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The Limited Power of Voting to Limit Power


  • Hong Geng, Laboratory for Experimental Economics, University of Bonn, Germany ( Arne Robert Weiss, University of Cologne & Center for Empirical Research in Economics and Behavioral Sciences, University of Erfurt, Germany ( Irenaeus Wolff, University of Konstanz, Germany / Thurgauer Wirtschaftsinstitut (TWI), Kreuzlingen, Switzerland (

  • We thank Gari Walkowitz as well as Stephan Tontrup for their support in designing the experiment and Mareike Hoffmann as well as Fu Hao for running the German sessions and the follow-up sessions in China, respectively. We are indebted to Jia Jiamin and the industrious staff at the Herbert A. Simon, and Reinhard Selten Behavioral Decision Research Lab for their support as well as to CEREB and the Bonn Laboratory for Experimental Economics for funding the experiment. Our thanks further go to Katharine Bendrick, Mareike Hoffmann, Bettina Rockenbach, Özgür Gürerk, members of CEREB, and to the associate editor and two anonymous referees, for valuable comments on earlier versions of the paper.


In this paper, we experimentally approach the question of which aspects of a voting procedure are able to restrict elected candidates’ willingness to use their power in an opportunistic way. For this purpose, we rule out re-election concerns and analyze whether the presence of a vote by itself matters for the exercise of power. We compare two kinds of electoral campaigns: self-descriptions of personality and promises regarding prospective in-office behavior. We find that social approval as conveyed by a vote does not suffice to induce pro-social choices by elected candidates. On the other hand, when campaigns are promise-based, elected candidates transfer more to their recipients than candidates selected by a random draw even though promises do not differ. This refutes explanations based on a taste for consistency or costs of lying. In contrast, the fact that the correlation between dictators’ promises and their beliefs on voter expectations is considerably strengthened in the presence of a vote offers support to a guilt-aversion hypothesis. However, this support is qualified by the correlation between dictators’ second-order beliefs and their choices, which is weaker than predicted. Overall, our results suggest the power of voting to limit the self-oriented exertion of power is limited and context specific.