Voting Against Your Own Self Interest and Student Behavior

Back in December, The Atlantic published an article by Andrew McGill titled “Why People Vote for Counterproductive Policies“, which was an in-depth look at voting trends, specifically those who are perceived to vote against their own interest.

The Atlantic piece concluded that when it comes to understanding the immediate cause and effect of a vote, humans are fairly solid with their understanding. However, when it comes to understanding the long-term consequences of that vote, they begin to struggle. McGill explains that a new paper, co-authored by University of California, Berkley economist Ernesto Dal Bo,  finds that people are willing to ignore greater long-term gains in exchange for the possibility of short-term benefits.

In a study released earlier this month, researchers tested this bias by having college undergraduates play a few rounds of the prisoner’s dilemma. The original version of the two-player game rewards both participants if they agree to share a prize, but gives one player the full bounty if he or she betrays the other. However, if both players betray each other, they get nothing.

The researchers offered students a variant: same rules, but taxes took a bite out of any payout, and betrayers had to pay a bit more. Even though everyone made less money, the new penalty for betrayal encouraged cooperation, meaning fewer players ended up with nothing, and everyone got richer in the long run.

But when offered a choice between the games, most participants stuck with the original setup, turned off by the reduced payouts.

What makes these findings interesting to educators (besides those of us in the Economics and Government fields already drawn to the topic) is the insight into our students behaviors, or lack thereof. A constant area of concern in all schools is student apathy. However, this reaches crisis level when concerning high risk student populations. Students who struggle academically and come from unstable home environments find themselves at the extreme end of the school apathy spectrum, more often than their peers. The reason for this may be, as McGill states, “It’s already hard for humans to connect the dots.” An apathetic student isn’t viewing their future maliciously and knowingly acting against their own self interests. Instead, their actions are a result of their inability to connect their present apathetic attitude to future negative consequences.

Similar to the voting age members of society, many students have a difficult time seeing the long-term effects of their immediate decisions. This is especially true for those students who face much larger distractions, like the lack of basic needs being met at home, or inconsistent messages about the value of education. Without the ability to focus solely on school and understand the inherent value of that educational experience, it is easy to see why students would begin to treat school as the lesser of two choices, favoring any and all alternatives that may provide a more immediate positive.

The key to overcoming this challenge is to help students organically discover the long-term benefits of their effort. Dal Bo explains in the article that once he began to show his data to game participants, they began to change their behavior in favor of the choice with a more beneficial long-term outcome. Students often do not have this luxury, especially if they are not consistently shown the value of education at home. Teachers can counteract this in two ways: by making the short-term lessons and activities engaging through connections to the students real world, and by clearly articulating the real life benefits of education on a students life. Just like the subjects of the Dal Bo paper, students can be well versed in the short-term cause and effect of their decisions, but this does not necessarily translate to a more macro view of those consequences. It is up to the educators in their life to expand their knowledge past this “standard” and facilitate their development of the ability to “connect the dots”.


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