2018 Hinckley Lecture: Fostering Belonging, Inclusion, and Friendships for People with Disabilities

New Year’s resolutions often focus on strengthening and improving our lives. They might include strengthening your cooking skills or your muscles, but how about strengthening your home and family?

In the name of Marjorie Pay Hinckley, the late wife of Gordon B. Hinckley, and in honor of her commitment to strengthening home and family, the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences will hold its fourteenth annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley lecture on February 8th, 2018. The topic for this year’s lecture is Fostering Belonging: Inclusion, MarjorieHinckleyFriendship, and People with  Disabilities” presented by Dr. Erik Carter of Vanderbilt University. In the past years, distinguished scholars have come to BYU to address pertinent issues such as family instability and complexity, social media, and social aggression, and factors that put children and the American future at risk.  

This year’s topic: Inclusions, friendships, and people with disabilities

Disabilities have always been a present aspect of individuals and society but have only recently received the attention and focus they need and deserve. Whether they be mental, physical, or learning disabilities, these impairments often present challenges to individuals and families who deserve the opportunities to succeed.

In his own experience and research Dr. Carter has found that educational, community and religious organizations all play powerful roles in providing opportunities that  help people with disabilities find valued roles, employment, and relationships with their local community members and peers. These relationships themselves go on to unify and strengthen the community as a whole.

During his lecture, Carter will focus on ten aspects of belonging and how attitudes and actions toward people with disabilities can create more meaningful and lasting inclusion in the community.

BYU research and experience

BYU professors have collaborated among themselves and with other scholars to form groups that research and educate on disabilities. One of these groups is Autism Connect which helps families and individuals with autism better understand the disorder and available resources through research. In addition, BYU also puts on the annual Autism Translational Research Workshop to educate on and share best practices in autism.

While research is fundamental to this field, the next step is making sure that people with disabilities and those associated with these individuals are able to receive the access and support for opportunities such as education, jobs, community, and peer relationships. In a recent article by BYU Psychology and Neuroscience professor Mikle South and Associate Clinical Professor Jonathan Cox, BYU’s own environment for supporting individuals with disabilities and autism was observed and critiqued. In order to succeed in post-secondary education, individuals with disabilities may need transitionary programs, “safe spaces” with minimal sensory stimulation where they can take tests, and have support groups or student mentors.


A Community of Inclusion

Success in education and in the community is something that everyone should have the opportunity to achieve. Just like no one should be excluded from receiving an education or job, no one should feel excluded in their community. It is detrimental that we look to establish friendships and relationships with people who need our support.

Learn how to foster belonging within your community through inclusion and friendship with people with disabilities by attending the fourteenth annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture on February 8th, 2018 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hinckley Assembly Hall. Admission is free and the event is open to the public. Individuals from the BYU community, families, community leaders, and educators will greatly benefit from Dr. Carter’s presentation.

Finance and the Gospel: Using Gospel Principles as the Foundation for Family Finance

Living joyfully within your means can seem like an oxymoron when you’re a poor college student who can afford nothing but Ramen and oatmeal.

Money and finances can be large burdens– especially when you’re a young student family. Both patience and relationships are tested as you decide what to cut out of your lifestyle to minimize expenses. These trials are testing and  real, but BYU Family Life professor Jeff Hill and Finance professor Bryan Sudweeks suggest that we see these

fam finance
Courtesy of BYU Bookstore.

problems with a new perspective: “The single most important lesson [in finance] is the importance of bringing Christ into our personal and family finances.”

In Professors Hill and Sudweek’s book Fundamentals of Family Finance: Living Joyfully within your Means, the core text for SFL 260: Family Finance, we learn that finance is not only something we deal with in mortality, but that it is something that is based in gospel principles and will affect us for eternity. While money does not buy true eternal happiness, in the words of Professor Hill, “money makes important things possible” to help us grow in this life and prepare for the future, such as family resources and education.

Keeping an Eternal Perspective

Finance isn’t just about getting rich, it’s about  “prudent financial management so you can more fully bless yourself, your family, and others.” But again, where do we draw the line between focusing on money and finances because we need to and focusing on worldly possessions instead of the Kingdom of God?

