Summary: Arguments often end up unresolved when one side values about rational outcomes but the other is more interested in sociological signaling. The sociological argument is based in the idea that humans form trust and group identity through public participation of ritual and displaying the proper reverence for symbols. One conversation that commonly has this problem is the argument over whether Americans should vote in our presidential elections.

At a dinner party some nights ago, I found myself in an interesting quagmire that left me scratching my head for days: I told my friends that I didn’t vote in last the US election because I didn’t see much of a point to it.  This launched a spirited debate, eliciting – as always – intense feelings of befuddlement, disgust and dismay from my those around me.

I laid out an argument to defend myself – one that was (at least in my mind) completely thoughtful, rational: I come from the US and the honest truth, based on the way our voting system works (13), is that my casting a ballot will have no effect on the outcome of the election: in the strictest sense, my vote doesn’t “matter.” Why would I go through the effort of doing something that has no effect?

My argument was promptly ignored as a moral case mounted against me. The conversation ended without resolution, but at the end of the night, I couldn’t get it out of my head: what happened here?

Note: This is intended to be a Living Essay – a post that I revisit from time to time to update, add sources and arguments too, and inevitably refine my thoughts from time to time.

When rational argument falls on its face…

In a rational sense, my argument is simple: I do not believe that I, as an individual, should spend my time expending efforts on something that has no possible effect on an outcome, to which I often hear responses such as:

  • As a member of society, it is your duty to vote.
  • If you don’t vote, how can things change?
  • Maybe there are others like you out there that agree with you. If you all would just vote, things would be different!
  • If you don’t vote, how can you complain about the outcome?

I often end up a bit flustered and befuddled at this point of the conversation because most of these are statements of virtue or wishful thinking, not arguments that address the problem I’ve presented. At this point, the conversation often circles back around with each side repeating the same bullet points over and over again until we eventually give up and move on to another topic.

It isn’t that either side is acting stubborn or self-righteous – we just seem to be arguing past each other. With such a simple topic, though how could this be? Perhaps I’m thinking about it the wrong way.

Using the right lens for the situation

Classical economists have historically fallen into the comforts of Rational Choice Theory(47) to simplify their models of macro situations. The theory asserts that the economy is made up of rational actors that make decisions based on their own best interests.

In our day, however, this theory serves as the perennial punching-bag for anyone that studies the social sciences.Is it possible that, like the stubborn economist, I’ve fallen into the trap of applying rational argument to an emotive, human situation? It is possible that we tend to not only act irrationally, but to reward others for irrational behavior? The simple, undeniable fact is that people don’t act rationally most of the time(98). We tend to be drawn by other forces, particularly when discussing emotionally charged topics in groups.

When I thought about whether or not to show up on voting day, I was attempting to make a rational decision. The conversation about voting, however, may not have anything to do with rationality at all!

Sociologists have different systems for understanding human behavior than economists. As a study, sociology shifts the focus from individual choice to human interaction.

<image: psychology (human with brain) Sociology (humans with an arrow between them, the arrow is green). Behavioral Economists – a human pointing to choice A or choice B. Caption: This is a VAST oversimplification, forgive me)>

Sociologists that study everyday life see inter-human interaction as driven less by choices rationalized in the moment than rituals that enable relationship-building over longer time horizons. Much of how we interact is based on establishing trust relationships through expressions of shared values and goals. Gossip, reputation, shared symbols, similar experiences, common vernacular, and interactive activities stress an interconnectedness that helps groups of people determine who can be trusted and who may be a free-rider.(12) An expression of shared values is a good sign that you can be trusted and welcomed into the group.

Had I listened more closely at the time, I may have understood the underlying discomfort my interlocutors had with the situation: it wasn’t the outcome they were primarily concerned about, it was my participation.

Shared symbols and rituals build trust.

Rituals that bring people together to focus their attention and celebrate common identity are a powerful source of emotional energy for participants. (Photo by Kyle Becker, Taipei, Taiwan, 2017)

Think about a group of people you belong to and the last time you joined others in a group to discuss a cause or take an action together. It may have been a religious ceremony, a work team you were on that was really effective, or maybe a sports team you play on (or cheer for). Are there certain patterns to these group events that replicate over time?

Sociologist Randall Collins discusses the main tenets of ritual in his book Interaction Ritual Chains. Rituals are events that bring people together and – through acting things out, expressing shared values, often times moving in unison – concentrating the focus of the group on a single thing. This creates a powerfuls sense of unity, identity and trust within the group – the very things that enable a group of people to form a community that survives and thrives.

It is easier to build emotional energy in groups. Individuals that can place themselves at the center of these groups often become symbols of this solidarity and group identity. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

He identifies the power of a ritual as the amount of “emotional energy” that it arouses in a person. In effective rituals, this energy builds passed between bodies in the room generate more and more excitement. Rituals that evoke a strong sense of emotional energy replicate themselves becoming long-chains of interactions that reinforce these values creating an even deeper sense of meaning for the group over time.

