The truth behind the myth of Eurovision’s political voting

Eurovision SmallIt’s Eurovision time again, that special time of year when cheese is on the menu all over Europe. If you don’t watch it, and especially the semi-finals where so many memorably bad acts go out, you’re missing out on either a massive celebration of Europop or a hilarious parade of some of the most awful songs ever, depending on your perspective. I usually view it as about half and half, but it’s never dull.

Interestingly, though, a straw poll suggests that the first thing most people think of in connection with Eurovision is political voting. “They all vote for their mates” is the general gist of the popular belief, concluding that the entire process is both corrupt and pointless, as well as implying that we are entirely innocent of such favouritism. Even allowing for a certain amount of humour and hyperbole, this reveals an impressive range of cognitive biases.

Given that the near neighbours who are most often accused of always voting for each other tend to be those who have very strong historic reasons for being rather antagonistic towards each other, it should be obvious that there’s more going on here than a simple arrangement to swap votes between friends, even without noting that there have been 13 different winners in the last 13 years.

There are clear reasons why there might be patterns of neighbouring countries voting for each other, as demonstrated by our typical interest in Ireland’s song. Countries in the same region generally like the same sort of music, and take a special interest in each other’s entries, in much the same way as football supporters always want to know how their local rivals did.

Strangely, even as a rivalry this interest can be a significant advantage in a contest of about 25 songs, based on positive votes for an absolute favourite. To get votes, a song has to stand out from the others. Quality and a catchy tune are helpful, but the most important thing is to stick in the mind. People taking an interest, even a moderately hostile one, is likely to help any song.

Lordi WinAs well as local interest, there’s a possible mechanism for some degree of bias in the use of telephone voting. Countries aren’t allowed to vote for their own song, but in regions where there’s been significant upheaval and/or border changes in recent years, there may be a lot of people who are able to vote for “their” country, the one they identify with, because they now live in a different country. This was a substantial influence when voting was entirely through telephone polls, but juries now provide a little more balance.

Another factor that can cause assumptions of bias and collusion is the growing trend of marketing songs very heavily in certain areas in the months before the contest. To anyone who’s hearing a song for the first time, it might seem like an unremarkable example of Europop, but to those who have been listening, singing along and dancing to it for weeks, it’s far more than that. It isn’t necessary to invoke politics or even taste to explain the popularity of a song you personally don’t find particularly special.

Most of all, there are our old friends selection bias and confirmation bias. Selection bias first, and this is something I sometimes still do myself. Each country’s ten favourite songs are read out in ascending order, from tenth through to first. So by the time each top choice is announced, nine countries have been eliminated from the pool and there’s often a single song from the remainder that’s pretty clearly scoring better in the contest so far than the others.

At this point, it’s very easy to say that obviously, Lithuania will give top marks to Latvia, for example. It looks impressive when you’re right, and whenever the association between the countries tallies with your expectations it will be taken as confirmation. But the deck’s heavily stacked in your favour, as any other likely candidates (assuming a back-scratching vote) will probably have been named already to rule them out.

Latvian PiratesAnd of course, any vote will either be added to a mountain of evidence of political voting, or simply disregarded. We remember the times when Croatia gave their top vote to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s folk-style nose flutes, but not when Sweden surprisingly awarded 12 points to Malta, because one fits the pattern and the other doesn’t. Classic confirmation bias.

These factors do have an influence at the margins, and all things being equal it’s handy to have a few votes you can rely on, but it’s not the conscious back-scratching conspiracy of popular myth, and given the scale of the contest, it’s rarely going to decide who wins. More important is to have a song that’s distinctive, and particularly that isn’t tapping into the same genre as several other entries, like the usual bandwagon-jumping imitations of the previous year’s winner.

I could explain the flaws in that approach with reference to game theory, but that would be a whole different subject.

