The Psychology of Institutional Development: How Parties' Willingness to Accept Risk Affects the Districts they Draw and the Seats they Win Open Access
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The institutional development literature has focused a great deal of effort on offering explanations for institutional change and stability. It has spent less time attempting to explain how institutional actors choose the goal(s) they seek when change occurs. While understanding the causes of change and stability is undoubtedly important, developing a theoretical and methodological approach to analyzing goal formation will go a long way in helping to provide a more complete understanding of the results of change. In this work, I build upon cognitive psychology's prospect theory, which provides a theoretical understanding of how individuals behave under conditions of risk. I then apply this to party behavior during congressional redistricting. The problem with prospect theory for applied scholars is that its many different effects and predictions have been demonstrated in isolation. The real world is more complex than the experimenter's laboratory. Prospect theory provides little guidance on how its various effects interact or conflict when multiple of these effects are present in the complex choice sets faced by actors. Thus, I have designed and implemented experiments tailored to the redistricting context in order to determine what happens when individuals are faced with risky choices that also contain a loss component.The results of the experiments provide clear behavioral predictions for parties managing the redistricting process. As such, I gather observational data from the last three redistricting cycles to explain how parties choose between their competing goals of protecting their incumbents and maximizing their seats. I operationalize this choice in the form of a variable measuring how parties alter the average competitiveness of the state's congressional districts. I find that parties' willingness to accept risk and increase competitiveness is affected by how they perceive their own strength and options. Finally, I determine the substantive importance of changes to district competitiveness on seat gains or losses in the short term (the first election after redistricting) and long term (the last election of the redistricting cycle). Utilizing two choice models predicting seat gains, losses, or maintenance of the status quo, I find that changes to competitiveness is one of only two variables having both a short and long term influence on seat change.
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