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What is Psephology?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Psephology is the scientific study of elections. Someone who specializes in psephology is known as a psephologist. Psephologists compile a broad assortment of data in order to understand more about the electoral process, the government, and how people make decisions at the polls. Employment in this field is quite varied. Some psephologists, for example, work for political campaigns, advising the candidates and providing suggestions, while others work for media outlets, polling organizations, and universities.

This term is derived from the Greek word for “pebble,” referencing the pebbles used by the Ancient Greeks to cast their votes. The word “ballot” is also a reference to this practice, coming from the Italian word for a small stone used to cast a vote. As a side note, a government which has been chosen by election is a psephocracy, if you want to have an interesting word in your arsenal for dull dinner parties.

Statistics is one of the core aspects of psephology. Psephologists compile data from previous elections and use it in an attempt to project results in ongoing election cycles. They use material collected from polls, interviews, and other sources to make their predictions as accurate as possible. Election results are influenced by obvious things, like the platform of the candidate, but they are also influenced by the weather, the economy, and a variety of other factors, all of which must be taken into account when making projections.

Psephologists also study the psychology of elections. They look at which campaign tools work, and why, and why some people say they will vote one way but actually vote in opposition. Things like exit polls and opinion polls are studied and contrasted with real election results to come up with corrections which can be used to make these polls more accurate, and issues like campaign financing, political advertising, stump speeches, and a variety of other topics are also encompassed in psephology.

An interest in politics is a definite bonus for someone who wants to study psephology, as is strength in math, especially statistics, and the ability to sort through a great deal of information, some of which may be conflicting. Some psephologists also like to study psychology, sociology, and economics so that they can form a bigger picture of the circumstances surrounding the elections they study.

As Disraeli supposedly once said, there are “lies, [darned] lies, and statistics,” and psephology is no exception. People behave in unpredictable ways, and it's impossible to accurately predict the outcome of an election, although people can come close. As the Chicago Tribune learned to its chagrin in 1948 when it printed the infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, mistakes in psephology tend to be remembered.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By sandrews — On Dec 22, 2013

I think Psephology is really fascinating. I’m currently studying Psychology in college and I’m only a sophomore. I just started taking statistics for my major and I wonder if this will help me if I’m interested in pursuing Psephology. My school doesn’t have a specific degree for Psephology, so can I continue with Psychology and maybe minor in statistics, or should I switch to political science and minor in both Psychology and statistics? I want to know what will give me a leg up once I graduate.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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