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Working Paper 2009:12
Department of Economics
Correcting Mistakes: Cognitive
Dissonance and Political
Attitudes in Sweden and the
Correcting Mistakes: Cognitive Dissonance and
Political Attitudes in Sweden and the United States
Research Institute of Industrial Economics (IFN) and Uppsala University.
Abstract: Cognitive dissonance theory predicts that the act of voting makes people more
positive toward the party or candidate they have voted for. Following Mullainathan and
Washington (2009), I test this prediction by using exogenous variation in turnout provided by
the voting age restriction. I improve on previous studies by investigating political attitudes,
measured just before elections, when they are highly predictive of voting. In contrast to earlier
studies I find no effect of voting on political attitudes. This result holds for a variety of
political attitudes and for both Sweden and the United States.
Keywords: Cognitive dissonance, Voting, Elections, Political Attitudes
JEL codes: B59, C21, D72
Acknowledgements: I wish to thank Niclas Berggren, Sören Blomquist, Hans Grönqvist, Elly-Ann Johansson,
Henrik Jordahl, Che-Yuan Liang, Eva Mörk, Tuomas Pekkarinen, Panu Poutvaara, Håkan Selin, and David
Strömberg, as well as seminar participants at Uppsala University, and at the 2008 Ph.D. student Workshop in
Public Economics, Uppsala, for valuable comments and suggestions. The Jan Wallander and Tom Hedelius
Foundation is gratefully acknowledged for financial support.
?Address: Uppsala University, Department of Economics, Box 513, SE-75120 Uppsala, Sweden. Email address:
Economists routinely assume that preferences are stable and determine people’s behavior. In
direct contrast, social psychologists suggest that behavior influences preferences and
attitudes.1 Cognitive dissonance theory has emerged as the most prominent development
along these lines. The theory has been suggested to provide important insights to many areas
involving human behavior.2 The empirical support for the theory has, however, hitherto
almost exclusively relied on psychological experiments, many of which have been heavily
criticized by Chen (2008).
One prediction from cognitive dissonance theory is that the act of voting makes people
more positive toward the party or candidate they have voted for, which suggests an effect also
on how people vote in future elections. A few studies have found such an effect of voting on
political attitudes (Beasley and Joslyn, 2001; Anderson et al., 2004; Mullainathan and
Washington, 2009). These studies all measure effects on political attitudes long before an
opportunity to vote. As a consequence they provide limited information about the relevance of
cognitive dissonance theory to voting and elections, since there is no guarantee that the
measured attitudes persist until the next election. If cognitive dissonance theory is of
relevance to voting, the empirical evidence should at least support that political attitudes
measured just before elections are biased toward the previously supported candidate or party.
This paper contributes to this literature by testing if the act of voting influences political
attitudes ? measured just before elections ? when they are highly predictive of party and
candidate choices. To this end I make use of data from the Swedish Election Studies
complemented with data from The American National Election Studies. As in Mullainathan
and Washington (2009), the effect on political attitudes is identified by making use of
exogenous variation in turnout provided by the voting age restriction. In contrast to earlier
studies, I find no effect on political attitudes. This indicates that cognitive dissonance theory
may not be as relevant for voting as previous studies have indicated. This result holds for a
variety of political attitudes and for data from both Sweden and the United States.
Mullainathan and Washington argue that if cognitive dissonance theory has bearing on
voting, then it provides a new explanation for the incumbency advantage and thus a
motivation for term limits. They also argue that high turnout could lead to inefficient electoral
outcomes since a larger body of voters would then obtain biased attitudes toward candidates.
1 While preferences are inherently unobservable, attitudes are herein viewed as observable, and are thus akin to
2 For reviews see: Harmon-Jones and Mills (1999) and Cooper (2007).
These arguments rely on the assumption that the effect of voting on political attitudes has
repercussions for future voting behavior. The analysis in this paper shows that this is
assumption is not supported by data, neither from Sweden, nor from the United States.
Instead, it seems that by the time of the subsequent election, political attitudes are not
significantly influenced by previous voting behavior.
