Why do people vote? Motivations, and understanding - History

Why do people vote? Motivations, and understanding - History

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The U.S. has one of the lowest voter turnout percentages of any nation. Since most voters live in states where it is clear which candidate will win, consistently low voter turnout is not too surprising. The question remains – why do people vote at all? The best answer is that people vote because they feel its their duty as citizens.

Political scientists often question why America's voter turnout is lower in Presidential elections than voting rates in other countries. Psychologists and some economists prefer to question what factors convince people vote at all. In my opinion, laboring to answer this question seems like an illogical waste of time. After all, rarely, if ever, does any vote determine an election. So why do people actually vote? There is no clear answer to this question. Though a number of good theories have been put forth. One theory holds that people vote to feel better about themselves. Some feel by voting they fulfill their "social responsibility" and that makes them feel better about themselves. Others think voting is a social norm. In other words, when people belong to a community and everyone in their community votes, they feel they must vote as well. Sometimes that community may be their political party or their church or any other group to which they belong. It is clear that the decision to vote is not chosen rationally, through doing a cost–benefit analysis. If this was the case, one would expect to see the more educated population voting in lower numbers. However, the facts are just the opposite. The higher the level of a potential voter's education, the greater the chance they will in fact vote. Thus, it is clearly not a rational decision that brings people vote. Yet, vote they do.

Why should you study history?

To study history is to study change: historians are experts in examining and interpreting human identities and transformations of societies and civilizations over time. They use a range of methods and analytical tools to answer questions about the past and to reconstruct the diversity of past human experience: how profoundly people have differed in their ideas, institutions, and cultural practices how widely their experiences have varied by time and place, and the ways they have struggled while inhabiting a shared world. Historians use a wide range of sources to weave individual lives and collective actions into narratives that bring critical perspectives on both our past and our present. Studying history helps us understand and grapple with complex questions and dilemmas by examining how the past has shaped (and continues to shape) global, national, and local relationships between societies and people.

The Past Teaches Us About the Present

Because history gives us the tools to analyze and explain problems in the past, it positions us to see patterns that might otherwise be invisible in the present – thus providing a crucial perspective for understanding (and solving!) current and future problems. For example, a course on the history of public health might emphasize how environmental pollution disproportionately affects less affluent communities – a major factor in the Flint water crisis. Understanding immigration patterns may provide crucial background for addressing ongoing racial or cultural tensions. In many ways, history interprets the events and causes that contributed to our current world.

History Builds Empathy Through Studying the Lives and Struggles of Others

Studying the diversity of human experience helps us appreciate cultures, ideas, and traditions that are not our own – and to recognize them as meaningful products of specific times and places. History helps us realize how different our lived experience is from that of our ancestors, yet how similar we are in our goals and values.

History Can Be Intensely Personal

In learning about the past, we often discover how our own lives fit into the human experience. In October 2015, a UW alumnus named Michael Stern contacted Professor Amos Bitzan for help translating letters from his grandmother, Sara Spira, to his parents. Bitzan was able to integrate some of the letters into his class on the Holocaust to bring to life for his students the day-to-day realities of being Jewish in Nazi-occupied Poland. As Bitzan explained, “I realized that Sara Spira’s postcards could be a way for my students to integrate two facets of the study of the Holocaust: an analysis of victims and perpetrators.” And if you have ever seen an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?”, you’ve seen the ways in which historical research can tell us amazing stories about our ancestors – stories we might not ever know otherwise.

“Doing” History is Like Completing a Puzzle or Solving a Mystery

Imagine asking a question about the past, assembling a set of clues through documents, artifacts, or other sources, and then piecing those clues together to tell a story that answers your question and tells you something unexpected about a different time and place. That’s doing history.

Everything Has a History

Everything we do, everything we use, everything else we study is the product of a complex set of causes, ideas, and practices. Even the material we learn in other courses has important historical elements – whether because our understanding of a topic changed over time or because the discipline takes a historical perspective. There is nothing that cannot become grist for the historian’s mill.

1. Our World

History gives us a very clear picture of how the various aspects of society — such as technology, governmental systems, and even society as a whole — worked in the past so we understand how it came to work the way it is now.

2. Society And Other People

Studying history allows us to observe and understand how people and societies behaved. For example, we are able to evaluate war, even when a nation is at peace, by looking back at previous events. History provides us with the data that is used to create laws, or theories about various aspects of society.

