People’s choices are often sensitive to differences in the order in which the options appear. This is one among many psychological biases we all suffer from to some extent. For example,
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. (source)
Unsurprisingly, democracy is not immune from this bias. Here’s some evidence from the Irish democracy showing that the order of candidates on ballots affects election outcomes:
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. (source)
being listed first benefits everyone. Major party candidates generally gain one to three percentage points, while minor party candidates may double their vote shares. (source)
And it’s not just candidates’ surnames or positions on ballots that affect democratic selection procedures. The tone of their voice, their looks and a ton of other biases also play a role. And yet I still believe in the value of democracy.
Needless to say that the order effect – or “ordering effect”, or “serial position effect” – isn’t limited to politics. Next time you walk into a shop and ask for advice, you can bet that the sales person will present you the most expensive item first, because having seen this one first, all the others will look like a bargain and will influence your decision to buy.