# Why do people think downvotes need explanation?

Stack Exchange (or, at least, MSE) has the interesting phenomenon that people often demand for downvotes to have an accompanying justification.

However, I don't see this on other sites I visit with a up/down ratings system. Occasionally people might ask why something gets downvoted, but there is rarely a sense that they are entitled to a justification, and even more rarely does peer pressure favor such entitlement.

I see pushback against downvotes, of course, it just doesn't manifest in this form.

(admittedly, I do not widely participate in social media, so my perception may not reflect the norm)

So what is different about this site gives people the idea that they are entitled to an explanation for a downvote? Is there good reason for that opinion? Is it just something that some early adopters did and it turned into a SE-local meme? Something else?

• I think this question is too premature, given the most recent, now closed question/rant about downvotes. It seems to add little to the debate, and you fail to mention the equally important question: Why do people expect an explanation for a downvote, but not an upvote? (Likely psychologically based, but it is as deserving of discussion about your "wonderment" about why on MSE is there this apparent expectation for an explanation for downvotes.) My point is, your question likely has a psychologically-based answer, which is really off topic on meta, and mse. – amWhy Oct 2 '18 at 16:00
• I think the common theme with this and a lot of other social issues is the "calling-out" aspect, because that is apparently the intention for that practice. Right now there is a lot of "calling-out" going on with social issues, with varying degrees of appropriateness depending on your perspective. Seen that way, it doesn't sound like a question that's particularly confined to math.se. It's probably a trend the country/culture/internet is going through. – rschwieb Oct 2 '18 at 16:28
• Among the reasons why explanations are not as important with upvotes are (1) The poster already knows some reasons why the posting is of value, and (2) An upvote does not imply that the poster should alter the posting or write future postings differently. – Michael Hardy Oct 2 '18 at 17:21
• @MichaelHardy But no, the poster may be misled by insincere upvotes, pity upvotes (on poor posts, which happens more frequently than ill intentioned downvotes) and hence be misled about the merits (or lack thereof) of their posts. That subverts learning severely: to be "positively (dishonestly) reinforced" for the posting of nonsense, naivite, completee lack of understanding, or for having done absolutely nothing except demand that users on this site do their work for them, is the ultimate crime. – amWhy Oct 2 '18 at 17:28
• @amWhy : One reason for not explaining what's wrong with a posting applies to your comment above. Explaining what's wrong with it could easily take several hours and even a severely terse explanation would require at least four or five and likely ten or twelve comments here (given the length limit on comments). So I'll just give an answer that will be enough to cause you to suspect that more could be said: This comment of yours and others in the past cause me to suspect you of buying in to that view of academia that condones the practice of treating the pursuit$\,\ldots\,\,$ – Michael Hardy Oct 2 '18 at 17:33
• And giving false grades, inflated grades, giving everyone: the hard workers and the students who miss many classes, don't read the text, and come crying for pity on the day of the final, ALL an A. The severest injustice is to the students who actually work hard, try time and again, pass tests, attend regularly, study hard, who earn A's, just like their fellow students who never opened a text. In any case, the analagy here on this site: questions that get honest upvotes deserve them. While questions cramming to meet a homework deadline by reading 3 chapters in 2 hours, don't. – amWhy Oct 2 '18 at 17:39
• Michael Hardy: let poor questions reap their downvotes, and good questions reap their upvotes. Most questions receiving downvotes are no surprise to the corresponding asker. If you demand one sort of vote is justified, that's absurd unless you insist that all votes, up or down, be justified. I'm looking for equity. You're looking for favoritism to the worst of the worst questions, favoring users who don't research, don't try, don't tell us what they know, don't bother with familiarizing themselves with the expectations of this site, or when they're told them, don't care. – amWhy Oct 2 '18 at 17:44
• @amWhy : Your comment above reinforces my suspicion that you take that view of academia. I would abolish grades except as private communications from instructors to students, possibly with some exceptions. – Michael Hardy Oct 2 '18 at 17:51
• @Hurkyl what is different One difference is the expectation of "context" and "own effort" here. Just downvoting the question with no explanation leaves both the poster and future readers wondering what's wrong with an otherwise valid, on-topic math question. The other case is the often practiced serial downvoting of answers to PSQs. Without any reason given, unsuspecting readers will figure that there must be some math flaw in the answer itself, which is misleading and does a disservice to MSE at large. – dxiv Oct 2 '18 at 17:57
• There is no symmetry between an upvote and a downvote. An upvote is a nice pleasantry in a forum where a 'thanks' and 'you're welcome' are frowned upon. A downvote usually indicates something wrong that needs to be addressed. – copper.hat Oct 3 '18 at 3:03
• My limited experience in this regard is that downvotes which I received with comments have proved to be useful to me (when my answer had some issues) as well as to the downvoter (when my answer did not have any issues) as both have added something to their knowledge base. – Paramanand Singh Oct 3 '18 at 7:47
• it's unconstructive criticism – Hjan Oct 4 '18 at 16:36
• On some other stack exhange sites, casting a down vote brings the automatic response "Please consider adding a comment if you think this post can be improved." This comes from "the system", not from an entitled user, so it's not exactly what you were asking about, but knowing the reason for the existence of this canned message might help to find the answer to your question. – bof Oct 5 '18 at 1:40
• @quid: "Why the downvote" is the most common form and I also learnt to use it whenever needed. But one should not try to infer anything more than a request here unless explicitly stated. I admit one could be a bit more polite like "The downvote perhaps indicates some issue with my post. Please let me know if something can be improved" but mostly people restrict to common version because it is shorter to type. – Paramanand Singh Oct 5 '18 at 13:46
• Because of gamification. If you get downvoted, you can't be sure if it's because you're genuinely wrong or because they're being petty. It could even be the case that you're getting downvoted in retaliation for one of your downvotes on someone else's answer that you justified. – Bill Thomas Oct 12 '18 at 21:34

