To be better informed, state voters could use a little nudge

Published in The News Tribune, August 15, 2012

A concept referred to as “nudge” has been getting some attention lately.  This is because the two professors who coined the term wrote a book (unsurprisingly called Nudge) that explains it to a general audience.

The basic claim in Nudge is that in a wide range of situations governments should “nudge” people into making better choices.  Turning to the recent election results, I’d argue that Washington State residents would benefit from a little nudging so that we cast more informed votes.

Nudge argues that humans often make poor decisions because we are subject to biases that blind us.  If in some cases we could alter the environment in which these choices are made, people might wind up making better ones.

For instance, everyone wants to save for retirement.  But saving is hard.  Sometimes we buy stuff when we know we should save.  But a cognitive bias for the present over the future makes saving really hard.

Knowing the situations in which these biases occur means the government could counteract them so that people might make the choices that are good for them — like saving more or eating better.

The book Nudge illustrates the potential power of small prods.  When given a choice, many employees do not sign up for retirement savings plan.  Yet when firms automatically enroll employees in these plans (and those who would rather not participate can opt out) people choose to remain in them.  Such a minor modification – requiring employees to opt out of retirement plans rather than opt in — has succeeded in “nudging” many into saving more than they otherwise would.

Cognitive biases in decision making are particularly strong when the cost of bad decisions occurs down the road, when we only infrequently make these decisions, and when we don’t immediately experience their consequences.  In other words, when there is less impetus or ability to reflect on why we made the decision we did.

Now let’s turn to voting.  If voters made a bad decision and we were stuck with the wrong person, we’re not likely to reflect on why we made this bad choice.  We won’t find out, if at all, until sometime in the future.  Too often we elect the less stellar candidate without ever realizing it – except in the extraordinary case where the non-stellar candidate greets you as you open your morning newspaper.

Thus our voting decisions over more obscure positions are prone to cognitive biases:  When looking at those names on the ballot, we might vote on instinct or gut reaction, rather than taking the time to inform ourselves.

Now for the case in point.  During this month’s primary election, Bruce Danielson ran against Justice Steve Gonzalez for a spot on Washington’s Supreme Court.  According to The News Tribune (TNT 8-9) Danielson raised no money, did not campaign, and made no public appearances. In contrast, Gonzalez is well-qualified, has been praised by both Democrats and Republicans, and received endorsements from every one of the state’s major newspapers.  Despite this, Danielson won 42 percent of the vote and took 30 of the state’s 39 counties.

Cognitive bias?  Sounds like it to me.  As University of Washington professor Matt Barreto explains it:  “When voters find themselves with very limited information, names and race factor in.”  Of note here is that context matters for when our cognitive biases kick in.

Unlike in some past years, this year we did not receive a voter’s pamphlet in the mail for the statewide elections (such as positions on the Supreme Court).  If you didn’t know anything about candidates for these positions, you could have searched the web.  Or you could have mailed in an unmarked ballot.  Or, you could have gone with your hunch based on each candidate’s name.

Four counties overcame this shortcoming by including information on state races in their local pamphlets.  In these four counties (Pierce was one), Gonzalez soundly beat Danielson.

My hunch is that the information on state races in these pamphlets nudged many into overcoming a (perhaps small) cognitive bias against voting for someone with the last name of Gonzalez because they had actually read something about the two candidates.

The lesson here is a pretty simple one:  Always send out voter pamphlets.

Some of us need the extra nudge.