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(Image: STML CC BY)

Voter’s regret

We all experience regret, but it’s an emotion to which there is more than meets they eye at first sight

It’s Friday the 13th, and the people of the UK have woken up to a new parliament. Yesterday at 10pm local time the polling stations closed in the third general election in less than five years. The results are in: the Conservatives have a sizeable majority. Might some members of the electorate regret what they did, or didn’t do yesterday?

This may sound a strange question: people simply vote for the candidate of the party of their preference, no? How can you possibly regret that?

Britain’s electoral system is constituency based (as opposed to party-list based). There are 650 constituencies, each of which elect one MP: the candidate with the most votes. Contrary to what one might intuitively expect, in this system it is not necessarily so that each party will have one MP for roughly each 1/650th of all the votes they gain. Every candidate of a party could, in theory, get say one third or more of the vote in their constituency, but if, in every case, there is another candidate with just a few more votes, the party may end up without a single representative in parliament. On the other hand, a popular independent candidate needs at most 50% of the vote (less if there are more than two candidates) to gain a seat, so he or she could be elected with less than half of 1/650th of the vote. More than 30% of the vote = no MPs, and 0.07% of the vote = one MP, yep.

This quirk opens the possibility of tactical voting. And if there was one election where tactical voting mattered, it was yesterday’s — dominated, more than three years after the EU referendum, by Brexit. The Conservative party (a.k.a. the Tories) campaigned on a ticket of “getting Brexit done” (by which they meant they would get the withdrawal deal that was agreed with the EU in October approved by parliament — then another round of negotiation must start to establish a UK-EU free trade agreement). So they would be a clear choice for Leavers, although there was also the Brexit Party, which catered for voters who find the present Brexit approach too soft. Even though it unilaterally decided not to put forward candidates in constituencies that currently have a Conservative MP, they competed with the Tories in most other constituencies, thus potentially splitting the pro-Leave vote.

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Looks like a tactical vote (image: freepik)

The other parties did not have a common strategy around Brexit. The Liberal Democrats would revoke Article 50 and stop Brexit altogether, Labour and most of the other parties would at least support a new EU referendum. But there was no agreement between them to not field candidates in order to prevent the vote being split, so plenty of choice for Remain-leaning voters.

In many constituencies (the so called marginal constituencies), the difference in votes between the winning candidate and the person coming second is quite small. A BBC analysis found in almost 25% of all constituencies, the majority was less than 10% of the vote. In 51 of these that was less than 2%, and in 11 of them the majority was less than 100 votes.

So, for many people who feel strongly about Brexit either way, it was not simply about casting their vote for the candidate of their preferred party. Imagine, for example, being a Liberal Democrat voter waking up in Kensington this morning. Until yesterday, the MP for this constituency was Labour’s Emma Dent Coad, who won it from the Conservatives in 2017 with a majority of 20 votes. As of today, Conservative candidate Felicity Buchan is Kensington’s new MP, with just 150 votes more than Ms Dent Coad. If you, and a mere 150 more of the 9,312 LibDem voters, had voted for her instead of for LibDem candidate Sam Gyimah (who was most unlikely to be elected), you would have denied victory to the Tory candidate. Did you do the wrong thing?

As I write this, just one seat is still to be declared (St Ives, where transport of the ballot boxes from Scilly Isles is being hindered by strong winds) the Conservatives are expected to end up with 39 seats more than the 326 they need for a majority. In each of the most marginal 39 of their new seats the story will be similar to the one in Kensington. A few hundred voters could have made the difference. Quite likely, some people who did not vote tactically, who could not bring themselves to hold their nose and voted for a candidate with whom they have little ideological affinity, may feel regretful about what they did yesterday.

But there is one group that influenced the outcome of yesterday’s election even more than the (non-)tactical voters: the non-voters. The last time it represented less than 30% of the electorate was in 1997 (at the previous elections in 2017 it was 33.2%). It also varies by constituencies — from just over 20% to 47%. It is easy to see what a potentially powerful role these voters could play in marginal seats. Imagine someone who couldn’t be bothered to vote yesterday, in the belief that it would not make any difference anyway, while just a handful of votes could have led to a different outcome.

Will they feel the same kind of regret? This is a question that psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky considered in a 1982 Scientific American article. They described how the regret associated with the failure to act is often less intense than the regret associated with the failure of an action. They use a simple thought experiment of two investors, Paul and George (no information about John or Ringo). Paul holds stock in company A and considered switching to company B but didn’t. If he had done so, he’d be better off by $1,200. George held stock in company B and switched to A. If he had kept the Company B stock, he’d be better off by $1,200. Paul and George are in exactly the same position: they could both have been $1,200 richer, but they are not as a result of a deliberate decision. Yet, in an experiment, 92% of participants declared that George will be more upset than Paul. Kahneman and Tversky hypothesized this is because it is easier for George to imagine not taking the action, than for Paul to imagine taking the action. Furthermore, the anticipation of regret is likely to favour inaction over action, and routine behaviour over innovative behaviour. This “action effect” has since been replicated many times, in different cultures.

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So much regret? Probably not about doing nothing (image: yanalya)

What might be behind this intriguing asymmetry? A new paper by Gilad Feldman, a psychologist at Hong Kong University sheds some light. One popular theory is that we have an implicit reference point we derive from what we perceive to be normal (“norm theory”). We would feel more regret if we deviated from the norm, and things went wrong, than if we had stuck to the norm. But the question is then, in what sense is inaction ‘normal’?

Feldman ran several experiments, investigating three distinct possibilities: (a) it is a social norm (everybody is oriented towards inaction); (b) we ourselves have in the past always tended towards inaction; and © decision-makers are expected not to act in certain situations where the choice is between action and inaction. For example, in one of them participants were presented with a proactive society, where the norms are for people to keep busy and minimize idle time. His findings suggest that the three normality conditions are separate and distinguishable. All three affect the feelings of regret, with even stronger effects when they were combined.

So it’s the voters who failed to vote tactically, or who failed to contain their angry impulse for a protest vote that will be filled with more regret, and not those who stayed at home — perhaps not so much because not voting is the social norm (a significant majority still votes), but because not voting is what they’ve always done.

“Je ne regrette rien!”, the French singer Edith Piaf used to sing with a passion that belied her diminutive figure (her nickname is a colloquial name for ‘sparrow’). But despite her forceful declaration, regretting past behaviour is something that we all regularly experience, and not just regarding how we vote, of course.

Being aware of what is ‘normal’ for us, and why, can help us figure out what is the right decision — that is, self-evidently, the one that will leave us with the least regret after the event.

If you do not normally read my weekly post, I hope you don’t regret having done so (and perhaps even that it becomes your new normal). If you are a regular reader, you will probably not regret having read this one either. And in case you are a regular reader who didn’t read this piece, then… well, never mind, you’re not reading this anyway.

Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on December 13, 2019.

Thanks for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thank you!

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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