According to Hill and Sudweeks, the key is keeping an eternal perspective.

If we make it a point to remember that everything belongs to God and that we are simply the stewards over the things he blesses us with, we will remember to be grateful and responsible with what we have. When it comes down to it, our finances and the stewardship of resources should be the “temporal application of spiritual principles.” We have agency to decide how we use our resources, and we will are accountable for these actions.

In summary, “with very dollar you spend, you choose which perspective you will take– either the eternal perspective or the world’s materialistic perspective. The sooner you understand that managing your finances is part of living the gospel of Jesus Christ, the greater your motivation will be to obey the commandments and get your financial house in order…. With an eternal perspective, we can be laying up for ourselves true “treasures in heaven” while simultaneously planning for our careers and supporting out families.”

A Family Ordeal

“Share finances as equal partners in your marriage” counsel Hill and Sudweeks. You, your spouse, and your current or future children will all have different opinions on how brooke-cagle-170053to use resources and money. While it may seem easier to do it all yourself, this responsibility must be shared equally between you and your spouse. Budget as a family, and be honest and transparent about you financial past, plans, and current spending.  As stated by David O. McKay, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” No amount of extra time or money will make up for losing your family.

Also, as you learn financial principles yourself, share and teach them to your spouse and children; the principles of hard work, thrifty living, and saving can benefit your present and future. Families who love each other share financial wisdom.

Living Within your Means

Adobe Spark (51)There are things that we really want and there are things that we really need. When figuring out how to have these things, it is detrimental that you budget according to your/your family’s needs and the money and resources that are currently available to you. This might mean that you don’t drive the nicest car now (or drive a car at all), but that you live comfortably from the resources and money you currently have. Sacrificing  what you want now will often allow you to have what you want most in the future. As Robert D. Hales said, “the three most loving words are ‘I love you,’ and the four most caring words for those we love are, ‘We can’t afford it.'”

Prioritizing your spending and finding happiness in your current situation is how you go from living within your means to living joyfully within your means.

Plan for the Future

Planning is essential to successful finances and preparedness. To plan for the array of financial situations that you will or may face in life

  • Make family goals (then work to achieve them!)
  • Have food storage, a 72-hour kit, and monetary savings
  • Invest “early, consistently, and wisely” and remember “TTT: Things Take Time”
  • Get insurance to protect yourself and your family
  • Make a plan to minimize and eliminate any debt
  • Establish a habit of saving and set money aside every time you get paid.

Share with Others

Of his own young family, Professor Sudweeks shared that they “learned the importance of giving: that God shovels it to us, and we shovel it back (and God has a bigger shovel).” Prioritize giving back to others and the Lord by paying your tithing and contributing a generous fast offering. Like Professor Sudweeks shared, God is constantly shoveling blessings and resources our way, he just asks that we shovel a little back. Likewise, remember the law of consecration; all that we have is God’s and we have a responsibility and calling to be responsible stewards and efficiently share our resources with others.

“It is not so difficult to accomplish your monetary and spiritual goals if you build your finances upon a firm foundation: the gospel of Jesus Christ.” As we work to progress in all aspects in our lives, we will find joy as we support and uplift ourselves and others through responsible and gospel-based financial principles and practice.


Students: Deadline Approaches for Martin Luther King Day Student Essay Contest

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to the nonviolent pursuit of racial equality. Our national celebration of his birth each year is meant to honor, not only him and his legacy but the lives and work of countless lesser-known leaders, as well as that of ordinary men, women, and children who helped to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. The King holiday is also intended for us, today, to consider what we can do to serve our fellowmen and to promote the eternal truth that each of us is a beloved child of God.

June 8, 2018 will mark the 40th Anniversary of the LDS Church’s historic revelation restoring priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy members. In connection with the King holiday and in celebration and contemplation of this important moment in LDS history, we invite you to explore and reflect on Official Declaration 2, the Church’s “Race and the Priesthood” website, and recent statements by LDS leaders on current racial issues, and to write an essay of 777 words or less discussing the long struggle for freedom and the work of building Zion.