The theory of cognitive dissonance was first spelled out by Festinger (1957). Applied to
the context of voting, the mechanism at work could be described as follows. Consider a young
person being eligible to vote for the first time. She wants to vote for the party (or candidate)
that best serves her political interests. She collects information about the different parties and
votes for the preferred party. After the election, new information becomes available. This
information may or may not support her prior that she voted for the “right” party. If she voted
for the “wrong” party, her action was dissonant with her intention and a discomforting feeling
arises. She can reduce the unpleasant feeling of dissonance either by changing her actions or
by changing her political cognitions3 so that the party she voted for still appears to be the best
choice. But, when it comes to elections she typically has to wait several years before getting
an opportunity to vote for another party. To relieve dissonance she may, therefore, instead
change her political preferences or filter the available information in such a way that the
chosen party appears to be better than it is.4 Akerlof and Dickens (1982: p. 309) summarize
the mechanism at work as: “… persons who have made decisions tend to discard information
that would suggest such decisions are in error because the cognition that the decision might be
in error is in conflict with the cognition that ego is a smart person.”5
The relevant question is therefore if citizens tend to vote for the same party in subsequent
elections, even when the circumstances have changed so that they otherwise had voted for
another party, or if they behave more rationally and vote for a different party.6 Because of
3To quote Festinger (1957, p3) “By the term cognition, here and in the remainder of the book, I mean any
knowledge, opinion, or belief about the environment, about oneself, or about one’s behavior.” The cognitions
under study herein are political attitudes. Note also that the change of cognitions need not be conscious, but
could just as well be a subconscious undertaking.
4 It has also been suggested that to avoid the negative feelings caused by dissonant cognitions, people may
change cognitions in advance of events that could question their choices. In the context of voting this would
mean that voters become more positive to the chosen party, even if there is no information that questions their
choice (Festinger, 1957).
5 It should, however, be noted that the motivational mechanism for dissonance arousal is still under debate. For
example, Aronson (1968, 1992) argue that dissonance arises when behavior conflict with one’s view of oneself
(typically but not necessarily as being smart, moral, honest, etc). Cooper and Fazio (1984) quite differently argue
that dissonance arouses when behavior has aversive consequences for others.
6 Although the original theory of cognitive dissonance acknowledge that dissonance can be reduced by changing
behavior, this has been claimed to be less likely than changing attitudes (Cooper, 2007). Furthermore, it is when
dissonance is reduced by changing attitudes that cognitive dissonance theory predicts interesting effects on
data limitations it is, however, difficult to perform direct tests of whether the act of voting
influences party choice in future elections. We therefore have to assess the relevance of
cognitive dissonance theory, to voting and elections, by its impact on political attitudes. As a
consequence it is important that we investigate political attitudes as close as possible to the
elections in which we really would have liked to investigate voting.
2. Previous Literature and Methodological Considerations
Empirical studies have suggested that cognitive dissonance theory provides fruitful insight to,
for example, religious behavior (Festinger et al., 1964), protection against HIV (Stone et al.,
1994), curing phobias (Cooper, 1980), effects of terror attacks (Masters, 2005), and to
behavior among monkeys (Egan et al., 2008). In an influential article, Akerlof and Dickens
(1982) argue that cognitive dissonance theory may have important implications also for a
wide range of economic problems such as safety regulation, social security, innovation,
marketing, and crime. Recently, cognitive dissonance theory has also been suggested to
provide insights to the understanding of voting behavior and elections.
While providing interesting and appealing theoretical predictions – sometimes directly
contrasting with predictions from rational choice theory – many empirical tests of cognitive
dissonance theory suffer from severe methodological problems. As mentioned in the
introduction, Chen (2008) criticizes much of the empirical tests of cognitive dissonance
theory in what has been labeled “The Free Choice Paradigm”. This line of research started
with Brehm’s (1956) experiment, in which subjects were asked to rate objects and were then
given a choice between two of the objects to take home. After the choice, they were asked to
again rate all of the objects. The chosen object were then found to be rated higher and the
rejected object lower than in the initial stage. This finding has been interpreted as evidence of
choice induced attitude change and support for the theory of cognitive dissonance. Chen,
however, points out that all studies in this tradition may be plagued by a problem of
measurement error in ratings and fail to recognize that the choice may contain additional
information about the respondents’ preferences. This critique casts considerable doubts on the
value of the empirical support for cognitive dissonance theory, although its factual
consequence has not yet been investigated.
When it comes to voting, Beasley and Joslyn (2001) claim that the act of voting influences
attitudes toward the presidential candidates in the United States. Their evidence is based on a
comparison of attitudes in the pre-election survey and the post-election survey of the
American National Election Studies. They find that those who report having voted tend to
have more polarized attitudes toward the President than those who report that they abstained.
