Dear Irrational, what will matter most to voters?

September 29, 2008 BY danariely

Dear Irrational,

I have a simple question: What issue do you think matters most to voters in this election?

A citizen

Dear Citizen,

As someone who studies behavioral economics and human irrationality, I have a rather pessimistic view on this question. Over the years we have found that people do not have well defined preferences: We don’t know exactly how much we love our spouses, how much we are willing to pay for coffee, and if drinking bitter liquid (beer) is truly pleasurable or disgusting. With such lack of certainty about our own preferences, we usually look to the environment to tell us what is important and to suggest a course of action. So that when the electronics store has digital cameras on sale, we think to ourselves, “If this product is on sale it has to be a good deal….”

In the domain of politics, the problem is even more pronounced. These issues are more complex and most of us understand only a small part of the story (not to mention our trust in politicians is at an all time low). So, how do we decide what is more important: the war in Iraq, terrorism, the stock market, the housing crisis, the oil problem, the healthcare crisis or the social security problem. It is hard to admit but most of us have no idea how to rank the importance of these problems.

So how will voters decide what problems are more important in this election? Sadly, it is no that what we care about will shape the political agendas, but rather the political agendas of both parties will largely determine what we will care about most when we go to vote. I realize this is rather depressing, but I also think it is true. My only hope is that a we get closer to the election date the focus will be on problems that require immediate attention such as the war in Iraq, the deficit or healthcare and not something related to our personal life such as whom we can marry or stem-cell research.

Irrationally yours