Submit your essay no later than Noon on Friday January 12th to: blackhistorymonth@byu.edu as a Word attachment. Please include the following information with your submission: your name, year in school, major, home town, email address, and phone number.

The first-place winner will receive $150 and the opportunity to read her/his essay at BYU’s MLK Walk of Life Commemoration on Wednesday January 17, 2018. The second and third place winners will receive $60 and $40, respectively. (Previous first place winners are not eligible for the top prize.) Questions about the essay contest can be directed to the above email.

Talking About Pornography: an Upcoming Event

Pornography can be a painful topic to talk about, but not talking about it can hurt you and your loved ones even more.

“In religious cultures, sex is kind of a taboo topic, which means we tend not to talk about it very much,” shared BYU School of Family Life Professor Brian Willoughby in a Universe article earlier this year. But just because religious individuals do not talk about pornography as often does not mean that they are free from its reach.


In a study that he co-authored with graduate students Nathan Leonhardt and Bonnie Young-Petersen this past spring, Willoughby found that religious individuals are more likely to experience unhappiness and depression from their pornography use and are more likely to see themselves as addicted to pornography “regardless of how often they use the material.” These individuals will in turn experience greater relationship anxiety, feelings of powerlessness and more anxiety about talking about their pornography use with others, leading to dissatisfaction and damage in relationships.

With pornography becoming more accessible and pornography use becoming more prominent, it is important that parents and spouses know the truth about pornography and how it effects their families.

To That End…An Event on January 10th

families at risk
Courtesy of BYU Continuing Education

Keep your family safe from pornography’s negative influences by learning how to discuss it with your loved ones and learning strategies on how to deal with pornography at the Families at Risk lecture, Understanding the Modern Threat of Pornography: Myths and Reality, given by Professor Brian Willoughby. The lecture will take place on January 10, 2018 at the BYU Conference Center. “We need to be able to have a more open dialogue on this issue,” said Professor Willoughby. He encourages everyone to take an active role in learning about the harms of pornography and how to keep their families safe.

brian_willoughbyProfessor Brian J. Willoughby is an associate professor in the BYU School of Family Life and is considered an expert in couple and marital relationships, sexuality, and emerging adult development. Professor Willoughby has published over 50 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on these topics, currently serves on the editorial board for four journals, and was elected as a full member of the International Academy of Sex Research. In addition to teaching several classes at BYU, Professor Willoughby often appears on media and news outlets to share his research and expertise. Professor Willoughby has been married to his wife Cassi for 15 years and together they have four children.



Does Reducing Tuition Boost College Enrollment?

It seems intuitive that a tuition reduction in colleges would increase enrollment; however, BYU Economics professor Dr. Jeffrey Denning recently published a study showing that decreasing the cost of attendance boosted enrollment at community colleges but not necessarily at four-year universities. “Community colleges are a large part of the higher education system in the United States but have received relatively little research attention,” said Dr. Denning, “Voters interested in whether they should support proposals to reduce tuition may…find the study useful.”

Free Tuition Considerations

In 2015, former president Barack Obama decreed that he intended to make community college free, making it easier for people to get a college education. A Washington Post article that cited a previous study of Denning’s—published when he was a PhD student at University of Texas, Austin—as it applied to Obama’s plan said: “If Obama’s proposal is rolled out, Denning’s data [from a case study in Texas] suggest that there will be more people who choose community college over a four-year college, but perhaps not that many, and probably not to their detriment.” He found, however, that tuition cuts at community colleges slightly increased the number of people transferring to four-year colleges, and that the four-year college graduation rate rose slightly: “About a quarter of people helped by the discounted tuition ended up transferring and getting a four-year degree. This is evidence that there are talented students who would use community college as a springboard to a bachelor’s degree, if only they could afford to start down that path.”

Denning’s 2017 study is an expansion of his previous paper, studying data from Texas, but examines it from a slightly different angle and with slightly different findings, showing that lower community college tuition still increased transfer from community colleges to universities, but that there were a variety of mitigating, complicating factors that made it difficult to gauge the exact extent.

