College Football, Politics, and “Irrationality”

I thought I’d pick up on a comment Jordan offered in his last post. Other than being a nice piece, this research on college football’s relevance to politics highlights an interesting trend in the study of politics. Why do we expect football games to affect votes? Maybe its a general “warm fuzzy feeling” when you go to the polls. Maybe incumbents seem more bearable when your team is playing well. Regardless of the reason, irrational behavior is garnering greater attention in political science. Rather than explaining behavior we expect to happen, newer studies examine outcomes that we do not expect. To an extent, the question has shifted from what’s rational to what’s irrational. How do individuals act when information is incomplete, distorted, manipulated, and biased? And, how are rational behaviors “rational” if decisions are marred with imperfect logic, emotions, and unpredictable variables (like football games)?
Research explaining irrational decisions are emerging within every theoretical approach. Recent rational choice derivatives are attempting to answer this question by bending one of its traditionally central assumptions: perfect information. In fact, more recent research is distinctive in accounting for a lack of information. Bounded rationality examines behavior when information is incomplete and decision making processes fail to properly adapt. It paints individuals as goal driven and purposeful but simultaneously unable to adapt to all situations, therefore acting illogically (See, Jones Politics and the Architecture of Choice 2001).


Marcus and MacKuen, in their book Affective Intelligence (2000), tackle cognitive psychology to understand how emotions affect judgment and decisions. Similarly, there is a great article in the Boston Globe (link to The Monkey Cage version) citing the work of Nyhan and Reifler discussing how individuals are sometimes unreceptive to facts. Instead of absorbing the correct information, strong partisans become more entrenched in their incorrect beliefs. Larry Bartels work in Unequal Democracy (2008) underscores how politicians skew individual perceptions of economic policies. And in the process, skewing voters away from “rational” economic voting.

The point here is that what we often think of as “rational” sometimes misses the point. It may be the case that humans are simply too subjective to act “objectively” or “rationally.” This opens the door for seemingly trivial events to intervene and alter decisions. It’s a fascinating field of research. As we get deeper into our rationales we find we’re less rational than we thought.

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