Voters have no reason to act rationally.

So, if we’re emotionally attached to a belief, what could make us change our minds? Well, we do tend to shift our beliefs when they appear to do us direct harm, such as when they cause us to suffer a financial loss. Ultimately, the only time we’re forced to act rationally is when our personal interests are on the line.

For instance, say you have a shop and personally believe you should only sell goods to people of a specific religion or political view. You might feel good since you can abide by your emotional beliefs – but simultaneously, you’re losing out on loads of potential customers. As soon as these lost customers start to seriously affect your bottom line, you’ll likely reconsider your beliefs, or at least their influence on your business practices.

The problem is that, during an election, voters have little reason to think that how they vote will have an impact on their actual lives. In most democracies, millions of people vote, and any given vote is of little importance. In fact, even when elections come down to the wire and require recounts, as happened in Florida in the 2000 US presidential election, the chances of a single vote changing the outcome are basically nil.

So, since there’s virtually no reason to think that our individual votes will change anything, there’s also no reason to behave rationally. After all, if the only thing that can force us to change our beliefs is the threat of personal harm, and if we don’t see such a danger as being connected to voting, then there’s no reason to change our beliefs when it comes to electoral politics. As a result, people will continue to vote for whatever politician or party is closest to their emotionally determined beliefs.

In other words, there’s no reason for people to vote rationally; instead, it’s much more comfortable for people to stick to their biases or emotions. Understanding this reality is essential since our entire democratic system is based on the assumption that rational voters are in the majority.

Radio Lab: One Vote

Come election season, it’s easy to get cynical. Why cast a ballot if your single measly vote can’t possibly change anything?

In our first-ever election special, we set off to find a single vote that made a difference. We venture from the biggest election on the planet – where polling officials must brave a lion-inhabited forest to collect the vote of an ascetic temple priest – to the smallest election on the planet – where there are no polling officials, only kitty cats wearing nametags. Along the way, we meet a too-trusting advice columnist, a Texan Emperor, and a passive-aggressive mom who helped change American democracy forever.