Politicians Really Aren't Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.
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(Photo: bigberto/Flickr)

(Photo: bigberto/Flickr)

When it comes to risky and uncertain decisions, politicians have the same basic shortcomings as the rest of us, according to an experimental study presented earlier this month at the 2014 Behavioral Models of Politics Conference. That result undermines a core tenet of representative democracy, namely that our leaders are better at making political decisions than the rest of us.

As a species, we are not particularly good at decision making. Among our foibles, we will often make different choices based on a problem’s wording rather than its underlying structure. Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s “Asian disease” experiment, a particularly well-known example, goes like this: An exotic disease is coming, and it’ll kill 600 people. You have two options. Choose the first, and 400 people will die. Choose the second, and you take a risk: There’s a two-thirds chance that everyone dies.

"Democratic government relies on the delegation of decision making to agents acting under strong incentives. These actors, however, remain just as human as those who elect them."

In the original experiment, 22 percent of people surveyed chose the first option while 78 chose the second, but that’s not the interesting part. Given a choice between saving 200 lives with certainty or a one-third chance of saving everyone, Kahneman and Tversky found, 28 percent choose the first option while 72 percent choose the second—a different proportion, even though the choice is exactly the same as before.

That’s a bit troubling when it comes to the average citizen choosing whom to vote for, but it’d be worse if our political leaders were susceptible to the same effect. Alas, they are, according to a team of political scientists led by Peter Loewen. The team reached that conclusion with a straightforward test: they put the Asian disease question to 154 Belgian, Canadian, and Israeli members of parliament. In the loss frame, where subjects decided between 400 deaths or a two-thirds chance everyone dies, 82 percent of Belgian, 68 percent of Israeli, and 79 percent of Canadian MPs chose the risky option, compared with 40, 53, and 34 percent, respectively, when the researchers presented MPs with the less gloomily-phrased version.

For comparison, the experimenters posed the same problem to 515 Canadian citizens, who, if anything, were less susceptible to framing effects. “The overall patterns observed for MPs and for citizens is strikingly similar. However, the effect size observed in Canadian MPs ... is larger than that estimated among Canadian citizens,” the team writes. It was also larger than estimates of the framing effect in average people.

It’s all a bit of a problem for a common line of reasoning among political scientists and political economists, many of whom assume that re-election concerns or political acumen will render politicians more strategic and also more rational than average Joes. Loewen and company’s results suggest otherwise. "Democratic government relies on the delegation of decision making to agents acting under strong incentives," they write. "These actors, however, remain just as human as those who elect them."

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