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Jankowski: Altruism and the decision to vote

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Jankowski. Altruism and the decision to vote: Explaining and testing high voter turnout. Paper presented at the annual American Political Science Association meetings, September 2-5, Chicago, IL.

Take-Home Point

Potential voters are motivated by weak altruism when deciding whether to vote or abstain in an election.


Against Civic Duty: Jankowski argues that non-instrumentalist accounts of voting behavior cannot explain strategic voting, variance in turnout levels between national and local elections, and an increased likelihood of voting among better educated people.

Strong and Weak Altruism: Strong altruism requires that obligations be fulfilled regardless of personal cost. This is inconsistent with voting behavior, as evidenced by the effects of voter registration procedures on turnout. The alternative is weak altruism, which allows for the shirking of obligations if personal costs reach some threshold. Utilitarianism is a good example of weak altruism.

Defining Altruism: The article makes a distinction between altruism based upon ethical norms and altruism derived from sympathy. Jankowski favors the latter approach due to the fact that it is the more parsimonious of the two explanations--i.e. it does not require an interpersonal comparison of utilities. It is a weak form of altruism. In sum, "Altruism-as-sympathy entails that the beneficiary's utility from their helping another is some function of the recipient's increased happiness" (7).

Who is Altruistic? Jankowski's model allows for varying levels of altruism among individuals. He notes that "Most human beings fall in between Mother Theresa and Scrooge" (8).

Altruism and Voting: Altruism allows for a "high B" account of voter behavior, where the expected large-scale consequences of one candidate/party winning the election can offset the very low probability of being decisive. Jankowski provides a game-theoretic model that shows that a high-turnout equilibrium is possible under assumptions of weak altruism.

Empirical Test

Jankowski uses the 1995 American National Election Study (NES) to test his theory with a regression. As a primary independent variable he uses some questions designed to measure "humanitarianism" (a proxy for altruism), and distinguishes between those that align with weak altruism and those that suggest strong altruism. Another independent variable involves the perceived difference between the parties/candidates involved, which serves as a proxy for the magnitude of "B." His dependent variable is whether or not the respondent voted in the 1994 presidential election.

Results: Weak altruism is the only significant predictor of voter turnout. Also, Democrats and Republicans are similar in levels of weak altruism, but Democrats exhibit much higher levels of strong altruism. Strong party identification correlates with high levels of altruism.

Comments and Criticisms

One might quibble whether the ANES questions adequately address altruism. From page 22, these are the "strong" altruism questions:

  • One should always find ways to help others less fortunate than oneself.
  • The dignity and well-being of all should be the most important concerns in any society.
  • All people who are unable to provide for their own needs should be helped by others.

And the "weak" altruism question:

  • One of the problems of today's society is that people are often not kind enough to others.