the sympathetic nervous system (popularly known as the fight or flight system) responding to external stimuli. Due to the nature of physiological responses, skin conductance is especially useful when researchers hope to have good temporal resolution and make causal claims about a type of stimulus eliciting physiological arousal in individuals. Researchers interested in areas that involve emotion or general affect (e.g., campaign messages, political communication and advertising, information processing, and general political psychology) may be especially interested in integrating skin conductance into their methodological toolbox. Skin conductance is a particularly useful tool since its implicit and unconscious nature means that it avoids some of the pitfalls that can accompany self-report measures (e.g., social desirability bias and inability to accurately remember and report emotions). Future decision-making research will benefit from pairing traditional self-report measures with physiological measures such as skin conductance.


The Political Effects of Religious Cues  

Aubrey Westfall and Özge Çelik Russell

Religion is a central and comprehensive identity for billions of people all over the world. Politicians and other political actors recognize the vitality of religion and use it for political purposes, deliberately signaling religion, religiosity, or religious values and connecting them to political outcomes or behaviors in an effort to influence the political preferences of religious practitioners. The most efficient way to make the connection between religion and politics is through religious cues. Religious cues create information shortcuts linking religious identity or values with a political candidate or issue. Religious cues are used by political and religious actors in secular and religious contexts and are typically one of two general types: identity cues, which engage an individual’s religious identity and activate an in-group/out-group effect, and linkage cues, which link religious values or beliefs with an issue or candidate. Identity cues are particularly tricky to use in secular contexts because they have been shown to have strong alienating effects on nonreligious people, thereby defeating the intended purpose of the cue sender. For this reason, coded religious language called “implicit cues” is used with greater frequency in political discourse where only the religious cue receiver recognizes the religious cue for what it is. This strategy allows a political candidate to reap the benefits of the cue without risking alienation. While scholars have made substantial progress in using experimental methods to disentangle the ways religious cues influence political behavior, there is ample opportunity for more research exploring different types of religious cues and the way they interact with other forms of cues and identities. Furthermore, most of the research on religious cues has focused on Christian cues in the United States, and a more diverse range of religions and contexts should be explored to understand the way religious cues influence political behavior. Researchers should also expand the definition of “religious practitioners” to explore how religious cues influence the growing number of people who do not affiliate with a religion or engage in practices traditionally associated with religiosity but do identify as religious. This would help to expand conceptualization of political behavior to more accurately reflect lived political experiences. Embracing these opportunities will allow the scholarly community to gain a better understanding of the varied political dynamics of religious cueing, which offers insights into how fundamental identities and attitudes are linked, thereby shedding more light on the complex dynamics of political behavior.


Outcomes of Political Decision Making  

Marcus M. Weymiller and Christopher W. Larimer

“Decision outcomes” refers to mass political behavior as well as decisions by elites in the policy arena. Such outcomes are naturally the product of the decision-making process, a process that has been informed considerably by research in areas outside of political science. Political and policy processes are less defined by rational responses to incoming information than by pre-existing cognitive biases favoring narratives, stories, and symbols. Thus, to accurately understand decision outcomes requires an interdisciplinary approach, and, indeed, the discipline of political science has increasingly incorporated insights from psychology, social psychology, sociology, behavioral economics, and other social and natural sciences. Decision outcomes may reflect the true preferences of decision-makers, but behavior and outcomes have also been shown to change dramatically depending on who knows (or will know) the decision. Considering decision outcomes as the dependent variable, several factors have been identified that consistently and significantly shape outcomes in the political and policy worlds. Political outcomes, such as voting (by citizens and elites), are often explained by focusing on party ID or partisanship, and for good reason, but there are also instances in which decision outcomes are better encapsulated by more localized factors or influences. Policy outcomes, on the other hand, are less easily defined or predicted. Emotional testimonies and random fluctuations affect whether an issue is acted upon by a legislative body. Attention to social context and a concern for fairness is a primary driver of decision outcomes in social situations. In particular, leader–follower dynamics and group outcomes are significantly affected by the process in which decisions are made.


