A Behavioral Theory of Political Choice

Download data and study materials from OSF

This experiment was fielded as part of a TESS telephone survey. Data and materials for all the studies included on this survey is available here.

Principal investigators:

Michael Tomz

Stanford University

Email: tomz@stanford.edu

Homepage: http://www.stanford.edu/~tomz

Paul Sniderman

Stanford University

Email: paulms@stanford.edu

Homepage: http://politicalscience.stanford.edu/faculty/paul-sniderman

Sample size: 2015

Field period: 10/2003


This project is designed to further a behavioral approach to the analysis of political choice. The express analogy is to behavioral economics, integrating rational choice and social psychology.
How citizens choose politically depends simultaneously on their acquired dispositions and on the alternatives open for choice. Political parties are central to this process because of their unique double-jointed role. On the one side, they are repositories of citizens' attachments. On the other side, parties structure "choice spaces" for citizens.
There is voluminous research on the first role of parties; relatively little on the second. In structuring political choice spaces, parties reduce the number of options available to citizens, portray them as competing courses of action, bundle policies into coherent agendas, and function as political brand names. Our research has investigated the signaling role of parties as political brand names.


Converse's celebrated finding of minimal constraint has posed a fundamental empirical and normative problem for democratic theory. If citizens do not know "what goes with what" politically, let alone why, it is difficult to see how they can make coherent political choices. Our overarching hypothesis is that political parties, by virtue of brand names, provide the information necessary for substantial numbers of ordinary citizens to organize their policy preferences coherently. A large number of specific hypotheses have been derived, and tested, from this overarching hypothesis. The cumulative results amount to a major revision of the conventional wisdom about mass belief systems.

Experimental Manipulations

In one condition, policy alternatives are presented in the standard National Election Survey format; in the other, political brand names (both partisan and ideological) are attached to the policy alternatives.


The key dependent variable is constraint, defined as the predictability of preference on one policy given knowledge of preference on another.

Summary of Results

Five major findings deserve mention, three anticipated, one unanticipated, and one serendipitous.
The three anticipated findings are:
(1) Party brand names markedly increase constraint across different policy agendas, both domestic and foreign, and between specific and abstract political issues.
(2) Party brands are as effective as ideological brands in increasing constraint.
(3) Party brands increase constraint for both sophisticated and unsophisticated citizens, but have a larger impact on the unsophisticated.
The unanticipated finding is: (4) Party brands names are as useful for independents (including so-called "pure" independents) as for strong party identifiers.
The serendipitous finding is: (5) Constraint even in the absence of party brand names is markedly higher in mass belief systems than has come to be taken for granted since Converse's celebrated study.


Our TESS study, brief as it was, stimulated a whole research program on political choice. Political brand names are one line of research in this program. Another line consists of experiments on expected utility as basis of political choice, including the role of probabilistic judgments of payoffs and the frame of reference for judgments of utility -- individual or collective. Another consists of studies on spatial reasoning. Still another consists of manipulations of the number and character of policy alternatives. We anticipate a book drawing together, theoretically as well as empirically, these diverse lines of research.


Tomz, Michael and Paul M. Sniderman. 2004. "Constraint in Mass Belief Systems: Political Brand Names as Signals." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Hilton Chicago and the Palmer House Hilton, Chicago, IL.

Tomz, Michael and Paul M. Sniderman. 2005. "Brand Names and the Organization of Mass Belief Systems." Working paper