Ordering effects, luck & rationality
I point out here that people's choices can be sensitive to arbitary differences in the order in which options appear. In the Eurovision song contest, for example, the first or later performers have more chance of winning than those appearing in the middle of the show. I omitted to add that this ordering effect also matters in politics. A new paper concludes:
Alphabetic ordering effects exist in the 1977 2011 Irish general elections. The effect is significant, in both a statistical and substantive sense. The estimated effect of being listed first on an alphabetical ballot paper in an Irish general election is approximately 544 first preference votes or 1.27 percentage points for the average candidate.
This corroborates findings from the US (pdf) and Australia (pdf).
Experimental evidence (pdf) suggests such an effect might exist in UK council elections if not general elections.However, it's worth noting that 191 of our 650 MPs (29.4%) have names beginning with A-E, compared to only 54 (8.3%) with names beginning U-Z.
And it's not just in politics that an early name has an advantage; in football, acting and academia (pdf), early names are more likely to scoop big prizes.
All this might sound quirky. But it's not. It has two implications.
One is that it confirms the message of Ed Smith's Luck. Success depends in (large?) part not (just) upon ability and hard work, but upon fortune. Clearly, the successful have an interest in denying this. But if luck operates through subtle, smallish and non-obvious mechanisms such as naming effects, they might not be fully aware of it.
Secondly, ballot order effects suggest that electoral outcomes are not entirely the rational will of the people, but are also influenced by luck. And if something as arbitrary as alphabetical order influences elections, how many other arbitrary or non-rational factors might also do so?