3. Identity

History can help provide us with a sense of identity. This is actually one of the main reasons that history is still taught in schools around the world. Historians have been able to learn about how countries, families, and groups were formed, and how they evolved and developed over time. When an individual takes it upon themselves to dive deep into their own family’s history, they can understand how their family interacted with larger historical change. Did family serve in major wars? Were they present for significant events?

4. Present-Day Issues

History helps us to understand present-day issues by asking deeper questions as to why things are the way they are. Why did wars in Europe in the 20th century matter to countries around the world? How did Hitler gain and maintain power for as long as he had? How has this had an effect on shaping our world and our global political system today?

5. The Process Of Change Over Time

If we want to truly understand why something happened — in any area or field, such as one political party winning the last election vs the other, or a major change in the number of smokers — you need to look for factors that took place earlier. Only through the study of history can people really see and grasp the reasons behind these changes, and only through history can we understand what elements of an institution or a society continue regardless of continual change.

Photo by Yusuf Dündar on Unsplash

Drive Theory

According to the drive theory of motivation, people are motivated to take certain actions in order to reduce the internal tension that is caused by unmet needs. For example, you might be motivated to drink a glass of water in order to reduce the internal state of thirst.

The drive theory is based on the concept of homeostasis, or the idea that the body actively works to maintain a certain state of balance or equilibrium.

This theory is useful in explaining behaviors that have a strong biological or physiological component, such as hunger or thirst. The problem with the drive theory of motivation is that these behaviors are not always motivated purely by drive, or the state of tension or arousal caused by biological or physiological needs. For example, people often eat even when they are not really hungry.

So, why did people vote for Donald Trump?

Despite the fact that I resigned from the Republican Party when Donald Trump was nominated and wish he were out of the White House tomorrow, I have been very troubled by the ugly characterizations of anyone who voted for him, to include, at worst: deplorable, unredeemable, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, Islamophobic and/or jingoistic. At best, they are perceived as ill-informed.

I have had many discussions with people who voted for Trump, and I have not met a single one who fits the descriptors above. Most of them were willing to share with me their reasons, and this column is a summary of what I heard. It’s amazing what you can learn, and how people will open up, when you listen not with the intent of arguing or judging, but rather with the intent of understanding.

Many of them thought Trump had little or no chance of being elected, but voted for him anyway. Here’s why (in no particular order):

  1. They were opposed to four to eight more years of what they saw as the progressive politics of Barack Obama as reflected by Hillary Clinton’s swing further to the left in response to Bernie Sander’s primary challenge.
  2. Perception of weak border enforcement.
  3. The unwillingness of the Obama administration to call radical Islamic terrorism by its name.
  4. Objection to President Obama and Justice Department officials putting their fingers on the scales of justice when racial incidents were involved.
  5. Concern about the IRS discriminating against TEA Party and other conservative groups.
  6. Great concern about liberal judges and justices appointed to the federal judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court.
  7. Anxiety about the declining percentage of GNP dedicated to the military, and concern about reports of declining military readiness.
  8. Distress about the left-leaning political indoctrination, and suppression of free speech, running rampant on college campuses and in public schools.
  9. Resentment toward the condescension exhibited by Barack Obama when describing people in the heartland as clinging to their guns and Bibles and distrust of people unlike themselves.
  1. Hillary Clinton’s use of the term “deplorables” was a deal breaker.
  2. Complete distrust of Hillary Clinton. Perceived her as a phony, with no acceptance of her explanations with respect to either Benghazi or the much-disputed emails.
  3. Concern about the national debt, believing that Clinton would only make the situation worse.
  4. Expecting Clinton to win, they wanted to minimize her margin of victory and thus be unable to claim a large political mandate.
  5. Perception of universal health care as a budget buster.
  6. General opposition to what they perceived as an ever-increasing size, scope and power of the federal government.
  7. Trump was seen as a successful businessman, and it was thought that he could run the administration in a business-like manner.

Many were disappointed with Trump’s pre-election commentary and behavior. Most of them supported other Republicans during the primary. However, when it came down to Trump or Clinton, they held their noses and voted for Trump, some with trepidation. In fact, some of them today would be happy to see either his resignation or impeachment. But at the time they were willing to take a chance, kick the card table over and let the chips fall where they may.