Why Does This Matter?

Many states are considering legislation that would enable this transition. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, eleven states are debating laws that would implement free community college tuition, and five either already have legislation passed or programs in place to implement it:

comm college

According to Dr. Denning, it is imperative that people understand the impact tuition reduction in community colleges can have: “Understanding the effects of community college tuition is important because policymakers must decide how to price community colleges…. Reductions in community college tuition [have] very different implications if [they]…increase overall college attendance or shuffle students from the four-year sector to the two-year sector.” Public policy and school attendance can be affected by the price of community college.


Despite Obama’s support and Dr. Denning’s study, free community college tuition has been decried by critics. He says: “A common criticism of ‘free tuition’ programs is that they are just subsidizing students who would attend higher education without the subsidy. My study suggests that these sorts of subsidies are likely to target new students and students who would already be in the community college sector.” Instead of denigrating the higher education system, tuition reduction will boost enrollment.

Do you think community college tuition should be reduced?

Map courtesy of the National Conference of State Legislators

The Connection Between Religion and Families: A New Book

A recent publication from professors in the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences provides answers to the questions of how religion affects marriage, ways parents should talk to their children about their religious beliefs, and whether practicing a faith — whether it’s Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or yet another belief system — strengthen families. in their 2017 book, Religion & Families: An Introduction, BYU School of Family Life professors Loren D. Marks and David C. Dollahite write about how religion strengthens faithful familiesThe two researchers wrote the book for emerging adults, in the hopes that it could help them navigate important decisions as they transition into marriage and parenting.


How Does Religion Strengthen Families?

Relying on existing research and their own American Families of Faith project, Dr. Marks and Dr. Dollahite teach relationship-building, faith-promoting lessons to their readers. The American Families of Faith project draws rich data from lengthy in-home interviews of 200 religious families living all across the United States. The diverse sample includes Christian, Jewish, and Muslim families, as well as immigrants and ethnic minorities, so Religion & Families provides a broad look at the connections between religion and family.

Perhaps the most useful way to study the nexus of religion and family is to explore three dimensions identified by the authors:

  • Religious beliefs
  • Religious practices
  • Religious community.

“Family members who consciously consider and discuss how their religious beliefs, practices, and community can work together for the good of their marriage and family relationships are likely to discover ways to increase harmony between these dimensions,” Marks and Dollahite write. Dollahite, when interviewed about the book, said: “We all ‘live into’ our answers to life’s biggest questions in patience and faith. As we face the realities and challenges of marriage and family life, the confident idealism of youth evolves into a mature and realistic optimism…. We hope that the kinds of information provided about the healthiest way to live one’s faith in marriage and family life in Religion and Families can help young adults be more likely to make that transition more smoothly.”

“There will always be one more unanswered question related to our faith that we do not currently have the answer to,” Marks added. “That question is not a reason to abandon the ship of faith. It is motivation to get to know the captain better. Part of my testimony is that God is a lot smarter than I am.” In other words, we can all build our lives, our marriages, and our families on faith, patience, and trust.

When Husbands and Wives Share Beliefs And Commitment

The American Families of Faith project, a national long-running research project led by Marks and Dollahite, allowed them to connect their three dimensions of religion (beliefs, practices, and community) to marriages, father-child relationships, and mother-child relationships. The findings suggest that husbands and wives enjoy greater marital satisfaction when they share beliefs and are similarly committed to those beliefs. What’s more, spouses can strengthen their marriages by participating together in meaningful rituals, including service attendance and holiday traditions.

As far as children are concerned, Dr. Marks and Dr. Dollahite’s research indicates that parents and children have more positive emotional experiences when they engage in “youth-centered conversations.” In these conversations, parents listen while kids do most of the talking and ask for understanding. The conversation is open, the parent helps the child connect religion to his or her life, and the parent-child relationship becomes richer and deeper.

