If someone asks: “For whom are you going to vote?” and one answers “I’m not going to vote, as my vote won’t make a difference to who’s elected,” one might frequently hear the response “Yes, but if everyone thought that way …” This appears beside the point: one’s voting or not won’t cause everyone to think that way, and so it still won’t make a difference.
This conclusion, however, is a little beside the point. The situation is not really about whether one’s actions are the difference that can make the difference, although that’s often how it’s consciously couched. Rather, what is occurring is an example of a compliance mechanism for results requiring coordinated behaviour.
This compliance mechanism cuts across a large class of actions: every ’cause’ where one’s actions aren’t going to make a relevant difference (most voting, recycling, foreign assistance, fighting in a war, and so on). In each of these situations, one can respond to requests for an action with the same response as the voting example above: my action won’t make a relevant difference.
This compliance mechanism is actually two major compliance mechanisms:
1. A social cost for non-compliance, or gain for compliance. So, people won’t invite you to their cocktail parties, will be angry with you, and so on, or will invite you to their cocktail parties, be nice to you, and so on. This mechanism operates through other people’s reactions to your (non-)compliance. Knowing this increases compliance.
2. A personal gain for compliance (one feels good about doing something to help a cause, even knowing the action isn’t the difference that makes difference). Knowing one will feel good about taking action increases one’s chance of compliance.
I think this compliance mechanism is properly biological, i.e., wired into the human psyche, at least in some cases – we can posit that this psychological mechanism was adopted for an evolutionary reason (groups with it tended to prosper). Regardless, the point here is that it is fundamental, not an arbitrary aspect of over-zealous people in one’s society. Therefore, the dismissive response to voting in the example given at the start is technically correct, but misses the thrust of what’s occurring – a biologically founded compliance mechanism for achieving results requiring coordinated humans’ actions.
In terms of a straightforward hedonic theory of utility, game theory would have to include these ‘payouts’ (1. and 2. above) to arrive at a more accurate picture of the rationality of a given course of action in a social context.
Also see here.