02/23/2012 10:37 am ET Updated Apr 24, 2012

Even People Who Don't Vote Would Vote Like I Do

In the U.S., primary season is upon us. Republican Presidential candidates are battling for the opportunity to face Barack Obama in the November election.

In many First World countries like the United States, only a fraction of the eligible voters actually vote. In the 2008 election, for example, only about 57% of the registered voters participated in the election. In off-year elections, that percentage is even lower. Only about 38% of registered voters came out for the 2010 election.

That means that we could speculate about what would happen if all of the available voters turned out for an election. An interesting paper by Namkje Koudenburg, Tom Postmes, and Ernestine Gordijn in the December, 2011 issue of Psychological Science explored what people think would happen in elections if everyone voted.

They speculated that voters will tend to think that there are more people out there who are like them than people who are different from them. So, most people ought to assume that if all voters had turned out for an election, then their party would have gotten more votes than it actually did.

Indeed in one simple study, the experimenters approached actual voters at polling stations in the Netherlands. Voters were asked both how many votes they expected their party to receive (in a parliamentary election, so there are many parties vying for seats), and also how many votes they thought their party would receive if every eligible voter had actually voted. Consistent with the experimenters' prediction, people expected that their party would have gotten about 18% more votes if everyone had voted in the election.

A second study demonstrated that this effect is related to how strongly people wanted their party to win. This study was run a few weeks before a national election. Only the date from people who indicated they were planning to vote was used.

Participants estimated the number of seats in parliament the top parties in the Netherlands would win in the election. Participants were helped out with this by seeing the results of a recent poll of likely voters. Participants were also asked how many seats they thought the parties would get if everyone voted. Finally, participants were asked how strongly they felt about the party they planned to vote for.

As with the first study, people tended to believe that the party they support would get more votes if everyone voted than they would get if just likely voters voted. This difference was particularly large for people who strongly supported a particular party. So, the more motivated you are for the election, the more you believe that other people feel the same way you do.

These impact of these results goes beyond politics. We all know true believers in areas that range from politics, to sports, to religion. True believers often make the assumption that many other people believe as they do, and that they are part of a movement that may be larger than it really is.

In the modern world, this belief can be reinforced by the free availability of information on the internet and through the wide range of media available. 40 years ago, when there were only three major TV networks and each town at one or two local newspapers, people were forced to confront a variety of opinions.

Now that there are hundreds of TV stations, millions of internet sites, and many options for getting news and opinion, people tend to gravitate toward sources that share their underlying biases. Because you can go through the day never really hearing opinions that differ from your own, you can come to believe even more strongly that deep down most other people agree with you.