Papers & Publications


Colombo, Céline (2016). Partisan, not ignorant: citizens’ use of arguments and justifications in direct democracy (Doctoral dissertation). European University Institute: Florence. [PDF] [abstract]



Colombo, Céline (2016). Justifications and Citizen Competence in Direct Democracy – A Multilevel Analysis. British Journal of Political Science. [PDF]

While the popularity and implementation of direct democratic instruments is growing throughout the democratic world, the criticism that ordinary voters lack the necessary competence to make policy decisions persists. This paper presents novel and original a measure of voters’ level of justification as a possible, policy-specific, conceptualization of citizen competence in direct democracy. Using a unique dataset based on 34 ballot decisions in Switzerland, the study explores the levels and correlates of citizen competence by means of a multilevel analysis. The main findings are, first, that most voters know policy-arguments. Second, the political context and individual resources are important in determining voters’ competence. Finally, with regard to individual resources, motivation is strongly associated with justification levels, while the effect of ability is smaller than expected.

Colombo Céline and Kriesi, Hanspeter (2017). Party, Policy – or both? Partisan biased processing of policy arguments in direct democracy. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 27(3), 235-253[PDF]

 How do party cues and policy information affect citizens’ political opinions? In direct democratic settings, this question is particularly relevant. Direct democratic campaigns are information-rich events which offer citizens the opportunity to learn detailed information about a policy. At the same time parties try to influence citizens’ decision procedure by publishing their own positions on the issue. The current debate on whether ‘party’ or ‘policy’ has more impact on political opinions has not yet yielded conclusive results. We examine the effect of policy arguments and party cues on vote intention in two Swiss referendum votes using panel survey data. To the simple dichotomous question of “party cues or policy information” we add an additional twist in asking how party cues affect the processing of policy information through processes of motivated reasoning. We find first, that both, policy arguments and party cues, have an independent effect on vote intention. However, in a second part of the analysis, we find strong evidence for partisan biased processing of policy arguments – that is voters tend to align their arguments with their preferred party’s position. Our conclusions with regard to the democratic quality of these vote decisions are therefore ambivalent.

Colombo, Céline (2017). Debiasing Political Opinions – The Case of the Scottish Independence Referendum. Political Studies. [PDF]

 This study reports the effects of two debiasing-strategies on the complexity of people’s thinking on a controversial policy issue – the question of Scottish independence. I start from the well-researched assumptions of motivated reasoning theory that individuals tend to protect their beliefs, are often not willing to hear the other side, and fail to integrate contrasting arguments and different perspectives in their political considerations – although considering different viewpoints is a fundamental normative requirement for democratic decision-making. Two different debiasing techniques, which are meant to counteract this tendency, and to evoke more integrative and complex thinking, were tested experimentally, a cognitive and a motivational strategy. The experiment was situated in the context of the Scottish independence referendum. The expectation of accountability – having to justify one’s opinion in front of unknown others – significantly enhanced integrative complexity of thinking about the issue, while inducing subjects to consider the opposite had a no significant effect. Opinion strength and political knowledge did not affect the treatment effects significantly.

Steenbergen, Marco and Céline Colombo (forthcoming). Heuristics in Political Behavior. Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology.

Heuristics have rapidly become a core concept in the study of political be- havior. The term stems from the ancient Greek heuriskein, which means “to discover.” In most contexts, however, a more apt description would be “dis- covery by way of shortcuts.” For the key idea is that decision makers bypass  a certain amount (if nor most of the) information on their way to discovery; in other words, they rely on shortcuts. In this sense, heuristics contrast with classical rational choice.




Andrea DeAngelis (University of Lucerne), Céline Colombo and Davide Morisi (University of Vienna). Taking cues from the government? The effect of heuristic cues versus policy arguments in the Italian constitutional referendum. Paper presented at EPSA 2017 in Milan and ISPP 2017 in Edinburgh.

