The Logic of Psephology and Heuristics During Elections

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Elections are the core institution of liberal democracy and the electoral behaviour of an individual is the effect of the social environment surrounding him. It gives him the ability to make a discernible choice and to act in a determined manner. It is essential to view electoral behaviour in terms of the totality of an individual’s interaction with the electoral process in the light of his political interest as also the intended effect and the influences working on this interaction. To meet this requirement it is better to understand the theoretic aspects of electoral behaviour.

The history of the scientific study of voting behaviour or psephology goes back almost a hundred years, but as an important and often vibrant subfield of political science, it only took off during the “behavioural revolution” after the Second World War. Voting behaviour is rather a complex and multi-faceted subject. In the contemporary democratic arrangement, voting is a method of expressing the approval or disapproval of the policies, programs, and decisions of the administrative authority. Diverse factors that comprise both political and non-political have an effect on it. Its determinants are vast and wide-ranging and differ from one person to another to a substantial degree. Voting behaviour is determined by the political attitudes, assumptions, policy preferences, and partisan loyalties of individuals and the political and institutional context within which they cast their votes in an election. Thus, there are several indicators affecting voters’ choice as one of the early pioneers of electoral studies in India, V.M. Sirsikar, observes, “an enquiry into the process of election indicates factors other than rationality.”

Politics being a complex affair making political decisions is rarely easy, whether one is a legislator or a citizen, the question of how people deal with this complexity has been on the minds of scholars for decades. One important answer, which emerged in the 1970s, was that decision-makers rely on heuristics to tame the intricacies of politics. Heuristics are cognitive shortcuts that allow decision-makers to bypass a great deal of information while producing an output in the form of a judgment or choice. In more recent years, scholars have looked at the use of heuristics and affect as “cognitive shortcuts,” and how voters can make use of them. Herbert Simon (1990) defines heuristics as “methods for arriving at satisfactory solutions with modest amounts of computation.” Though the idea of decision-making shortcuts, or heuristics, originated in psychological work explaining why individuals diverged from rational behaviour, political scientists have viewed shortcuts more positively. Applied to research on voter decision-making processes, scholars have discovered the ubiquitous use of shortcuts by voters. These shortcuts are simplified decision-making strategies that help voters compensate for a lack of detailed political knowledge about candidates and issues.

James H. Kuklinski, Paul J. Quirk, had opined, that leading scholars have offered grounds for a much more positive view of citizen competence. They do not dispute the finding of widespread political ignorance or claim that the citizen’s command of politics has recently improved. Rather, they offer two arguments to suggest that even an uninformed citizenry can participate in politics competently. One is that individuals use heuristics to make fairly reliable political judgments. According to Sniderman, Brody, and Tetlock what this probably means is that “people can be knowledgeable in their reasoning about political choices without necessarily possessing a large body of knowledge about politics.” The other argument is that public opinion is rational in the aggregate, even if the individual opinion is prone to error. Individual errors cancel out in the process of aggregation, and thus collective opinion conveys real and true information about the citizenry’s preferences. 

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Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala, in ‘The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections’, try to trace the relationship between the voter and politicians in India since 1952 and their work serves as a guiding light for anyone interested in understanding Indian politics. 

While the use of heuristics is generally considered to be an individual-level phenomenon, we should expect that various groups of voters should process information in similar ways. In particular, it is reasonable to believe that voters who are more aware of politics can draw upon more sources of information when making evaluations, while less sophisticated voters are more limited in their ability to draw inferences due to their lack of knowledge. However, results have proved that this may be overestimated at times. Indeed, one of the reasons this line of argument is compelling is that it is not just in politics that people are faced with making decisions with far less than full information, and it is only reasonable to assume that people will apply to politics the same information shortcuts they have learned to use throughout life.

This argument presumes two essential points. First being that just about everyone employs cognitive shortcuts in thinking about politics, heuristic use is not limited to political experts and the second point is that heuristic use at least partially compensates for a lack of knowledge about and attention to politics, so that citizens who are largely unaware of events in the state nonetheless can make reasonably accurate political judgments. This view is so pervasive now in political science that we could probably refer to it as the new conventional wisdom. But this analysis also implies that we often pay attention to the wrong kinds of events. Those of us concerned with correct decision making should train ourselves to pay more attention to underlying facts and less to particular events. In science, “anecdotal” evidence is treated with scepticism, but in policymaking, it is often quite important. Ironically, heuristics are most valuable to those who might need them least. Sophisticated voters, who understand the political environment, can use these shortcuts to their advantage. But even they can be misled when the political environment is not structured according to their prior expectations. 

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Summarizing the normative implications of heuristics in political behaviour it could be said that cognitive heuristics are not a panacea for all the ills of popular democracies. When used properly, they can almost completely even the playing field among voters of all educational backgrounds. Voters are growing into ‘wiser voters’ and judging the politicians based on their credible work and real issues.

But many questions remain unanswered still- as to what is perceived as real issues by the voters today, the influence of partisan information on voter decision making, what changes will these heuristical voters observe in terms of a maturing democracy? Heuristics such as a candidate’s leadership qualities, a candidate’s education, a candidate’s speaking skills, incumbency, and even their looks, are often cited as reasons people vote for certain candidates. It would be interesting for future research to test information barriers with regards to more varied heuristics, to understand more completely just how much information and what type of information citizenry thinks is necessary to vote.


Dr. Manisha Mirdha Assistant Professor, Faculty of Policy Sciences. A gold medalist, she did her Hon’s in Psychology and post graduated in Clinical Psychology. After clearing UGC-NET, she was awarded PhD from J.N.V. University, Jodhpur. She has post graduated in Political Science and cleared UGC-NET in this subject too. Her 18 years of extensive research work includes delivering lectures in many National-International conferences, and publishing extensively in Journals of repute. She is also the University’s Chief Students’ Counselor and chairs the “Centre for Wellness and Counseling’ along with holding prime positions in various committees of relevance.

Dr. Manisha Mirdha, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Policy Sciences


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