Rational Ignorance: Why don’t voters care about seemingly important issues?
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Author : Raghav Sharma
It is 2020 and internet activism is at its peak. Discourse, as is often led by the young, continues to occupy a big chunk of virtual real estate, from Instagram stories to text forwards to seemingly pressing online discussions, and beyond. These winds of change seem omnipresent and the drive to do the right thing in the air - till you switch off your cell phone. What the immediate world around us, thankfully or not, presents us is a juxtaposition many of us find hard to digest. It presents us with fanatics who don’t believe climate change is real, it presents us politics that doesn’t want to talk about queer rights, it presents us parents that won’t allow for marriages across castes or race and a society that’s largely unwilling to ride the gradient of change that seemingly felt so certain online - and even obvious. One admits then, that politics online and politics at the dinner table are two very vastly different worlds.
And it gets worse, come election. Whatever election. Party manifestoes don’t seem to be tackling the issues that seemed so important - and it’s not entirely their fault. Because beyond these parties and political campaigns, it is the voters who disappoint us too. We give such voter behaviour various names and perceived consequences. We call it ignorance, we call it marginalization, we call
it complacency. To excuse such behaviour, if at all it even needs to be excused, is a subjective call. But we all at some point, acknowledge that it’s impossible to know everything. So where do individuals draw this line?
This question becomes specifically convoluted because ignorance isn’t as binary as much as we’d wish it to be. “We know, or we don’t” is an over-simplification of the act. For instance, we often turn our gaze away from beggars on streets, or in general, stop mid-way of inquiries we think might be harmful to explore. This is not ignorance that stems out of naivety, or may I dare say, it is somewhat calculated. It is much more intentional and self-aware. But arguably, it is also practical.
That’s partly because our access to information has been climbing dramatically since the evolution of the internet and the way we use it. This plethora of information is constantly accessible across geographies (barring some countries), time zones, and socio-economic classes - which wasn’t the case earlier. This information is also a source of anxiety and compulsive engagement to many, to the extent that it’s commonplace advice to shut off from news at times - even during a severe global pandemic. This freedom of handpicking what we consume and what we ignore begs the question: Is there a base threshold of expected awareness? Can one get away with being deplorably insensitive?
The answer is no and yes respectively, at least for most cases. But to fairly evaluate the choices of people choosing to be seeming ‘harmfully’ ignorant, we must understand the incentives of the moral actors making these choices.
Enter the idea of ‘Rational Ignorance’. “Anthony Downs coined the term rational ignorance in his 1957 book An Economic Theory of Democracy as a way to explain voter ignorance. Downs wondered why so many voters were ill-informed regarding what appeared to be relevant and significant issues. Ultimately, he determined that many voters felt that the cost of acquiring information necessary to make an informed vote did not exceed the benefits of doing so. It would take a great deal of time to identify and understand every policy and program. Most people realize that even if they did put in countless hours of research on various subjects and vote in accordance, they are unlikely to personally make a difference."
The hypothesis is simple: “When the cost of acquiring information is greater than the benefits to be derived from the information, it is rational to be ignorant”. It tries to explain the deliberate choice made by individuals to stay ignorant of an issue when the cost of educating oneself about it outweighs the potential benefits. But a crucial clarification is to acknowledge that these costs/benefits are as perceived by the moral actor herself. To that end, it is assumed that people make their political choices and voting habits based on their own personal incentives which are a reflection of their priorities. These incentives can be diverse and be a sum of our lived experiences.
We could go-ahead to vote for the party that we feel best caters to the most marginalized sections of society, or we could go ahead and vote for the party that offers us a shinier bottle of alcohol. Not surprisingly, we all see voters across and at the extremes of this spectrum.
The theory also helps us explain why we voters need not care about issues that they don’t find pressing personally. Global warming doesn’t happen in our backyards. Most of our parents have perhaps never engaged with a vocal and out queer person to comprehend the queer identity and corresponding rights. To go a level simpler, we don’t know how to perceive our country’s economy - perhaps a reason why more elections are fought on the daily prices of groceries in the market (an economic touchpoint in close proximity to the average voter) than an overview of other economic policies. We alternatively and justifiably, care much more about our routes to work, our local waste management, the roads in front of our houses, the menaces of our neighbour’s dogs, the loud music from the house next door and the nearest mall. It is the reason why, those who are privileged and well-off don’t look beyond their lawns to practice altruism, unless when it is socially profitable.
Thanks to the social capital and status that loud altruism brings today, many have, albeit for strictly performative reasons, begun to look at others more compassionately.
But then, why do young voters engage in activism that demands change that may not affect them directly even in the absence of any incentives? Why are these issues so high up on their list of ‘priorities’? It is arguable that this generational space in our lives that allows us to look beyond ourselves, at least across developing countries, comes from the atmosphere we grew up in, compared to the conditions our forefathers did. For many people who are a handful of decades older that today’s generation Z, growing up was about survival and the world seemed like a zero-sum game. There was limited prosperity, they were lucky to have a job, and it was their ride to social upliftment. The generations before us did not thrive in a world of resources that could entitle everyone to a fair shot at life. They were told to cling to their jobs, grab opportunities for themselves, be grateful for what they had, there was a lesser degree of choice, and whatnot. This widely contrasts with the world we grew up in - at least relatively. We have a paralyzing amount of choices, we feel dignity is entitled to all - and not earned, and a wider outlook of viewing
the world as a positive-sum game.
But then, what is the resolve to this? Is it perhaps wrong to care about one’s backyard over the complex state of the economy? The resolve is not to make it a question that pits the two against one another. The resolve is engaging voters across different granularities of elections. It comes from giving people the bandwidth to voice their immediate concerns through local participation. It also comes from genuinely educating people of the impact of macro-scale operations on their daily lives, by making these issues consumable and accessible. But beyond that, the last resolve comes from letting people decide for themselves.