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Nonrepresentative Representatives: An Experimental Study of the Decision Making of Elected Politicians


A considerable body of work in political science is built upon the assumption that politicians are more purposive, strategic decision makers than the citizens who elect them. At the same time, other work suggests that the personality profiles of office seekers and the environment they operate in systematically amplifies certain choice anomalies. These contrasting perspectives persist absent direct evidence on the reasoning characteristics of representatives. We address this gap by administering experimental decision tasks to incumbents in Belgium, Canada, and Israel. We demonstrate that politicians are as or more subject to common choice anomalies when compared to nonpoliticians: they exhibit a stronger tendency to escalate commitment when facing sunk costs, they adhere more to policy choices that are presented as the status-quo, their risk calculus is strongly subject to framing effects, and they exhibit distinct future time discounting preferences. This has obvious implications for our understanding of decision making by elected politicians.

Corresponding author
Lior Sheffer is a PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto, Sidney Smith Hall, 100 St. George Street, Toronto, ON M5S 3G3, Canada (
Peter John Loewen is the Director of the School of Public Policy and Governance and an Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto, 14 Queen's Park Cres. West, Toronto, ON M5S 3K9, Canada (
Stuart Soroka is the Michael W. Traugott Collegiate Professor of Communication Studies and Political Science, University of Michigan, 5370 North Quad, 105 South State Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 48109-1285, USA (
Stefaan Walgrave is a Professor of Political Science, University of Antwerp, Stadscampus, Sint - Jacobstraat 2 - 4, S.LN55.012, 2000 Antwerp, Belgium (
Tamir Sheafer is the Dean of the Social Science Faculty and Professor of Political Science and Communication, Hebrew University, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem 91905, Israel (
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We wish to thank Eran Amsalem, Matthew Ayling, Yves Dejaeghere, Lynn Epping, Jeroen Joly, Yogev Karasenty, Julie Sevenans, Tal Shahaf, Kirsten Van Camp, Debby Vos, and Alon Zoizner for their work on this project; the editor and three anonymous reviewers for their thorough and helpful feedback; participants of the 2014 Yale ISPS Conference on Experimental Studies of Elite Behavior, the 2014 International Society of Political Psychology Association conference, the 2016 American Political Science Association and Southern Political Science Association conferences, and the 2016 New York Area Political Psychology Meeting for their invaluable discussion and comments. An earlier version of this article was awarded the CQ Press Award for Best Legislative Studies Section Presented at the 2016 APSA Meeting. This work was supported by the European Research Council [Advanced Grant INFOPOL, No. 295735] and the Research Fund of the University of Antwerp [Grant No. 26827].

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