Elections and Deceptions: An Experimental Study on the Behavioral Effects of Democracy

Summary by Luca Corazzini

“Should we trust the promises of this candidate?” This surely represents one of the common questions we ask ourselves during political campaigns in close proximity to elections. When facing fierce electoral competition, candidates typically spend substantial amounts of resources on electoral campaigns. Even though electoral campaigns are literally anything but cheap, social scientists often consider them to be cheap talk, namely due to the proliferation of non-enforceable promises with little information content. Candidates can promise almost anything during electoral campaigns, but voters generally do not possess any direct institutional instrument to make them keep their promises. But are campaigns nothing other than cheap talk? And, do voters benefit from electoral campaigns?

AJPS_July2014_CorazziniIn “Elections and Deceptions: An Experimental Study on the Behavioral Effects of Democracy”, we try to shed light on these questions by putting forward a behavioral and psychological rationale as to why voters might benefit from elections and electoral campaigns. The main intuition is based on a common observation in economics and psychology that human behavior is not exclusively characterized by pure self-interest, but is also driven by other regarding preferences, emotions, and norm compliance. More specifically, our research explores the implications of including the assumption that candidates incur psychological costs of lying – in particular from breaking campaign promises – in a stylized and controlled electoral setting. The existence of these non-pecuniary costs imply that campaigns influence subsequent behavior, even in the absence of reputational or image concerns.
In order to assess the empirical relevance of this behavioral assumption, the authors rely on experimental techniques that allow for straight forward causal interpretations. The results of our lab experiments reveal that promises are more than cheap talk. They influence the behavior of both voters and their representatives. We observed that the electorate is better off when their leaders are elected democratically rather than being appointed exogenously but only in the presence of electoral campaigns. In addition, we find that representatives are more likely to serve the public interest when their approval rates are high. Altogether, these results suggest that elections and campaigns confer important benefits beyond their screening and sanctioning functions.

These findings have important implications for the advancement of both theoretical work on and the design of democratic institutions. They suggest exogenous, rather than democratic, assignment of decision rights, as in office-rotation schemes, for example, might produce unwanted side effects due to less intrinsically-motivated representatives. Non-pecuniary motivational effects provide a novel explanation for recent empirical findings showing that elected regulators or judges behave differently than appointed ones.

About the Authors: Luca Corazzini is Professor of Economics at the University of Messina,  Sebastian Kube is Professor for Behavioral and Experimental Economics at the University of Bonn, Michel André Maréchal is Assistant Professor Experimental Economics Research at the University of Zurich and Antonio Nicolò is Associate Professor, School of Economics and Business Administration. Their paper, “Elections and Deceptions: An Experimental Study on the Behavioral Effects of Democracy”, appeared in the July 2014 issue of the American Journal of Political Science. The data used in this study are stored on the AJPS Data Archive on Dataverse

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.