I am not so surprised by a lack of symmetry in some situations. While an upvote usually stands for everything is fine / this contribution is useful / I am glad I learned something today , a downvote usually stands for something is not quite right. In such a case it is very useful for the downvoted person to know what is not right. In order to preserve the anonymity principle of the upvote/downvote process explanations for downvotes cannot be made compulsory, but they clearly are a kind gesture.

• Not true. Many upvotes stand for "I pity you". or "I feel sorry for you because your poor question got two downvotes, so I want to compensate" or "I answered your question, so I'll upvote your question because it will make my answer look more significant, and I want this questions to stay open so my answer will remain. Sure, some upvotes match what they are "supposed to mean", but we can't know that for sure, and they are not as helpful, until the upvoter explains why the question was upvoted. – amWhy Oct 2 '18 at 22:54
• it is very useful for the downvoted person to know what is not right (+1) It is also very useful for future readers, who may not even be MSE users but land here via e.g. google, to be able to tell apart "policing" downvotes vs. "math contents" downvotes. – dxiv Oct 3 '18 at 1:13
• -1 This is a reasonable answer to a question that was not asked by the OP. The question is not "why aren't downvotes treated symmetrically to upvotes", and I seriously doubt Hurkyl is "surprised" by this lack of symmetry. – Derek Elkins Oct 3 '18 at 20:14
• @DerekElkins: on the other hand the (not necessary, according to my opinion) idea that we need some sort of symmetry is clearly outlined in the comments below the main question. – Jack D'Aurizio Oct 3 '18 at 20:30
• @amWhy I find it contradictory not to upvote a question if you answer it. It was obviously clear enough to contain all information necessary for you to answer it, and it was interesting and novel enough not to close as a duplicate. – pipe Oct 4 '18 at 12:21
• @pipe Clear != useful. It may only be useful to the asker, not the answerer (too localized question). /// By the way, the latter statement doesn't apply for the "oldest duplicate question". – user202729 Oct 5 '18 at 12:36
• @pipe: for users who answer "questions copied from an assigned exercise", with no effort, and written in the imperative, there is no reason the questions should be answered in the first place. So if one isn't answering what shouldn't be answered, there is no reason to upvote the poor "do my work for me" imperative. If someone decides to do the work the asker has demanded, that doesn't mean the question is a good question. If they subsequently, not only answer a poor "do it for me" question, but upvote it too, because they answered it, they've made a two consecutive mistakes. – amWhy Oct 6 '18 at 21:55
• IMHO, many a downvote comes from someone fishing for an answer (often self-study) who failed to get a solution they wanted. – eSurfsnake Oct 8 '18 at 3:45

The goal is to improve quality. This means that downvoters better tell what should be improved. Particularly since readers may not be able to detect the presence of downvotes.

Generally, it is my impression that downvotes by themselves have so little weight that the author of the downvoted post can often afford to simply ignore them. That course of non-action is made easier if it is not pointed out what is wrong with the post.

In threads with several answers, some users find it tempting to max out their vote casts by downvoting to order. If a downvote is not of that sort, a declaration to that effect might clear up things.

