Voting is like sex: action trumps intention

Anyone else amused by all the harrumphing about the pollsters’ failure to predict the results of the New Hampshire Democratic party primary? All manner of explanations are offered for why the pollsters got things so wrong. But very few people have come up with the explanation that is levelled at virtually every piece of sexual behaviour research. An exception is Chris Bowers writing on OpenLeft. He posits, among other reasons, the possible “Return of the lying white voter”.

Voting is like sex. It is something that (usually!) happens in private. People have no incentive to tell nosy researchers the truth about what they have just done. Oddly, though, people don’t lie very much about either sex or voting, as long as you ask about a specific, recent event. The exit polls in New Hampshire stacked up nicely against reality. In the same way, studies that have collected used condoms from brothels have found that both sex workers and clients report condom use at last sex fairly accurately. The lying comes in when you ask people what they intend to do. Most people say they intend to “do the right thing”, to use condoms when they next have sex with a casual partner, for example. But when things hot up, condom use slips. The “right thing” gets overtaken by the comfortable thing.

Apparently, a lot of people intended to vote for Barack Obama. Their behaviour didn’t match their intentions. That doesn’t mean they were lying. But it does give pause for thought about what is right and what is comfortable for Democratic voters in the US.

This post was published on 12/01/08 in Science.

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