Why I Don’t Vote

Not voting is better for my work.

Posted Nov 09, 2008

People are usually surprised to hear I don't vote. I think many have an initial reaction of curiosity and disapproval. People who vote are often self-righteous. I have heard instructors say they give their students extra points if they vote in the election. On voting day, those who say they voted are often congratulated and praised, as if they had donated blood or something.

That seems silly to me. Voting is a privilege, not a duty or an obligation. Getting more people to vote does not produce any obvious improvement in the wisdom of the outcome. The presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 set all-time records for voting, but those were hardly the best decisions ever made in the history of our republic.

But I digress. My reasons for not voting differ from those of the typical nonvoter, whose inaction may be motivated by apathy, laziness, or preoccupation. I do care about having good government.

I refrain from voting in order to do my work better. I am a social scientist, specifically a social psychologist. I also want to understand the big picture, how all the specific facts we study and research fit together. Political allegiances make it harder to be open-minded in seeking the truth.

When growing up, I was exposed to very intelligent, morally sensitive people at both ends of the political spectrum. I realized during college that many of the political views I had been taught were wrong, but some were right (so I couldn't just reject everything). Early in my college studies I encountered facts that challenged many of my most important beliefs and values. I started looking for them.

I decided then that what I wanted most was to know the truth, whatever it might turn out to be. This has often meant parting with cherished beliefs. It still does. I had to take the view that none of my beliefs or opinions was sacred. Everything was in play.

Over the years, I came to lose my attachment to my opinions. So many have bitten the dust in the face of facts that it hardly seems worth getting attached to them any more. I like knowing the facts. I just want to know what the current best evidence favors. Toward that end, it's best not to get sentimentally attached to particular views. Having feelings that favor some political opinion makes you reluctant to give it up when the facts go against it.

Most people I know, including very smart people, look mainly for facts that fit their preferred political views. As a result, they can give a very persuasive, fact-based, well-reasoned argument in favor of their position. But most haven't really tried to make the best case for the opposite view. It's hard to do that, when you care about the issues. It's fine for them to care. But I just want to know, so I'd prefer not to care.

Many of my colleagues fight for their ideas and their ideals. When someone brings up contrary arguments, they pull out their best ammunition to defend what they believe. I don't. At least I try not to. I prefer to listen to their side and see what their facts are. I don't want to be a sucker who changes to agree with whoever is talking to me. But I want to consider both sides, both sympathetically and critically (these are usually separate steps), and then try to choose as might one who had no stake or interest in the matter. A referee, an alien from outer space, a robot.

Voting, and everything that goes with it, requires you to want one side to be better. Wanting introduces bias. My goal is to see the truth without bias, and toward that end, it is best not to want. It is helpful not to take sides.

I want to know the truth more than I want to change the world. At bottom I am not out to change the world - I am just intensely curious. The way I look at it, life is too short for me to waste any time clinging to opinions once they are shown to be wrong.

My goal would be to do research without any preference at all for how the data will turn out. It is best not to want a winner.

But you can't vote in an election without wanting one side to win. At least I can't.

I can foresee that some of my colleagues could be angry at my saying that voting introduces bias into our work. They want to vote and not be suspected of bias. Among social scientists, saying that someone has bias is a dirty word, a strong insult. Let me say straight out, therefore, that I am not saying that others should do as I do.

My reasons for not voting and for not wanting to take sides on political issues, would not apply to a great many researchers. Many people study highly specific questions and problems, and political issues are often not relevant. For others, their work may have some political implications, but again focused on one narrow issue.

Unlike most social psychologists, I am a generalist. I want to understand the big picture. I want to see how everything fits together. Hence political concerns interfere over and over, in many ways.

My curiosity is another reason I loathe political correctness, even though I respect many of the ideals, values, and positive sentiments that motivate it. Political correctness designates many ideas, theories, hypotheses, perspectives as off-limits - not allowed to be considered. To me, political correctness means I probably can't find out what is the truth there. The battle of ideas and evidence is not a fair fight if there are political pressures. Maybe the politically correct conclusions are right, and maybe they aren't. We'll never know.

John Maynard Keynes, the influential economist, was once reproached for changing his view on something. He responded, "When the facts change, I change my opinions. What do you do, sir?" This is more than a clever retort or justification. As I see it, that expresses a way of life, an attitude. It's a useful stance for a generalist in the social sciences.