BOHANON & CUROTT: ‘Rational ignorance’ results from voters’ lack of influence

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Economic Analysis by Cecil Bohanon & Nick CurottTry the following quiz. Can you name: 1) the governor of Indiana; 2) your U.S. House representative; 3) the vice president of the United States; 4) the U.S. senators representing Indiana; 5) the U.S. secretary of state?

If you answer all five questions correctly, congratulations—you are more knowledgeable than 90% of voters.

Here’s another quiz: Rank the following federal programs in terms of total spending: national defense, foreign aid, Social Security, interest payments on the national debt, and Medicare. For fiscal 2018, the correct order is: 1. Social Security, $1.04 trillion; 2. national defense, $643 billion; 3. Medicare, $625 billion; 4. interest on the debt, $310 billion; 5. foreign aid, $47 billion.

Astonishingly, 33% of voters think foreign aid is the largest of the five, when it’s actually the smallest. We have given the same quiz to 732 students, and only three (or 0.4%) got the correct order. Chimps throwing darts would randomly get the order right 0.83% of the time.

A mountain of empirical evidence demonstrates that voters are shockingly ignorant about political issues. It’s not that voters are lazy or lack the mental capacity to remember this information. It’s a problem of incentives. Becoming truly informed takes a lot of time. But the odds that an individual’s vote decides the outcome is vanishingly small. So most voters conclude it isn’t worth the effort. Economists call this rational ignorance.

Consumers in the economic marketplace are far more informed because they do decide the outcome and must bear the consequences. If they buy a bad phone, they’re stuck with that phone and must pay for it. There’s a strong incentive to make an informed purchase and to learn from mistakes.

But in politics, the individual voter has little influence on the outcome. And even if you vote for a politician who implements bad policies, these policies might or might not affect you personally, and it might or might not be your tax dollars that fund them.

The choices of uninformed voters affect the entire community, not just the person who is uninformed. This is unlike the marketplace for goods and services, where an uninformed decision usually harms only the person making the poor choice.

So when local election time comes around in a few weeks, make sure to go out and vote—just make sure you are sufficiently informed before doing so.•


Bohanon and Curott are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to

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