Dr. Marks explained that visiting those families’ homes and observed those relationships, he learned how he could be a better partner and parent. Regarding their examples, he says: “We hope that we can convey enough of the exemplary power of these faithful families to young adults that a fire and hope will be kindled that they can do likewise. Gratefully, through their interviews, these families also tell us how they did it — and this may be the book’s most important contribution.”

Family-Centered Priorities Cut Across and Supersede

Elder L. Tom Perry, who attended a 2014 marriage and family colloquium at the Vatican, reported that all major religions value family life. He said: “It was remarkable for me to see how marriage and family-centered priorities cut across and superseded any political, economic, or religious differences. When it comes to love of spouse and hopes, worries, and dreams for children, we are all the same.” Dr. Marks and Dr. Dollahite share a similar message in their book. In each chapter, they remind their readers that practicing a religion can lead to healthier marriages and happier family life.



Religion & Families: An Introduction is available for purchase on Amazon, Google Play, Target.com, and Walmart.com.

How to Celebrate Christmas if You’re Away from Home

Family, festivities, fun—Christmas is one of the most widely celebrated holidays. It is is traditionally a time when families reunite to celebrate the birth of Christ and give each other presents. However, many of us are college students living far from home. How can we celebrate Christmas away from our families?

1. Connect with Friends

Just because you’re not with your family doesn’t mean you have to spend Christmas alone. Find some friends and do something fun! Make hot chocolate and watch a Christmas movie, have a snowball fight, or compete to see who can make the best snow fort. In a 2015 study, Psychology professor Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad found that loneliness is a precursor for early death. “The risk associated with social isolation and loneliness is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality, including those identified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (physical activity, obesity, substance abuse, responsible sexual behavior, mental health, injury and violence, environmental quality, immunization, and access to health care),” she and her co-authors said. Loneliness can lead to death just as much as obesity and substance abuse can.

So don’t celebrate the holiday alone! Find some friends and make this the best Christmas ever!

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2. Help a Teen Bake and Deliver Christmas Cookies

 This is a fun way to get involved with the holiday, learn a new skill, and spread Christmas cheer. Christmas isn’t just about presents and Santa, it’s a celebration of Christ. You can easily honor him by serving others. In a 2017 study, School of Family Life professor Dr. Laura Padilla-Walker found that teens’ self esteem was boosted by helping strangers. “There is something unique about helping those that teens do not know that helps them to feel better about themselves, but helping family and friends does not facilitate this same outcome,” said the researcher. Not all of us are teenagers, but serving others can still give us those positive vibes.


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3. Play a Good Video Game

There are good video games out there, ones that encourage prosocial behavior (like these, suggested by our 2014 Hinckley lecturer Dr. Brad Bushman), and good ways to play them, as shown by research done by Dr. Sarah Coyne and others.

4. Have a Christmas Dance Party!

Moving around—dancing—makes you happier! “Pushing yourself to go out and be with other people will automatically increase your mood because your body will be producing serotonin and endorphins, which naturally increase your happiness level,” said a Relate Institute article. If you’re feeling sad that you’re not at home, just dance! Grab some friends, hit the dance floor, and jam!

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It’s not easy to spend Christmas away from your family, but these four tips can make this a Christmas to remember!



A Study About Discriminatory Loan Practices Today

According to the Federal Reserve, the average wealth of a white household was about six times greater than that of the average African American household and five times greater than the wealth of the average Latino household in 2013. Racial disparities in wealth grew wider than they’d been in decades after the 2008 recession, and led to disinvestment in neighborhoods and unequal opportunities for individuals who were of different races. What’s the culprit for this imbalance and inequality? Limited access to “good homes in high-quality neighborhoods,” according to BYU Sociology professor Jacob Rugh, among others. And the culprit for this limited access? High cost, high risk loans. When borrowing to purchase homes in past years, African American borrowers were two times more likely to receive a subprime loan that white borrowers.

