Papers & Publications



Colombo, Céline (2018). Justifications and Citizen Competence in Direct Democracy – A Multilevel Analysis. British Journal of Political Science, 48(3), 787-806 [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 (2018). Debiasing Political Opinions – The Case of the Scottish Independence Referendum. Political Studies, 27(1), 23-42 [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.


Forthcoming. Céline Colombo. Principles or Pragmatism? Morality Politics in Direct Democracy. British Journal of Political Science. 

Political scientists often distinguish between two types of issues: moral versus non-moral issues or social-cultural versus economic issues, implying that these types of issues trigger different types of reasoning. While economic or non-moral issues rely on pragmatic, consequentialist reasoning, moral or social-cultural issues are said to rely on principles and deontological reasoning. However, we do not know whether this distinction is so clear-cut from a citizens’ perspective. Scholars agree that understanding the morality of voters’ political attitudes has implications for their political behavior, such as their willingness to compromise and openness to deliberation. Few studies have analyzed however, whether citizens reason in principled or pragmatic ways on different issues. This study takes an exploratory approach and analyses the determinants of principled versus pragmatic reasoning in direct democracy, where citizens decide directly over policies at the ballot box. Using a unique dataset based on 34 ballot decisions in Switzerland, it explores the justifications voters give for their ballot decisions in open-ended survey-answers. Thereby it distinguishes between pragmatic (or consequentialist) arguments and principled (or value-based) arguments. The analysis shows that principled justifications are not tied to particular issues. Voters use both types of justification almost equally frequently. Moral justifications are more likely when an issue is personally relevant, as well as when a proposition is accepted, while pragmatic justifications prevail when a proposition is rejected. Furthermore, identifiers of the political right argue more often in pragmatic terms.  Finally, the framing of the issue during the campaign significantly affects moral versus pragmatic justifications.




Steenbergen, Marco and Céline Colombo (2018). Heuristics in Political Behavior. In: Mintz, Alex and Lesley Terris (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Behavioral Political Science. New York: Oxford University Press

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.


Forthcoming. Colombo, Céline and Hanspeter Kriesi. Referendums and Direct Democracy. Oxford Handbook of Political Representation in Liberal Democracies. Edited by Robert Rohrschneider and Jacques Thomassen. 

In this chapter, we start by tracing the origins of modern day direct democracy back to the ideas of participatory democrats, and we give a systematic overview of the different forms of direct democratic practices existing today, as well as of the main criticisms of direct democracy. Next, we review existing empirical evidence on some of the crucial debates surrounding direct democracy:  Does direct democracy lead to systematically different policy outcomes and to a better representation of voters? Do popular votes hurt minority rights? To what extent does direct democracy undermine the relevance of and participation in elections? Are citizens competent enough to decide over policy at the ballot box? What is the role of the elite and of campaigns in direct democracy? Finally, we discuss the controversial relation between direct democracy and populism.


Forthcoming. Colombo, Céline and Marco Steenbergen. Heuristics and Biases in Political Science. Oxford Encyclopedia of Political Decision Making. Edited by David Redlawsk and Barbara Vis. 



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



with Thomas Leeper and Rune Slothuus. Enlightening or Manipulative? The role of party cues in direct democracy. Paper presented at the IPZ Political Psychology Colloquium 2017.

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.


with Andrea DeAngelis and Davide Morisi. 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.


with Andrea DeAngelis and Davide Morisi. Who is afraid of a change? Ideological asymmetries in support for the status quo in direct democracy. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Italian Political Science Association 2017 in Urbino.

In democratic politics, changing the status quo often proves a demanding task. As research across disciplines has shown, an option that represents the “state of the world” enjoys an intrinsic advantage over the alternative of a change, due to a status-quo bias in decision-making, and voters’ risk aversion. However, increasing evidence from political psychology indicates that individuals differ in their preferences for certainty and stability, with right-wing, conservative voters being particularly likely to support the status quo. In this study, we explore whether the mere fact of changing the status quo affects support for reform in direct democracy, and whether ideological differences occur between left-wing and right-wing voters. Drawing on a survey experiment conducted during the campaign for the 2016 Italian constitutional referendum, we find that a change of the status quo – manipulated either as a “change cue” or with anti-change campaign arguments – significantly reduces support for reform among right-wing voters, but not among left-wing voters. In addition, evidence indicates that heuristic processing of information prevails among those on the right side of the ideological spectrum. Lastly, additional analysis of personality traits shows that ideology interacts with certain personality dispositions, insofar as our results apply only to right-wing voters who score low on a standard measure of openness.


with Tomasz Siczek 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?


with Silja Häusermann, Thomas Kurer, Michael Pinggera, and Denise Traber. Voting against the party? Incongruence between party positions and citizens’ preferences in direct democracy. Paper presented at MPSA 2018 in Chicago and EPSA 2018 in Vienna

In democracies, political parties are expected to represent their constituents’ interests in the political arena, and at the same time, they are supposed to guide voters’ own political opinion formation by providing them with efficient and appropriate decision cues. These demands are particularly difficult to fulfill when it comes to complex and multifaceted policies, such as welfare state reform packages, where trade-offs are inherent and compromises are indispensable. How well are parties able to represent their constituencies’ interest in such a setting? And how do voters react? In this paper, we analyze the substantial representation of the Swiss electorate by the main political parties on a major pension reform in Switzerland. More specifically, we are interested in the question how voters behave when their own policy preferences deviate from their preferred party’s position. The fact that the reform was subjected to a nationwide popular referendum allows us to distinguish between voters’ substantial policy preferences regarding the reform, and their support for the final reform bill at the ballot. We use an online panel survey to construct a measure of representation based on voters’ party preferences and their preferences regarding the pension reform, and to study how representation determines voters’ decision in the referendum. We test several hypotheses exploring the reasons why voters with incongruent positions would follow the party cue, and vote against their preferences, or become “critical partisans” and vote against the party position and line with their preferences.


with Sven Steinmo (forthcoming). Why do people follow rules? – Actors, Institutions, and Cognition.  Politics and the Life Sciences.

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.


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.




Céline Colombo and Hanspeter Kriesi. Referendum campaigns can end up convincing voters that their preferred party is right. LSE Democratic Audit Blog, October 2017

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

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

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

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.