One of the main criticisms of direct democracy is that it places excessively demanding choices on voters. Are citizens “competent enough” to vote directly on policy issues? When issues at stake are high, do citizens mainly follow elites’ signals or do they decide in line with their issue preferences? In this study we address these questions in relation to the 2016 Italian constitutional referendum. This referendum represents an ideal case to test different strategies of decision-making in direct democracy, as the reform proposed complex constitutional changes, and at the same time the survival of the government was closely tied to the outcome of the vote. The analysis relies on a unique three-wave panel survey with a representative sample of voters, which includes an embedded survey-experiment that was carried out in the six weeks before the referendum. This research draft advances a three-fold contribution. First, it explores the correlates of the 2016 constitutional referendum vote by means of regression analysis. Second, it compares two alternative explanations of voting decisions, namely the vote as related to the government’s retrospective assessment, and the vote as related to the assessment of the policy content of the reform. A test between the two alternative theories is performed using a Finite Mixture Model, where factual political knowledge and partisanship are used as theory-predicting covariates. Finally, we test the causal antecedence of heuristic processing – as induced by government cues – and of systematic processing – that is based on issue preferences and induced by priming policy arguments. Preliminary findings indicate that governmental assessment is adopted as heuristic by less politically sophisticated voters, while more sophisticated voters voted in agreement with the evaluation of the policy content of the reform. However, evidence is found for the causal antecedence of government assessment but not for issue preferences. The draft contributes to the dual-process theory in real decision-making environments and to the debate on citizens’ competence in direct democracy.

Colombo, Céline, Thomas Leeper (London School of Economics) and Rune Slothuus (Aarhus University). Enlightening or Manipulative? The role of party cues in direct democracy. Paper presented at the Political Psychology Colloquium, University of Zurich.

Direct democratic choices place high demands on citizens, as they are called to decide over complex policy matters at the ballot box. Given the plentiful evidence of low general political information levels and rather scarce political interest among a majority of citizens – how do citizens make such complex decisions? How do they form their opinions in direct democratic votes? One answer is that they turn to political parties as opinion leaders to help them to decide not only whether to form an opinion on an issue, but also which opinion to form. We advance the literature on party cues by examining the degree to which learning the policy stance of one’s preferred party leads citizens to form an opinion and – when they do – to form an opinion consistent with the party’s position. To do so, we leverage three panel surveys that study citizens’ preferences before and after national direct democratic campaigns on three different issues in Switzerland. The three issues – an asylum law reform, a popular initiative on naturalization law, and a corporate tax reform – vary in their complexity as well as in the party coalitions supporting the propositions. The findings suggest that parties help citizens to translate their predispositions into preferences and vote choices, but that citizens can also be critical and deviate from their party’s position when their issue-specific predispositions conflict with the party’s endorsement. These effects vary however, with the complexity of the issue and with the issue-specific party-coalition.

Tomasz Siczek, Céline Colombo, and Marco Steenbergen (University of Zurich). Risk attitudes, risk perceptions, and risky choices in referendum votes. Paper presented at MPSA 2017 in Chicago.

We seek to explain support for radical political changes by focusing on individual risk orientation and its mediated effect on the Brexit and the Scottish Independence Referendum Vote. Our core assumption is that leaving the European Union (EU), United Kingdom (UK), or any other deeply integrated supranational organization poses a risky choice as compared to the reference point (the status quo). The puzzling anomaly, however, is that people generally dislike risky behavior as a huge literature suggests. So, how was the risky choice of the United Kingdom leaving the EU possible?  How is it possible that people decide to take such big risks in politics?

Colombo, Céline. Pragmatism, Identity or Values – Which Arguments Count? An analysis of citizens’ justifications in direct democracy.

The ability to justify vote decisions can be considered a key requirement for enlightened understanding, a normative component of democratic quality. Particularly deliberative theories of democracy place strong emphasis on the ability to justify political decisions with reason-based arguments. In direct democracy, assessing the extent to which citizens are able to justify their ballot decisions with arguments is one possible way to assess citizen competence. The question of citizen competence in direct democracy has become more pressing as the popularity and frequency of use of direct democratic instruments has been rising in recent years. In Europe, most recently with the Brexit vote, a debate on whether citizens are sophisticated and competent enough to decide over complex and consequential policy matters is going on. In this paper I explore which types of justifications and arguments citizens use when justifying their vote decisions in direct democracy. For this purpose, I use a unique dataset which includes post-ballot surveys for 34 direct democratic votes in Switzerland between 2008 and2012. I conduct a quantitative content-analysis of open-ended survey answers asking voters to justify their vote decisions and I construct a typology of justifications. At the most basic level, based on Habermas’ (1993) remarks on discourse ethics, I distinguish between pragmatic-economic, identity-related, and universalistic-value-based justifications. Based on multilevel multinomial regressions, I analyse who uses which arguments in which contexts. Surprisingly, given the increase in anti-immigration votes initiated by the populist right, I find that references to identity remain rather infrequent, whereas pragmatic arguments dominate most debates.