Attitudes Toward Women and the Influence of Gender on Political Decision Making  

Mary-Kate Lizotte

There is a great deal of research, spanning social psychology, sociology, and political science, on politically relevant attitudes toward women and the influence of gender on individual’s political decision making. First, there are several measures of attitudes toward women, including measures of sexism and gender role attitudes, such as the Attitudes Toward Women Scale, the Old-Fashioned Sexism Scale, the Modern Sexism Scale, and the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory. There are advantages and disadvantages of these existing measures. Moreover, there are important correlates and consequences of these attitudes. Correlates include education level and the labor force participation of one’s mother or spouse. The consequences of sexist and non-egalitarian gender role attitudes include negative evaluations of female candidates for political office and lower levels of gender equality at the state level. Understanding the sources and effects of attitudes toward women is relevant to public policy and electoral scholars. Second, gender appears to have a strong effect on shaping men’s and women’s attitudes and political decisions. Gender differences in public opinion consistently arise across several issue areas, and there are consistent gender differences in vote choice and party identification. Various issues produce gender gaps, including the domestic and international use of force, compassion issues such as social welfare spending, equal rights, and government spending more broadly. Women are consistently more liberal on all of these policies. On average, women are more likely than men to vote for a Democratic Party candidate and identify as a Democrat. There is also a great deal of research investigating various origins of these gender differences. Comprehending when and why gender differences in political decision making emerge is important to policymakers, politicians, the political parties, and scholars.


Democratic Norms and Religion  

Gizem Arikan and Pazit Ben-Nun Bloom

In research on religiosity and support for democratic norms, two major debates stand out: The first concerns whether some religious traditions, such as Islam or Orthodox Christianity, are inherently undemocratic, and hence whether supporters of these traditions have antidemocratic orientations. The second debate is about whether religious orientations beyond religious identification foster or hinder support for democratic norms. Both debates may be resolved by conceptualizing both individual religiosity and support for democratic norms as multidimensional orientations. At the individual level, religiosity consists of belief, behavior, and belonging dimensions. Support for democratic norms consist of overt approval of democracy as the ideal system of governing the country and intrinsic support, which refers to an understanding of democracy as being primarily associated with liberal-democratic norms and institutions such as popular sovereignty, political equality, civil rights, and free elections. Religious belief is negatively associated with over support, and religious social behavior is positively associated with overt support. Yet, there is some evidence that the effect of religious social behavior on intrinsic support for democracy may not be positive. Recent scholarship is also interested in identifying the psychological mechanisms through which different religiosity dimensions affect support for democratic norms, as well as establishing the causal effects of religiosity dimensions by experimentally manipulating different facets of religiosity. Although the multidimensional approach to religiosity provides a general framework that explains the effect of religiosity on support for democratic norms, there is still substantive variation across time and different contexts to be explained. Avenues exist for future research in terms of theorizing and identifying the moderating effects of different factors, most obviously the religious context and the influence of religious elites and social networks.


Sunk Costs and Political Decision Making  

Charles A. Miller

The “sunk costs fallacy” is a popular import into political science from organizational psychology and behavioral economics. The fallacy is classically defined as a situation in which decision-makers escalate commitment to an apparently failing project in order to “recoup” the costs they have already sunk into it. The phenomenon is often framed as a good example of how real decision-making departs from the assumption of forward-looking rationality which underpins traditional approaches to understanding politics. Researchers have proposed a number of different psychological drivers for the fallacy, such as cognitive dissonance reduction, and there is experimental and observational evidence that it accurately characterizes decision-making in certain contexts. However, there is significant skepticism about the fallacy in many social sciences, with critics arguing that there are better forward-looking rational explanations for decisions apparently driven by a desire to recoup sunk costs – among them reputational concerns, option values and agency problems. Critics have also noted that in practical situations sunk costs are informative both about decision makers’ intrinsic valuation for the issue and the prospects for success, making it hard to discern a separate role for sunk costs empirically. To address these concerns, empirical researchers have employed a number of strategies, especially leveraging natural experiments in certain non-political decision making contexts such as sports or business, in order to isolate the effects of sunk costs per se from other considerations. In doing so, they have found mixed support for the fallacy. Research has also shown that the prevalence of the sunk costs fallacy may be moderated by a number of factors, including the locus of decision-making, framing, and national context. These provide the basis for suggestions for future research.