Jacob Rugh
Copyright BYU Photo 2012
All Rights Reserved

Rugh and researchers like him are honing their interest on the changes made to the federal loan system in the years leading up to the US housing crisis and how this system created higher risk loans for minorities, perpetuating racial residential segregation in urban America. In a recent article co-authored by Dr. Rugh, he and his colleagues shared their analysis of 220 accounts in recent fair lending federal court cases involving discriminatory lending practices. The largest take-away? Loan originators utilized a number of mechanisms to identify and gain the trust of African American and Latino borrowers to place them in higher-cost and higher-risk loans.


The Past vs. Today- Same Issue, Different Way

“Historically,” says Rugh, “[the racial] disparities [in wealth] have been driven by multiple forms of discrimination…including white mob violence against African-Americans trying to move into formerly all-white neighborhoods, municipal segregation ordinances prohibiting residence by blacks on predominantly white blocks, …racially restrictive covenants barring the future sale of a property to non-whites, [and] redlining, or [denying] credit to [individuals in] non-white residential areas.”

Multiple studies have already documented that African American and Latino borrowers were frequently charged more for mortgage loans than similarly-situated white borrowers. What makes Rugh et al’s study unique is that it identifies the specific institutional- and individual-level mechanisms used to perpetuate those actions.

In the 1980s and 1990s, several federal legislative acts were passed to ensure that minorities were not being excluded from loan or housing opportunities. These new lending practices, however, also made loan profits come largely from fees and the gap between the prevailing interest rate index and the rate paid by the borrower. Enticing loan officers to go for quick profits, loan originators began to exploit rather than exclude minorities as they offered these individuals risky, high-cost financial services that only furthered financial and societal disparities between whites and minorities.

Adobe Spark (34)


Tactics in Unfair Lending


Steering mortgage borrowers toward subprime loans, even if they qualified for prime loans, became common practice for many loan originators. “Put quite simply, loan originators wishing to maximize profits had to convince customers with good credit to accept higher cost, higher risk lending products,” says Rugh et al, whose analysis shows that originators explicitly targeted neighborhoods with large shares of black and Latino residents for those high-cost loans. They sought data sources that were thought to indicate a lack of financial sophistication and a desire for credit in the individuals listed, mailed “live” draft checks of $1,000 to $1,500 to people with medium to low credit scores, and if those checks were cashed, turned them into loans with interest rates as high as 29% and then targeted those individuals for home equity refinance loans.

Perhaps worse, though, or more indicative of motivation based on race, were the methods they used to gain the trust of those potential borrowers. According to Rugh, “qualitative evidence suggests that loan originators often gained the confidence of potential borrowers through the use of trusted co-ethnic intermediaries in community service organizations and churches. Solicitations for high-cost subprime loans in predominantly black communities were promoted through ‘wealth building seminars’ held in churches and community centers at which ‘alternative lending’ was discussed. No such solicitations were made in predominantly white neighbourhoods or churches (Jacobson, 2010). Some loan institutions made marketing materials that directly targeted minority individuals. In one case, a loan officer stated that his office held the attitude that minority customers “weren’t savvy enough to know they were getting a bad loan.”


Making Needed Changes

In 2010, the Dodd-Frank Act was passed, making necessary changes to the federal loan system and prohibiting loan originators from steering borrowers into higher cost loans when they qualify for better mortgages. Racial residential segregation and the “wide gap in social distance between decision-makers at mainstream financial institutions and communities of color,” however, remains an issue today, according to Rugh and others. What can policymakers, lenders, consumer protection groups, and individuals do to discourage such practices? In a 2015 study done by Rugh of the Baltimore housing market, he suggested:

  • implementing or advocating the implementation of increased civil rights enforcement by institutionalizing ongoing audits and other cost-effective means to monitor racial disparities and increase transparency in ways that remediate systematic patterns at the level of structure and policies rather than isolated acts of individuals.
  • offering only safe, fixed-rate mortgages and down payment ratios that make home ownership, wealth accumulation, and social mobility accessible for borrowers of color.
  • owning other assets besides a mortgage, thus reducing your risk.


Instability Among Underprivileged Families: a Cause and Consequence of Poverty

We’d like to believe that the largest difficulty in a child’s life would be not finding the exact color of crayon they’d need to finish drawing a picture. But with the rise of divorce and single parent families, children are forced to live with more and more instability in their lives. “The rate of family change that we’re seeing in the first five years of life is simply overwhelming children’s ability to cope,” stated Dr. Kathryn Edin at the 2017 Hinckley Lecture.