Images by Amio Cajander, cote and proteusbcn, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

10 responses to “The truth behind the myth of Eurovision’s political voting”

  1. mgm75 says :

    You do have a fair point but there are clearly countries who always vote for each other and those who will never vote for each other. GreeceCyprus for example. France never give us points though I think we do tend to vote for them sometimes. We always vote for Ireland and they always vote for us.

    I agree though that it is not probably not as extensive as some believe.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Yes, I’m not denying that there are various countries that tend to vote for each other (or not to), for a variety of reasons. This is rather well summarised by this Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting_at_the_Eurovision_Song_Contest#Regional_block_voting

      But the examples you give are interesting – since 1975, the UK have received more points from France than anyone but Israel and Turkey, and Greece have both given more points to Cyprus than anyone else and received more from them than from any other country. I think you may have meant Turkey and either Cyprus or Greece, which is one of the more impressively enduring grudges in Europe. But despite that, Greece and Turkey have both won in recent years.

      In the end, these voting blocks and grudges might make a difference at the margins, but they’re not going to help a bad song win.

  2. Robert Nielsen says :

    Interesting point on the confirmation bias. I remember last year trying to guess which country will get the 12 points and its not as easy as it looks. You have to wait until the list is narrowed down a lot.

  3. Mike Byrne says :

    You are sort of right but not. The reality is yes artists or countries with similar cultural tastes do vote for each other which isnt politicak but cultural but its still a bias! Also groups who have big minority populations will vote for their homeland hence germanys vote was fairer when turkey was taken out of the equation. But there is still huge unfairness as songs and points arent matching. Denmark who won was a fairly ok song add a flute in and some drums and add in guatenteed fair amount of points from cultural neighbours and you finish higher. No one would argue brit entries arent popular current or the greatest but its getting quite predictable winner predictable formulas. But culturally britain has more in common with america. Its like abdre rieu really popular and loads of waving dutch and germans etc at his concerts wouldnt happen in the uk

  4. Mike Byrne says :

    Look at adele. She is extremely popular but its not to do with a predictable pop song with flute music. Its because shes original sings from the heart and anybody can connect with it way ahead of eurovision

  5. Mike Byrne says :

    Sweden writes lots of great pop songs but so does britain but britains is more edgy unique and there are lots of british artists thst sing from within like americans. Having the right formula for a song is one thing and the swedes do well. Abba was different they were influenced by british and american music and a lot of songs from within it was on another level to most eurovision

  6. Mike Byrne says :

    The british market is very competitive so it has to stand out but also there are more heart felt songs rather than cliche eurovision which is sung for the votes. Yes theres pop and dance but its not as cliche and theres very unique artists at the time and who sing about real emotions ideas not your average eurovision pop

  7. Mike Byrne says :

    Ok if britain wrote a similar song to denmark young 20 year old girl same staging flute piececwould we get to the top? Or wrote an alcohol song like greece would we get over 60 points? These are the real questions. So ckearlybin europe a random alcohol song is better than a ballard. Even romania did well with a whalling load of nonsense so clearly the song is not what people are voting for unless they are tone deaf of coarse!

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      You’re attacking lots of different points here, but I’ll try to boil it down to the main issues. When you object to Romania’s song, you’re expressing a personal preference, and complaining that it’s not universally held. In fact, the UK gave 4 points to Romania, so according to the Great British public, it was the 7th best song and should have finished higher than it did. That’s not doing much for your argument of bias.

      As for whether we’d have the same success with this song or that song, are you suggesting exactly the same entry, or our own version of those songs? They’re different questions. I really can’t imagine any mechanism by which we’d get substantially different results from a song than if it was entered by another country. There’s an element of bias in some regional factors, as described in the post, but it’s not enough to make a substantial difference. Given the winning margin of 47 points, I’m pretty confident that any country would have won if they’d entered that exact song.

      In the end, all complaints of bias come down to the belief that other people, spread across a massive continent, can’t reasonably have subjective tastes that differ from one’s own. They can, and they do. It seems to me that it’s quite rude to say that other people voted a certain way because of whose song it was, while assuming one’s own taste and opinion to be unimpeachable.

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