Emotional energy, however, is fleeting. A powerful ritual may give you an afterglow for a few hours, but in the absence of the group and the shared sense of focus, the energy fades. This is why symbols are so important.

Symbols become “charged” with emotional energy through rituals we share with others. These symbols may be traditional – like a rosary that has been blessed by a priest, but they may also be every-day – a baseball caught at a baseball game, a refrigerator magnet from your yoga class, or even an “inside joke” among the friends that were at the party last Friday night (or an “I Voted” sticker that you wear and share on Facebook).

In the United States, people are given these stickers after they vote. Its just a dumb sticker, but people are supre proud of wearing them and often post them on social media. Others who have also earned their stickers love to comment, displaying a shared respect for the common symbol. (Photo: Justin Taylor)

In all of these cases, the power of the symbol comes from reminding you of a story that reinforces your identity as a part of the group. The emotion that you felt alerted your brain that something important was happening, and the symbol carries the narrative for you that reinforces that feeling. When we look at these symbols – the truly powerful ones – we get to relive a small part of the emotion we felt in the original ritual.

Collins discusses three concentric phases of emotional energy. The strongest sense we get is when we partake in the ritual itself. Weaker, but still potent, is the emotional energy we feel when we discuss the common values, symbols, and the ritual itself with other group members. The weakest feeling comes when we are alone with nothing but our symbols to evoke the emotion within us.(12)

Our conversation about voting would be an expression in the second circle: over glasses of wine in an apartment an ocean away from the US, we were reliving the tenets of a ritual through conversation and mutual display of values.


In some places, you’re better off killing a person than desecrating a symbol. Attacking a person is bad, but attacking a symbol is an assault on the values and the binding agent of the group as a whole. Calling into question the validity of a symbol undermines the legitimacy of the group identity.

Vaginas, which imply both membership to a group (in this case, a gender) and strike a powerful emotional nerve if violated, are a common symbol for feminist rallies. “We hope these (pussy power) hats will become a symbol long after the march.” Krista Suh of the Pussy Hat Project (emphasis added, Photo by Kyle Becker, 2017)

It isn’t simply that people value the group (though they do). In a very literal sense, symbols give group members a material representation of their own identity, and in the same way a military member may give his life to protect a piece of fabric or a member of a religious community chooses martyrdom over renunciation, great lengths are often sought to maintain the sanctity of these material objects or ideals. For an outsider to desecrate a symbol is bad, but the worst punishment is always for the apostate – the one who defects.(2)

I’m hardly the first to point out that a nation – like a government, fiat currency, or any other social construct – isn’t real in any material way. A nation is acted out through coordinated implicit agreements of people co-inhabiting a time and place. It exists because people believe it exists. It is a magic circle – a place where people alter their behaviour based on an implicit agreement between them to achieve goals that only make sense in the context of the space. It can only continue to exist as long as each individual member of the group can see the other members respecting the agreement. The biggest enemy of the magic circle isn’t external aggressors – it is internal doubt and violation of the norms.

With this in mind, what message did I send when I told my companions that I didn’t vote? What if voting isn’t a mechanical mechanism meant to achieve an end – what if its true value (though they’d hardly state it) is in its display – a signal to others that I’m upholding the values of the magic circle? I am a trustworthy member of the group?

I’m from the United States, so the election I sat out was for positions in the American government. Interestingly, my interlocutors – from Mexico and the UK – weren’t even a part of the same national “group” as me! It was pretty silly of them to care. Or so I reasoned at the time (another argument that fell completely flat).

It feels good to express shared values by standing up for something you believe in with a group of people. In southern US states like Texas, guns are an expression of freedom and independence. Threatening to restrict guns, therefore, is a conversation completely off the table. Read more in my article Carry.

To be honest, none of us are big fans of our own governments, but it wasn’t my acceptance and expression of Americanness that my friends were interested in. Their values are much higher – they believe in democracy, human rights, and a number of other values that have evolved through western society. They believe that these things are only possible through participation in government so their biggest frustration when they see things going “the wrong way” isn’t their opponents, but those that don’t participate at all(4). It was baffling and abhorrent to them that I could understand perfectly well the meaning behind this ritual yet fail to uphold it.

Moving Forward

In 2016, Americans elected a former reality TV show star that ran on a host of iconoclastic ideas(6) and has since proven to be a master of social-media controversy. Though at the time of this writing in 2018, it is difficult to say whether his tenure will be of any long-term consequence, it is notable that many in the country and in the world feel that the system as a whole is unraveling.

I believe that this uncomfortable feeling is largely caused by the relentless attacks political parties and special interest groups make on one-another’s symbols. In a world increasingly concerned with identity, neutrality is increasingly seen as treason. To me, this sounds to me like a group of people afraid that a symbol will die – that the seams that hold us together in this common illusion will be pulled apart.

As for me – I think I need a new strategy for building rapport at dinner parties. Since I tend to avoid labeling myself, and I’m not going to start voting anytime soon, I may need to find other ways to evoke a sense of shared values and in-group cohesion.


Categories: Essays

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