Why Do We Vote the Way We Do? New Findings Hold Surprises

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Professor Mirta Galesic of the Santa Fe Institute

About This Episode

When Mirta Galesic was a teenager, her country fell apart.

She lived in what was then Yugoslavia. But after the death of president for life Josip Broz Tito, that country was riven by ethnic nationalism. Amidst all the competing claims and rumors spawned by the turmoil, young Mirta was struck by a realization: people would believe whatever supported their group. It influenced the course of her life. She went on to study psychology, survey methods, and decision-making, focusing on how people choose what to think and what to do.

Through her studies, it became more and more clear to her that deciding is not a simple, linear process. Instead, she says, it’s a complex system involving individuals and the people they’re connected to.

Over recent decades, complex systems have emerged as an important field of research that can help explain evolution, the brain, society, and the world overall. So when a position opened up at the Santa Fe Institute, a renowned center of complexity studies, she jumped at the opportunity. She’s now a professor there, and holds the Cowan Chair in Human Social Dynamics.

Mirta Galesic and several co-authors have just published the results of a study that applies complexity thinking to the recent national elections in the United States and France. Among its findings: if you want to know how a group of people will vote in an upcoming election, you may get better information if you ask them how their friends will vote. And as you'll hear in this interview, complex social systems — offline and online — may explain a lot about the surprise election of Donald Trump, hyper-partisanship, media echo chambers, and many other aspects of the current state of democracy.

Mirta Galesic

Mirta Galesic is Professor and Cowan Chair in Human Social Dynamics at the Santa Fe Institute, and Associate Researcher at the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany.

She studies how simple cognitive mechanisms interact with properties of the external environment to produce seemingly complex social phenomena.

In one line of research, she investigates how apparent cognitive biases in social judgments emerge as a product of the interplay of well-adapted minds and the statistical structure of social environments.

In another, she studies how collective performance depend on the interaction of group decision strategies and network structures.

A third line of research investigates opinion dynamics in real-world societies using cognitively-enriched models from statistical physics. And, she studies how people understand and cope with uncertainty and complexity inherent in many everyday decisions about health, financial, or environmental decisions. (From www.santafe.edu/people/profile/mirta-galesic.)

Show Links

Asking about social circles improves election predictions, M. Galesic, W. Bruine de Bruin, M. Dumas, A. Kapteyn, J.E. Darling, E. Meijer

Santa Fe Institute

Motivated numeracy and enlightened self-government, Dan M. Kahan et al

The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks, Dan M. Kahan et al

Individuals with greater science literacy and education have more polarized beliefs on controversial science topics, Caitlin Drummond, Baruch Fischoff