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Quattrone and Tversky: Contrasting rational and psychological analyses of political choice

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Quattrone and Tversky. 1988. Contrasting rational and psychological analyses of political choice. APSR 82:719-36.

Main Point

The authors illustrate how prospect theory (admittedly a descriptive enterprise) predicts certain outcomes better than rational choice theory. They do this by framing a choice between two options (with identical expected value) in terms of either gains or loss. Rational choice would predict an identical outcome, since the expected outcomes of each choice are identical now matter how they are phrased; yet they find consistently different results by changing the reference point (i.e. by framing it as gain or loss), suggesting a weakness in rational choice.

See also Quattrone and Tversky (1984).


The authors ask Stanford and Berkeley undergrads hypothetical questions. Different groups get slightly different questions; for example, a policy question is framed in terms of the unemployment rate to one group, but in terms of the employment rate to another group. Both questions have the same real outcomes, but they are presented differently. The fact that students respond differently to the two questions reveals interesting findings that rational choice would not predict. The method raises questions about external validity, however, as it based entirely on hypothetical questions.

Key Concepts and Findings

Implications for Politics

Implications for Political Science

If our formal models are based on an imperfect rational choice, then what do we need to change to eliminate this systematic flaw?

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Quattrone, George (author)Tversky, Amos (author)American PoliticsVotingProspect TheoryTurnoutParticipation

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