Sunday, October 14, 2007

Friends, Not Policies, Win Elections

I can't say I'm surprised by this study since I've always had a very pessimistic and skeptical view of how the general public makes its decision, especially on science. Still, it is disheartening that one's skeptical view has been confirmed. This is the one area that I wish I had been thoroughly wrong.

It appears that the public tends to select its electric officials not based on the policies of these candidates, but based on simply "popularity" and recommendations from other people. Two physicists from the University of Rome looked at the election data from Poland, Finland, and Italy over several years and concluded that doesn’t matter, for example, how different polices are between parties, the distribution of votes will remain unchanged. “The elections considered span a period of 30 years, in which deep cultural, economic and social transformations have occurred,” say the researchers in their paper. “There is no hint of that in the data pattern.”

They tried to find explanation for such observation and came up with this:

In attempt to explain this universal distribution, Fortunato and Castellano supposed that a candidate gains popularity, and hence votes, by a word-of-mouth effect. They considered each candidate at the top of a tree-like structure, persuading a small number of close friends of to vote for them with a certain probability, who in turn would promote the candidate to more people, and so on. The number of contacts that each person would have to spread the word would have a distribution of its own, which the researchers assumed would follow a “power law” of a generic parameter, α.

Fortunato and Castellano simulated this structure for different values of the persuading probability, the minimum number of contacts a person could have and α. They discovered that their simulation could exactly replicate the curve underlying the election data sets. This, they claim, proves that different candidates in proportional elections gain votes by word of mouth.

I wrote earlier that often, it doesn't matter about the "content" of the message that you're trying to convey to the public. What is more important is the bells and whistles, because the public tends to be persuaded more by those than what you have to say. The fact that this study indicates that most people are more persuaded by other factors other than the issues and policies of the candicates is the same underlying problem here. The message is still lost and becomes secondary.

While this study was done for 3 different countries in Europe, I have no doubt that it applies here in the US and other parts of the world. One wonders if our problems today (and maybe throughout history) could be traced to such human characteristics. My pessimistic view of the general public continues....



Kent Leung said...

Very interesting study! I guess knowing this, we can use it to our advantage by trying to influence people to vote for parties who have good policy for scientific research. Of course one should use as much charisma and bells and whistles as possible.

ZapperZ said...

It also means that if you're running for a public office, you'd better have a lot of friends who's willing to give you plenty of good word-of-mouth. :)