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Why People Vote: Estimating the Social Returns to Voting


This article measures the social rewards and sanctions associated with voting. A series of survey experiments shows that information about whether a person votes directly affects how favorably that person is viewed. Importantly, the study also compares the rewards and sanctions associated with voting to other activities, including the decisions to recycle, volunteer and return one’s library books on time. It presents a behavioral test of the consequences of non-voting and finds that individuals are willing to take costly action in a dictator game to reward political participation. Finally, it shows that survey measures of social norms about voting are correlated with county-level voter turnout. The study adds to the growing literature documenting the important influence of social concerns on turnout and other political choices.

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Yale University, Department of Political Science, Institution for Social and Policy Studies (email:; Yale University, Department of Political Science, Institution for Social and Policy Studies (email:; Loyola University Chicago, Department of Political Science (email:; University of Mississippi, Department of Political Science (email: A previous version of this article was presented at the 2010 meeting of the American Political Science Association; other versions were presented at Harvard, UC-Berkeley, Notre Dame and Emory. Earlier versions of the article were circulated under the titles ‘Social Judgments and Political Participation: Estimating the Consequences of Social Rewards and Sanctions for Voting’ and ‘The Social Benefits of Voting and Co-partisanship: Evidence from Survey Experiments’. We thank Seth Hill and Mary McGrath for assistance. An online appendix is available at

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

AAPOR Executive Council Task Force. 2010. Research Synthesis: AAPOR Report on Online Panels. Public Opinion Quarterly 74:711781.

John H. Aldrich 1993. Rational Choice and Turnout. American Journal of Political Science 37:246278.

James Andreoni , and John Miller . 2002. Giving According to GARP: An Experimental Test of the Consistency of Preferences for Altruism. Econometrica 70:737753.

Gary Charness , and Matthew Rabin . 2002. Understanding Social Preferences with Simple Tests. Quarterly Journal of Economics 117:817869.

Aaron Edlin , Andrew Gelman , and Noah Kaplan . 2007. Voting as a Rational Choice: Why and How People Vote to Improve the Well-Being of Others. Rationality and Society 19:293314.

Eitan Elaad . 2003. Effects of Feedback on the Overestimated Capacity to Detect Lies and the Underestimated Ability to Tell Lies. Applied Cognitive Psychology 17:349363.

William G. Graziano , Jennifer Bruce , Brad E. Sheese , and Renee M. Tobin 2007. Attraction, Personality, and Prejudice: Liking None of the People Most of the Time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 93:565582.

Jeffrey A. Karp , and David Brockington . 2005. Social Desirability and Response Validity: A Comparative Analysis of Overreporting Voter Turnout in Five Countries. Journal of Politics 67:825840.

Nichola J. Raihani , and Redouan Bshary . 2012. A Positive Effect of Flowers Rather Than Eye Images in a Large-Scale, Cross-Cultural Dictator Game. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 279:35563564.

Meredith Rolfe . 2012. Voter Turnout: A Social Theory of Political Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

P. Wesley Schultz . 1999. Changing Behavior with Normative Feedback Interventions: A Field Experiment on Curbside Recycling. Basic & Applied Social Psychology 21:2536.

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British Journal of Political Science
  • ISSN: 0007-1234
  • EISSN: 1469-2112
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-of-political-science
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