Electoral Confidence, Overconfidence, and Risky Behavior: Evidence from a Study with Elected Politicians

Abstract

Democratic theory makes strong assumptions about the relationship between politicians’ likelihood of retaining office and their behavior in office. Specifically, confidence in re-election is often used to explain a willingness to take risks. In this paper, we make a distinction between politicians’ accurate assessments of their likelihood of being re-elected and an overestimation of this likelihood (i.e. their overconfidence). We argue that overconfidence by politicians is associated with a higher willingness to make risky decisions. Using a sample of incumbent members of the national parliaments of Belgium, Canada, and Israel, we show that their preference for risk-taking is predicted by self-reported confidence in their likelihood of re-election. We further show that this relationship is largely explained by overconfidence, while ‘objective’ electoral safety is not associated with risky behavior in office.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The literature is vast. Notable examples include Downs and Rocke (1994), Hood (2002), Jones (2001) Levy (2003) McDermott (2001), Vis (2010).

  2. 2.

    A full review is impractical, but see for example March and Olsen (1995), Przeworski et al. (1999), Weaver (1986).

  3. 3.

    Here we report results based on within-elite differences in overconfidence levels. Whether politicians as a group are indeed more prone to general displays of overconfidence relative to non-politicians is beyond the scope of this study, principally because we are interested in overconfidence with respect to electoral performance, which we cannot evaluate with non-politicians. Nevertheless, we do know that politicians are consistently more risk-taking relative to citizens when asked to make similar policy choices (Sheffer et al. 2017).

  4. 4.

    One objection to collecting evaluations from individual politicians on their risk preferences is that in practice they do not affect in-office decision-making (and the resultant policies), because partisan voting and coalition/opposition sorting wash them out. This critique, we believe, misses many of the instances in which politicians’ individual-level preferences and traits matter for in-office behavior: politicians have a greater degree of independence in committees, in internal party debates, and when they interact with constituents. Individual differences also matter more when decisions are made (or positions are debated) on non-salient issues, new issues, or those that do not easily break according to partisan lines—such as public health crises like the one simulated in the task we administered. Beyond that, a concentration of a critical mass of politicians with specific behavioral preferences within a party, or having a party leader or cabinet minister with certain preferences can have a direct impact on the adoption of those party/government positions that are then enforced in parliament. In short, we believe that individual-level decision-making characteristics of politicians are highly consequential, and warrant direct examination.

  5. 5.

    This study is part of an ERC-funded multinational research project called Infopol that involved in-person interviews with several hundred incumbent politicians. For more details: www.infopol-project.org.

  6. 6.

    The Pearson correlation coefficients for overconfidence with gain/loss frame assignment and accountability treatment assignment are 0.01 and 0.11, respectively, and neither is significantly different from zero. The same correlations for electoral safety are − 0.01 and − 0.13, and again neither is significantly different from zero.

  7. 7.

    We also report the treatment effects on our sample in the Online Appendix. Results of the treatment effects from this experiment are reported fully in another study [OMITTED]. We find, similar to Linde and Vis (2017), that politicians exhibit a strong preference reversal effect when moving between the gain/loss frames. Priming different accountability levels does not significantly affect risk seeking.

  8. 8.

    For example, Rubenzer et al. (2000) adopt this approach in evaluating the personalities of US presidents.

  9. 9.

    Including for the MPs in our sample; see Table 11 in the Online Appendix.

  10. 10.

    Some studies (e.g. Bengtsson 2004, see also Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier 2013, pp. 378–379) show that in certain electoral systems, particularly those where coalition governments are common, conditions arise where past vote share is negatively correlated with future electoral performance, due to a cyclical pattern of governing party punishment. This argument concerns overall party support, and it is unclear if and to what degree it applies to individual MPs’ likelihood of re-election.

  11. 11.

    An alternative operationalization using the MP’s absolute vote proportion in the riding rather than the distance from the runner-up yields essentially identical results.

  12. 12.

    The results remain substantively identical when estimating linear regression models instead.

  13. 13.

    This figure relates to the raw frequency across our sample. When computing predicted probabilities over the treatments, the overall predicted rate is 60%; see Online Appendix for full details.

  14. 14.

    We include plots of the same relationships using raw risk-taking in the Online Appendix. They exhibit the same trends.

  15. 15.

    With respect to the over-correlation risk in multiple testing, we stress that we were theoretically motivated and did not conduct additional tests on other measures that were collected. Moreover, the Asian Disease vignette was the only behavioral assessment task in this survey, and in any case the only module that we theoretically expected to have a relationship with confidence in re-election. In that sense, we are not under-reporting or omitting other tests from the analysis presented here. With respect to the risk of over-correlation as a result of shared error terms between variables, we acknowledge the inherent difficulty in overcoming it in one-shot survey designs of the kind we conduct, which is particularly difficult to overcome in the context of surveying difficult to re-contact elites. We further note a recommendation by Bullock et al. (2010), who suggest examining effects among different groups of subjects as a way of substantiating aggregate correlations, so that if “these effects differ little from group to group (e.g., from women to men, authoritarians to nonauthoritarians), we become more confident that causal heterogeneity is not affecting our analysis.” (p. 555) Indeed, we do this by looking at by-country subgroups, and we find similar patterns, which, while not reducing the risk of over-estimation, give us at least some confidence that the correlation we are seeing is not inflated to the degree of creating a false positive.

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Acknowledgements

We wish to thank Stefaan Walgrave, Stuart Soroka, Tamir Sheafer, Eran Amsalem, Matthew Ayling, Yves Dejaeghere, Lynn Epping, Jeroen Joly, Yogev Karasenty, Julie Sevenans, Tal Shahaf, Kirsten Van Camp, Debby Vos, and Alon Zoizner for their work on this project; the editor and three anonymous reviewers for their thorough and helpful feedback; participants of the 2017 University of Notre Dame Conference on Elite Personality and Political Institutions, the 2017 Midwest Political Science Association and Southern Political Science Association conferences, and the 2015 NYU Abu Dhabi Workshop on Behavioural Models of Politics. This work was supported by the European Research Council [Advanced Grant ‘INFOPOL’, 295735] and the Research Fund of the University of Antwerp [Grant 26827].

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Correspondence to Lior Sheffer.

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Sheffer, L., Loewen, P. Electoral Confidence, Overconfidence, and Risky Behavior: Evidence from a Study with Elected Politicians. Polit Behav 41, 31–51 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-017-9438-0

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Keywords

  • Overconfidence
  • Electricity Authority
  • Electrical Safety Measures
  • Self-reported Confidence
  • Vote Share