The best books to understand why voters often behave irrationally

Rick Shenkman Author Of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics
By Rick Shenkman

The Books I Picked & Why

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government

By Christopher H. Achen, Larry M. Bartels

Book cover of Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government

Why this book?

This book came out after my own, but the authors had already laid out the main themes in papers going back years, so I was familiar with their argument that voters (1) don't know much about politics, (2) don't pay much attention to issues, and (3) therefore base their political choices on something else. What that something else is depends on multiple factors like age, geography, self-interest, whim, and even the weather. The weather explanation is startling. The authors' studies show that droughts and floods affect how people vote. When misfortune frowns on voters they tend to vote against incumbents, whether it is reasonable or not to hold the people in power responsible for what's triggered their feeling of malaise. Throw the bums out!

But one factor above all others determines how people vote. And that's their social identity. Voters take their cues from people like themselves. What influences voters most, in a nutshell, is how their neighbors or fellow churchgoers vote. We go with our social group. 


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The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

By Jonathan Haidt

Book cover of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Why this book?

I was more than halfway through the research for my book when psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a giant in the field of moral foundations theory, published this extraordinary book. I immediately began incorporating his insights, especially the idea that humans are “hivish.” We define ourselves by our group membership. Given a choice between our loyalty to the group and the truth, we privilege the group. 

Haidt reports that we make political choices by and large out of conscious awareness. (If this reminds you of the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, it should, as it rests on the idea that the brain operates in two modes, fast and slow.) What shapes our views? Deep-seated moral impulses. So it's hogwash to think, as most of us naturally do, that we make up our minds about issues after careful consideration of elaborate arguments rooted in facts and figures. Sometimes, we do, but usually we don't.

Haidt bases his findings on a mammoth survey of millions of people who have taken his moral foundations quiz. The survey shows: Liberals and conservatives favor different sets of values, liberals placing a high priority on fairness and caring, and conservatives on loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. 


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Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious

By Timothy D. Wilson

Book cover of Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious

Why this book?

This book isn't about politics per se. But in summing up the social science literature about the way our brain works, Timothy Wilson helps us understand why voters often seem to act so irrationally. It's because, as Jonathan Haidt would agree, we are largely unaware of what drives our decisions. In a phrase, we are “strangers to ourselves.” To take one example. We privilege the knowledge we already possess. This has the effect of us discounting new information that seems in conflict with what we already feel we know. You can see how politicians play on this keen insight. They try never to convince us of anything we don't already believe. And now you know, dear reader, why politicians often seem afraid to lead.

Wilson usually doesn't explicitly address how the insights he shares can help us understand political behavior, but the reader will easily make the connections on their own.


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Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes

By Franz DeWaal

Book cover of Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes

Why this book?

This is a highly readable and fun book published back in 1982 by one of the leading primatologists of our era. A close student of ape behavior, Frans de Waal shows how smart apes are and what we can learn about ourselves by studying their behavior. He demonstrates that, contrary to common belief, it is not by physical strength alone that an alpha ape hangs onto its power at the top of the social pyramid. More important than their muscles is their ability to form coalitions with others.  

If your mental image of an alpha ape is a brawny male, forget it. De Waal profiles one female ape, Mama, who manages for years to dominate a group by exercising power more prudently than her male rivals, who shriek and throw tantrums when they don't get their way. This is the good news. The bad news is that apes are Machiavellian. Even as they are prone to cooperate, they are also pretty shifty—a point de Waal's fellow primatologists were reluctant at first to acknowledge.


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Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain

By Michael S. Gazzaniga

Book cover of Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain

Why this book?

As a young researcher Michael S. Gazzaniga studied people afflicted with epilepsy. A recent discovery was that they fare better when the corpus callosum – the nerve fiber bundle that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain – is cut, disconnecting the organ's two halves. Amazing insights can be gleaned from these split-brain patients, Gazzaniga demonstrated, as he explains in this book. His most famous experiment involved patient P.S. 

Gazzaniga used a machine to flash the image of a chicken claw to P.S.'s right eye (which was processed by his left hemisphere, where the speech center is located) and the image of a hut surrounded by snow to the other eye (which was processed by his right hemisphere). Then came the surprise, as Gazzaniga showed P.S. some pictures of a chicken and a shovel and asked him to match them with the images he'd seen. (This time he was allowed to use both eyes to see the pictures.) “His left- hemisphere speech center replied, ‘Oh, that’s simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken,’ easily explaining what it knew. It had seen the chicken claw.” But looking down at the shovel in his other hand, “without missing a beat, he said, ‘And you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.’”

This was a confabulation! Gazzaniga: “[The left hemisphere] interpreted the response in a context consistent with what it knew, and all it knew was: chicken claw. It knew nothing about the snow scene, but it had to explain the shovel... Well, chickens do make a mess, and you have to clean it up. Ah, that’s it! Makes sense. What was interesting was that the left hemisphere did not say, ‘I don’t know,’ which truly was the correct answer. It made up a post-hoc answer that fit the situation.” In short, our brain predisposes us to make up stories to explain the world as we see it, not as it is. 

But because I’d like to end on a positive note, I want to point out that social scientists have also found that humans possess a system deeply rooted in our emotions that helps keep things real. You know when you get a feeling in your gut that makes you anxious? That feeling is triggered when there’s a mismatch between the picture of the world in your head and reality. Our emotional system, in other words, isn’t an enemy of reason as most thinkers in Western civilization have surmised. Rather, it helps stop us from making mistakes when biases mislead us. So even though we are inclined, like P.S., to come up with an explanation for anything that happens since we like the world to be predictable and orderly, evolution cleverly equipped us with a secret weapon to save us from ourselves: our emotions.


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