Colombo, Céline. Does Ignorance matter? – How referendum outcomes change when the uninformed stay home.

 While the popularity and implementation of direct democratic instruments is growing throughout the democratic world, the criticism that ordinary voters lack the necessary competence to make policy decisions persists. Most recently after the Brexit vote, the capability of citizens to competently evaluate complex political questions based on policy facts and arguments was at the centre of a renewed, controversial debate. I use a novel measure of voters’ level of justification to assess citizen competence in direct democracy. Based on quantitative content-coding of open-ended survey-answers, this measure differentiates between respondents who are able to justify their ballot decisions with arguments related to the policy-content of the vote and respondents who use non-content related, heuristic strategies or who are not able to give a reason for their decision. In previous work (Colombo 2016), analysing 34 national-level popular votes in Switzerland, I found that 70% of the respondents were able to give content-related justifications for their decision, while 21% did not give any reason and 9% reported non-content-related reasons, such as for example party cues. What are the implications of this findings for the outcome of Swiss direct democratic votes? In this paper, I calculate the effect of competence, measured as level of justification, on the outcome of the votes. More specifically, I analyse whether and how votes would have changed had the less competent citizens not participated. Constructing a counterfactual in this way yields interesting insights for the discussion on citizen competence in direct democracy.

Colombo, Céline. Direct Democracy and Deliberation – the role of Justifications and Arguments. unpublished manuscript

 While the popularity and implementation of direct democratic instruments is growing throughout the democratic world, the criticism that ordinary voters lack the necessary competence to make policy decisions persists. This paper tries to answer the question of how to conceptualize citizen competence in direct democracy and how to measure it. I start from the supposed antagonism between direct and deliberative models of democracy, two models which are both rooted in participatory ideas, but which have been describes as incompatible. In order to shed more light on the (in)compatibility of direct democratic voting as currently practiced and deliberative decision modes, I add the perspective of public opinion research and political psychology. In particular, I describe the cognitive and motivational biases in thinking which affect citizens’ political opinion formation. Bringing these different perspectives together, I sketch out a possible conceptualization of citizens’ direct democratic competence as argument-based reasoning, thereby questioning heuristic cue-following as a remedy for political ignorance, as has been suggested by low information rationality theory. I define a considered opinion as one which is based on substantive, policy-related arguments, and which takes into account arguments from different sides. Finally, I elaborate suggestions on how to operationalize and measure citizen competence in direct democratic settings.



Colombo, Céline and Steinmo, Sven. Why do people follow rules? – Actors, Institutions, and Cognition.  Paper presented at APSA 2014 in San Francisco.

This paper explores the question: Why do people follow rules? Building on the large body of recent scholarship in evolutionary psychology, cognitive science and behavioral research, we argue that human decision making is best understood as 1) a process of reasoning, 2) humans are social creatures and not autonomous decision makers maximizing their utilities, 3) human reasoning follows a fundamental desire for consistency, and 4) human reasoning is systematically biased in a number of predictable ways. We examine our basic motivations for rule following behavior as well as the cognitive mechanisms most likely at work when we do so.



Céline Colombo, Thomas DeRocchi, Thomas Kurer, Thomas Widmer (2016): Analyse der eidgenössischen Abstimmung vom 5. Juni 2016, gfs.bern und Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Universität Zürich. Hrsg. vom Forschungsinstitut gfs.bern in Zusammenarbeit mit den politikwissenschaftlichen Instituten der Universitäten Bern, Genf und Zürich, 1977 ff.

Colombo, Céline (2016): Wie kompetent ist das Stimmvolk? DeFacto, 22.06.2016

Davide Morisi, Céline Colombo, and Andrea DeAngelis (2016): New survey evidence: Renzi’s support is damaging the chances of a Yes vote in Italy’s referendum. LSE Europp Blog, 18.11.2016

Céline Colombo, Davide Morisi und Andrea DeAngelis (2016): Die falsche Strategie: wie Renzi den Erfolg des Verfassungsreferendums sabotiert hat. DeFacto, 01.12.2016