There's a concept in the psychology of decision making called minimax regret, that's often applied to economics and sociology, and by extension to political science. The basic principle is that in following this principle, you make the choice that has the least chance (or amount) of regret afterwards. In economic mimics and finance, this is easily measured by a return on investment. In politics, the evaluation is much more nebulous and instinctual. Regret is no longer measured by financial loss, but guilt and the ability to escape it.

Amongst Millennials and Xers, this could easily be dubbed the "don't blame me, I voted for Kodos" phenomenon. Given the choice between Candidate A and Candidate B, where neither is particularly exciting, you'll vote for whomever will do the least damage. Further than that, actually: you'll vote only if you're concerned that the less preferable candidate will win. Because your ultimate concern isn't who wins, but whether you can relieve yourself of responsibility to future regret. The table below illustrates the decision faced by a voter, with deeper greens representing stronger positive feelings, and deeper reds representing stronger negative ones.


Outcomes
Action
A wins, does a good job
A wins, does a bad job
B wins, does a good job
B wins, does a bad job
Voted for A
(“Good” Candidate)
I am part of the solution
This is my fault
My vote didn’t matter
It’s not my fault
Voted for B
(“Bad” Candidate)
I stood in the way
It’s not my fault
I am part of the solution
This is my fault
Didn’t Vote
I didn’t need to vote
I made the right call
I would have stood in the way
This is my fault

Their decision depends on the likelihood of each of the scenarios. If you have either a strong feeling that Candidate A will do a good job or that Candidate B will do a bad one, then you are more likely to vote because the middle two outcomes seem unlikely, pushing your personal outcomes to a choice between “I am part of the solution” or “This is my fault.” This desire will fall if Candidate A is polling with a strong lead, because it introduces the third personal outcome of “I didn’t need to vote.”


This theory is used to explain low voter turnout. I believe it extends deeper into our decision making process, and applies as readily to our choices in support or against particular issues. It begins to explain why meeting a gay person is so effective at persuading for gay rights, and why it’s moved faster than other civil rights debates. Voters are suddenly faced with the guilt they had been trying to avoid: that they were, in fact, denying the rights of someone based on their personal beliefs. And ultimately, unless their social circle feels strongly against gay rights, the potential regret from supporting it is comparatively less.


Outcomes
Position
Talk to a gay person
Talk to a gay marriage opponent
Support
Support them
Tell them you disagree
Oppose
Tell them you feel they don’t deserve the rights
Support them


It can also begin to explain those who identify as socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. Most social issues replicate some level of the gay rights debate. They don’t affect you personally, so there’s little personal cost, but you’re either faced with telling a member of the group they don’t have rights or telling an opponent that you disagree. Your decision ends up boiling down to whether it’s more difficult to tell your friends you disagree or that a specific person you meet doesn’t deserve the rights.


Economic and fiscal issues function a little differently on the personal level. Take for example welfare. The benefits of opposition become more real because they’re paid for by taxes -- an amount of money that feels like it’s being taken from you each month. You are also much less likely to have a difficult conversation with someone who benefits from welfare, both because they are less likely to advertise this and because you tend to work, live around and befriend people from your own socioeconomic circle. This makes it easier to have the feeling that people on welfare are lazy, or getting more than they should, because you never meet them in person. The chart shifts a little, as the likelihood that someone on welfare will walk up to you and defend welfare will almost never happen. And if it does, you are able to say that it’s just someone asking for your money.



Outcomes
Position
Talk to a welfare supporter
Talk to a gay marriage opponent
Support
Support them
Tell them you disagree
Oppose
Tell them you disagree
Support them


The options are now much more balanced. And opposition carries the benefit of getting to keep your money. In truth, the real minimax regret solution is a little more complicated, provided that the indiviual can handle the cognitive dissonance: express support for welfare, but don’t act when it’s threatened. As a supporter, you can hold yourself blameless for the poor not having the money they need -- but you’ll still take the tax break. (See the Bradley effect for the racial equivalent.)


It should be said -- not everyone follows this model. And almost nobody does it consciously, because being conscious of the fact that you’re making decisions just to avoid feeling guilty is just going to make you feel incredibly guilty. You can also hear another side of this coin as it applied to Gamergate and feminism here.

This isn’t meant to be a recipe to change people’s minds -- and since I’m already at almost 1000 words, I’m not going to launch into one here -- but it can help inform the conversation and why sometimes, when arguing politics, you feel like you’re banging your head against a wall. So maybe now you can stop doing that, and re-orient your strategy.