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Memetics & Voting: How Nature May Make us Public Spirited


  • John P. Conley

    () (Department of Economics, Vanderbilt University)

  • Myrna Wooders

    () (Department of Economics, Vanderbilt University)


We consider the classic puzzle of why people turn out for elections in substantial numbers even though formal analysis strongly suggests that rational agents would not vote. If one assumes that voters do not make systematic mistakes, the most plausible explanation seems to be that agents receive a warm glow from the act of voting itself.ÊÊ However, this begs the question of why agents feel a warm glow from participating in the electoral process in the first place. We approach this question from an memetic standpoint. More specifically, we consider a model in which social norms, ideas, values, or more generally, "memes" influence the behavior of groups of agents, and in turn, induce a kind of competition between value systems. We show for a range of situations that groups with a more public-spirited social norm have an advantage over groupsÊ that are not as public-spirited. We also explore conditions under which the altruistic behavior resulting from public-spiritedness is disadvantageous. The details depend on the costs of voting, the extent to which different types of citizens agree or disagree over the benefits of various public policies, and the relative proportions of various preference types in the population. We conclude that memetic evolution over social norms may be a force that causes individuals to internalize the benefits that their actions confer on others.

Suggested Citation

  • John P. Conley & Myrna Wooders, 2005. "Memetics & Voting: How Nature May Make us Public Spirited," Vanderbilt University Department of Economics Working Papers 0514, Vanderbilt University Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:van:wpaper:0514

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. James Andreoni, 1995. "Warm-Glow versus Cold-Prickle: The Effects of Positive and Negative Framing on Cooperation in Experiments," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 110(1), pages 1-21.
    2. Jorgen W. Weibull, 1997. "Evolutionary Game Theory," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262731215, January.
    3. Reiter, Stanley, 2001. " Interdependent Preferences and Groups of Agents," Journal of Public Economic Theory, Association for Public Economic Theory, vol. 3(1), pages 27-67.
    4. Anthony Downs, 1957. "An Economic Theory of Political Action in a Democracy," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 65, pages 135-135.
    5. Possajennikov, Alex, 2000. "On the evolutionary stability of altruistic and spiteful preferences," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 42(1), pages 125-129, May.
    6. Andreoni, James, 1990. "Impure Altruism and Donations to Public Goods: A Theory of Warm-Glow Giving?," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 100(401), pages 464-477, June.
    7. Drew Fudenberg & David K. Levine, 1998. "The Theory of Learning in Games," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262061945, January.
    8. Eshel, Ilan & Samuelson, Larry & Shaked, Avner, 1998. "Altruists, Egoists, and Hooligans in a Local Interaction Model," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 88(1), pages 157-179, March.
    9. Harbaugh, W T, 1996. "If People Vote Because They Like to, Then Why Do So Many of Them Lie?," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 89(1-2), pages 63-76, October.
    10. Becker, Gary S, 1976. "Altruism, Egoism, and Genetic Fitness: Economics and Sociobiology," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 14(3), pages 817-826, September.
    11. repec:hhs:iuiwop:487 is not listed on IDEAS
    12. John P. Conley & Akram Temimi, 2001. "Endogenous Enfranchisement When Groups' Preferences Conflict," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 109(1), pages 79-102, February.
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    More about this item


    Memetics; evolution; voting; warm glow; civic duty; free riding; public choice; public goods;

    JEL classification:

    • C7 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Game Theory and Bargaining Theory
    • D7 - Microeconomics - - Analysis of Collective Decision-Making

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