While levels of family instability and complexity are at an all time high, these difficult situations are disproportionately found among disadvantaged families rather than the American population as a whole. The unplanned birth of children into unestablished and young relationships are both the consequence and cause of poverty.

Learn more about the trapping impact of poverty on individuals and the consequential instability in families by watching this excerpt from Dr. Edin’s lecture.

This post is one of many in a series of videos available on our BYU Social Sciences YouTube channel! The channel contains tidbits of many of our most popular lectures and useful, succinct, research-backed advice on relationship, political, religious, media, and financial issues. Follow us there to stay up-to-date on wisdom that will help you and your family live better lives.

Is it Okay to Abstain from Voting?

Is abstaining from voting simply giving up? Although people may believe that abstaining from voting is wasting a chance to tell politicians what you think, BYU economist Dr. Joseph McMurray found the opposite to be true. In a recent study, he found that people can express themselves with parity through both voting and abstaining.


People use votes not as a tool for change, but as a “microphone for broadcasting their opinions,” said Dr. McMurray. For example, in last year’s presidential election, third party candidate Evan McMullin won 21.5% of Utah’s vote, according to the state’s Office of the Lieutenant Governor. Despite McMullin not winning the election, he served as an outlet for people to voice their disapproval of the major party candidates.

Even though votes for McMullin did not change the election results, Dr. McMurray illustrated their effect: “The biggest takeaway might be to push back on the assertion that votes have no impact when they fail to change the identity of the election winner: if office holders look at vote totals (which they clearly do) and adjust accordingly (which they plausibly might), every vote will have an impact.” 


But what about abstention? How do people express themselves by not voting? According to Dr. McMurray, there are two reasons a person abstains:

  • People with hunches feel like they don’t have enough information to accurately vote.
  • People believe that the correct thing to do is stay in the political middle; their abstention communicates that they don’t like/support either character.

Abstention sends a different message than voting does. Dr. McMurray provided the following graph to show that the likelihood of a person voting depends on their confidence level.

voting as communicating

The x axis represents a person’s opinion about candidates while the y axis is their knowledge about them; Negative one on either axis represents an extremely liberal perspective, 0 represents political neutrality, and positive one represents extreme conservatism. The more a person knows about a candidate, and the more liberal they are, the more likely they would be to vote for extremely liberal candidate A, but if that person had a low opinion of candidate A, they might vote for candidate B in the hopes that such a vote will influence candidate A to modify their stance. By the same token, the more a person knows about a conservative candidate, and the more conservative they are, the more likely they would be to vote for candidate D, but if they had a low opinion of that candidate, they might vote for candidate C in hopes of influencing candidate D. But, when a person abstains, they may be saying that they think the correct political stance is somewhere between the two opposites, and that, even though they might have strong beliefs, they may still abstain. Dr. McMurray shows with this graph that abstention can be utilized to communicate political beliefs.

Other Forms of Involvement

The study also showed that there are other ways for people to be involved besides voting and abstention.  These “microphones,” as he referred to them, can include trying to persuade others to vote certain ways, writing letters, endorsing candidates, donating money, attending political rallies, and working campaigns. They are more likely to be utilized by those with extreme political ideologies on either side of the liberal/conservative spectrum, as this graph shows:

voting graph


Regarding the hoped-for outcomes of his study, Dr. McMurray says: “I  hope that [it] will convince them to also consider which electoral systems foster the most useful communication from voters to office holders.” He also hopes that looking at voter communication will provide a window into voter and candidate motivations, which in general are difficult to know, but which are hugely important for productive political analyses.

However, understanding voting is more complicated than those results would suggest. Dr. McMurray understands this and is exploring it in future papers by studying how “logical connections between issues may explain why dozens of multi-faceted issues [are] so frequently reduce[d] simply to a left-versus-right contest” and “political polarization.”

What do you think has a bigger impact: voting or abstention?