20 Reasons People Have Sex

Stressed out? Have sex. Stress reduction is one of the leading reasons Americans, particularly men, say they have sex, Richard Caroll says. The review, published online in Sexuality & Culture, shows other most frequently cited reasons for having sex include:

  • Boosting mood and relieving depression
  • Duty
  • Enhancement of power
  • Enhancement of self-concept
  • Experiencing the power of one’s partner
  • Feeling loved by your partner
  • Fostering jealousy
  • Improving reputation or social status
  • Making money
  • Making babies
  • Need for affection
  • Nurturance
  • Partner novelty
  • Peer pressure or pressure from partner
  • Pleasure
  • Reducing sex drive
  • Revenge
  • Sexual curiosity
  • Showing love to your partner
  • Spiritual transcendence


Elections are decided by the people who go out and vote. Take some time and learn about the measures and the candidates. If you don’t vote, someone else will make the decision for you. Your power is in your vote.

You pay taxes, but do you know how that money is being used? Most people don’t. Voting is your chance to choose how your tax dollars are spent – such as funding for health care and social services.

A Vote, A Voice

When it was established, the United States of America boasted more eligible voters than ever before. But it was still just a fraction of the new country’s population. The nation’s founders never envisioned the numbers, classes, sexes, and races of Americans that cast ballots each Election Day. They envisioned a world in which propertied men rose above self-interest and voted on behalf of the rest of “the people.” Many of “the people,” however, showed a stubborn desire to vote directly to choose their leaders and laws. The result has been reluctant adjustments, contentious struggles, and ongoing negotiations as groups tried to persuade lawmakers, the courts, and their fellow citizens to let them share the power of the polls.

Alison Turnbull Hopkins pickets the White House, 1917

Courtesy of The National Woman’s Party at the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument

The Role of the Electoral College

The Electoral College has something of a bum rap, especially over the last couple of decades. It's often said that leaders in the U.S. are chosen by the people in a majority vote, but is that the case with the presidential election?

Five presidents have been elected to the White House after losing the popular vote: John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush, and Donald J. Trump.  

Technically, electors are supposed to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in the state they represent. Population varies by state, and so the college is set up to accommodate this. California has more electoral votes than Rhode Island because it's home to more voters. If a candidate wins a populous state such as California by just a small margin, all the state's electoral votes still go to the winning candidate.   The result? Lots of electoral votes, but maybe only a few thousand more popular votes.

In theory, at least, that candidate may have received only one additional vote. When this happens across several large, populous states, it's possible for the candidate with fewer popular votes to win in the Electoral College.

The study of motivation

Motivation has been studied in a variety of ways. For instance, it has been analyzed at the physiological level using electrical and chemical stimulation of the brain, the recording of electrical brain-wave activity with the electroencephalograph, and lesion techniques, where a portion of the brain (usually of a laboratory animal) is destroyed and subsequent changes in motivation are noted. Physiological studies performed primarily on animals other than humans have demonstrated the importance of certain brain structures in the control of basic motives such as hunger, thirst, sex, aggression, and fear.

Motivation may also be analyzed at the individual psychological level. Such analyses attempt to understand why people act in particular ways and seek to draw general conclusions from individual cases. Through studies of individuals, for example, it has been found that both men and women proceed through a series of identifiable stages of arousal during behaviours leading to and culminating in sexual intercourse. The finding may be applied to people in general.

Motivation of an individual is also influenced by the presence of other people. Social psychologists have been active in discovering how the presence of others in a given situation influences motivation. For example, students and teachers behave in predictable ways in the classroom. Those behaviours are often quite different, however, from the way students and teachers behave outside the classroom. Studies of conformity, obedience, and helping behaviours (which benefit others without reward) are three areas in this field that have received considerable attention.

Finally, motivation is sometimes also approached from a more philosophical direction. That is, analyses of motivation are understood, at least in part, by examining the particular philosophical point of view espoused by the theorist. For example, some motivational theorists conceive motivation to be an aversive state: one to be avoided. Sigmund Freud’s view of motivational processes could be applied within this framework his contention that blocked sexual energy could be displaced into acceptable behaviours implies that accumulation of sexual energy (motivation) is aversive. Other theorists see motivation as a much more positive experience. That is, motivation can produce behaviours that lead to increases in future motivation. The American psychologist Abraham H. Maslow’s concept of self-actualization could be applied within this framework (see below Self-actualization).