Anderson et al. (2004) use data from the British Election Studies and compare perceptions of
national economic conditions before and after the 1997 election. They find that after the
election citizens that voted for the incumbent have a more positive view of past economic
conditions than they had before the election.
The analyses by both Beasley and Joslyn (2001) and Anderson et al. (2004) suffer from
several methodological problems. First, they are directly hit by the critique by Chen (2008).
Second, if information about the parties’ achievements and the state of the economy becomes
more cheaply available in the end of an election campaign, it would be no surprise if those
who voted for the winner changed their attitudes in favor of the winner already before voting.7
The same argument applies to those who voted for the loser. This mechanism would produce
results similar to what Anderson et al. and Beasley and Joslyn interpret as support for
cognitive dissonance. Third, Mullainathan and Washington (2009) criticize the approach by
Beasley and Joslyn with the argument that turnout is likely to be correlated with attitudes.
Consequentially, that approach almost automatically generates results that Beasley and Joslyn
interpret as evidence of cognitive dissonance mechanisms being at work, even without any
effect of voting on attitudes. Finally, even if none of these objections would be applicable, we
would still not know if the attitude change would last until the next election and thus have
consequences for voting.
Mullainathan and Washington avoid the problems associated with using pre- and post-
election comparisons. Instead they identify the causal effect of voting on political attitudes
with the exogenous variation in turnout provided by the voting age restriction. They find that
those who were eligible to vote in the previous U.S. presidential election and report
themselves as affiliated with the President’s party rate the President almost 10 percentage
points higher compared with those who were ineligible to vote but also consider themselves
as affiliated with the President’s party. As a result they find support for cognitive dissonance
theory in the context of U.S. presidential elections.
7 To see this, suppose that there are two groups of voters A and B. Group A does not care about economic
growth while group B does. Just before the election it becomes clear that the incumbent is responsible for low
economic growth. Voters belonging to group A does not change their attitude toward the incumbent or the
opposition, while members of group B become relatively more in favor of the opposition. As a consequence the
probability that the opposition wins the election increases. When investigating political attitudes after the
election, then if the opposition won, we will find that those who voted for the winner will have obtained a more
negative view of past economic development.
The research design applied by Mullainathan and Washington clearly takes the literature
forward by credibly identifying a causal effect of voting on political attitudes. Nevertheless,
some problems and limitations remain. As mentioned in the introduction we are not sure
whether the change in attitudes persists until the next election. This is a critical condition for
voting behavior to be biased in favor of the previously supported candidate.
In an extension to their main analysis, Mullainathan and Washington test if their results
hold if political attitudes are measured just before the subsequent presidential election.
Interestingly, that analysis lends no support for cognitive dissonance mechanisms being at
work. They claim, however, that the results from this extension are too weak, due to small
point estimates and large standard errors, to draw firm conclusions and call for more research
on this matter – a call that is answered in this paper.
Low turnout in American elections provides a further limitation, since cognitive
dissonance theory predicts that only those who actually have voted should change their
attitudes. The fact that less than half of the interviewed respondents actually voted in the
elections could therefore confound the results.
In this paper, I make use of a similar research design as in Mullainathan and Washington,
with the important difference that attitudes are measured just before elections, so as to more
credibly investigate if any repercussion on future voting is likely. Furthermore, I extend the
analysis to an investigation of data from both Sweden and the United States. The Swedish
Election Studies contain similar questions as the American National Election Studies. This
allows for a reexamination of the relevance of cognitive dissonance on a new data set, with a
minimum of deviations in the empirical methodology. By using Swedish data, I also avoid the
problem with low turnout in American elections. Turnout among first time voters in Sweden
is very high in international comparisons and vary between 79 and 89 percent for the time
period of this study.
3. The Swedish Political System
A brief description of some key features of the Swedish political system follows. The Swedish
Parliament (Riksdagen) is the country’s legislative body and appoints the Prime Minister, who
then selects ministers to form a government. Elections to the parliament were held every three
years before 1994 and are held every four years since then. To be eligible to vote a citizen
must be 18 years old on Election Day. Seats in parliament are allocated by proportional
The Social Democratic Party has been the largest party in Sweden during the entire time-
span for this investigation, receiving between 36.4 and 45.7 percent of the votes. The Social
Democratic Party has ruled as a minority government for most of the years since 1982 (1982–
1991 and 1994–2006). Between 1976 and 1982 a centre-right coalition8 served two terms and
between 1991 and 1994 another centre-right coalition9 served one term.
The empirical analysis, mainly, uses data from the Swedish Election Studies. However, in an
extension, data from the American National Election Studies are used for complementary
analyses. Both data sets consist of individual-level survey data. In addition the Swedish data
are supplemented with register data.10 Below follows a description of the Swedish Election
4.1. Swedish Election Studies
A separate wave of the Swedish Election Studies has been conducted in connection with all
major elections in Sweden since 1956. The later surveys consist of a larger number of
questions, which limits the time-span for this analysis back to 1979 for attitudes toward the
parties and the Prime Minister. In each wave about 3,000 respondents are interviewed, with
oversampling of first time voters.
Turnout in Sweden is normally very high compared to other developed democracies with
non-compulsory voting. From 1979 to 2002, turnout rates have varied between 81 and 94
percent. Table 1 displays turnout rates for first time, second time, and all eligible voters from
1979 to 2002. As can be seen, the turnout rates are marginally lower for first and second time
voters than for the electorate at large. A t-test for different turnout rates between first and
second time voters does not reject that they are equal. The data come from the electoral
register for the sample contained in the Swedish Election Studies. The higher the turnout
8Between 1976 and 1979, the coalition consisted of the Centre Party, the Liberal Party, and the Moderate Party
(Conservatives). In 1978 Prime Minister Torbjörn Fälldin (the Centre Party) left his post as Prime Minister,
when both the Centre Party and the Liberal Party left the government. Ola Ullsten (The Liberal Party) became
Prime Minister until the election in 1979. In 1979, Fälldin again became Prime Minister with the same three
parties represented in the government. He kept that post until 1982. Excluding the 1982 election from the
analysis does not change the qualitative results.
9This time it consisted of The Moderate Party (Conservatives), with Prime Minister Carl Bildt, the Centre Party,
the Liberal Party, and the Christian Democrats.
10 Appendix A and B report detailed descriptions of all variables as well as descriptive statistics for the different
samples used in the analyses
11 As the data from the American National Election Studies is publicly available and extensively discussed
elsewhere, I refer to http://www.electionstudies.org, for references and description of that data.
rates, the better the prospects for testing if voting influences the political attitudes, since those
who did not vote in the previous election are predicted not to change their attitudes. Clearly,
turnout rates among young Swedish citizens are much higher than the average of 48 percent
that Mullainathan and Washington report for the United States in their study.
Table 1: Turnout
Note: The numbers refer to the percentage of eligible
voters that actually voted in the election, taken from
the electoral register for the sample in the Swedish
Election Studies, including non-respondents.
A key quality indicator of any survey is the response rate. The response rates in the
Swedish Election Studies vary between 69 and 82 percent (1979-2002), which is almost 10
percentage points higher than in the American National Election Surveys.12 Non-response in
the Swedish Election Studies have been found to be somewhat more common among women,
low income earners, the old (>70 years old)13, and citizens born abroad. The biggest
difference in response rates is found between voters and non-voters (Holmberg and
Oscarsson, 2004). Table 2 displays response rates for first time, second time, and all eligible
voters. The numbers in parenthesis shows the response rates conditional on voting. As can be
seen the response rates are typically higher for first and second time voters than for the
electorate at large. Although the response rates are somewhat higher for young voters than for
the whole young electorate, the differences are small.
The variables used in the empirical analysis are discussed in section 5. Appendix A and B
report detailed descriptions of all variables as well as descriptive statistics for the different
samples used in the analyses.
12 Between 1978 and 2000 the response rates in the American National Election Surveys varied between 59.8
and 74.0 percent.
13 Respondents over 80 years old are not included in the surveys.
Table 2: Response Rates (in percent)
Note: Numbers in parenthesis are conditional on
5. Empirical strategy
To make the results from this analysis are as comparable as possible to the results in
Mullainathan and Washington, I follow the methodology applied by them as closely as
possible. The key difference is that attitudes now are measured just before elections. This
means that citizens who experience dissonance because they have previously voted for the
“wrong” party now have the opportunity to relieve dissonance, by voting for another party,
close at hand. As Table 3 shows, attitudes toward the Prime Minister’s party, as measured in
the weeks before elections, are highly predictive of party choice. Very few of those who rate
the Prime Minister’s party in the lower categories, report to vote for that party. In the top
categories, most of the respondents report to have voted for the Prime Minister’s party. This
pattern suggests that if we find an effect of voting on political attitudes then it is reasonable
assume an effect on party choice as well.