An effect to keep in mind may be that, if a downvote has been explained, others can easily follow suit and add their downvote. In that sense, a textual explanation may have numerical downvote amplification effects. Perhaps this explains why downvotes have been assigned so little weight: To incentivize clarification with potential amplification effects.

Added: I do not agree with the notion that anyone is entitled to an explanation for a downvote, or that a downvote needs to be justified with an explanation. That is not the case at all. If a post deserves a downvote, it does so without regard to your communication abilities. It is just that a downvote does not confer as much information as we'd generally like. In a sense, it is low-quality feedback. It can be improved (and possibly amplified) with an explanation.

• Good answer. Also, in other communities, many questions are prone to subjective criteria. Mathematics is an area where objective criteria can be easily used to improve the quality of answers. – An old man in the sea. Oct 3 '18 at 19:18
• Improving the quality of the question is only one goal of downvotes. There's also improving the quality of the site by (eventually) eliminating low quality questions, and signaling to other readers that a question is probably not worth their time. The story for downvoting answers is a little different but similar enough. – Derek Elkins Oct 3 '18 at 19:58
• @DerekElkins: Even if your goal is to get rid of the question, it likely is helpful to explicitly mention why you think this question is low quality. A downvote by itself doesn't tell anyone anything about the reason. Neither to the original poster, who is thus deprived of a way to improve, nor to other users who might not consider it a low quality question, but might change their opinion if they learn about your reason. – celtschk Oct 5 '18 at 10:42
• @celtschk: when one gets rid of a question (via closure) the reason is clearly stated in a comment (off topic, duplicate, missing context) and this is not the point of contention. – Paramanand Singh Oct 5 '18 at 15:45

The question should not be whether the poster is entitled to an explanation as much as whether the community (including the poster) should be given an explanation.

If the poster does not know why a question was down-voted, then the down-vote is at best not useful. What aspect of the posting, or of any future postings, should be changed in order to improve either the one that was down-voted or any future postings? There's no way to know. And someone cannot write a brief comment verbally explaining the objection should reconsider frequenting forums for exchange of information.

Among the reasons why explanations are not as important with upvotes are (1) The poster already knows some reasons why the posting is of value, and (2) An upvote does not imply that the poster should alter the posting or write future postings differently. (The second reason is already implicit in the previous paragraph.)

• Then we should insist the community is entitled to explanations for any and every user's upvote of a question/answer. You keep avoiding this asymmetry in your perpetual, much repeated insistence that down votes be justified. All I insist is that you pay equal attention and energy advocating for the necessity of having every upvote accompanied with a justification. Until you're willing to do that, you're verbage will fall on deaf ears as being biased. – amWhy Oct 2 '18 at 17:24
• @amWhy : I did not avoid the asymmetry; rather I posted a comment on it under the question. I will add the comment to this answer. – Michael Hardy Oct 2 '18 at 17:24
• You still avoid my comment under your comment under the answer. If an asker is clueless as to what might be wrong about their question (or it's form of being asked on MSE), they will be just as clueless as to any virtues, particularly when it is accompanied by "I feel sorry for you; here, let me help make you feel better, even though it's obvious you haven't a clue as to what you are asking, and nor do we." Indeed, with such an unjustified upvote, the upvoter contributes to "lying to the asker", instead of being forthright, and explaining what is wrong with the post. – amWhy Oct 2 '18 at 17:34
• @amWhy : "they will be just as clueless as to any virtues" That statement in itself is almost certainly wrong for reasons I've already mentioned, and you've merely asserted it without attempting to make a case for it. But here's a simpler objection than the deeper ones that might take a long time to explain: A clueless person is more likely to write a post worth down-voting than is a person who is not clueless, and the latter is more likely to write a post worth up-voting; therefore the clueless person is more likely to need an explanation. And cluelessness should not be$\,\ldots\qquad$ – Michael Hardy Oct 2 '18 at 17:47
• $\ldots\,$treated as an occasion for disrespect. Some very bright and industrious people are clueless about what is appropriate on a site when they are newbies. – Michael Hardy Oct 2 '18 at 17:47
• I think people are more likely to use downvotes when they want a question or answer to be less visible, because it adds no value; if I see a flaw in a post that I expect to be fixed if I point it out, I comment instead of downvoting. But if I see a correct answer and a wrong answer to a question, there is often no point to fixing the wrong answer, because the right answer is already there. (And if I see a flaw that I don't expect to be fixed if I point it out, then I may as well just downvote.) – Misha Lavrov Oct 2 '18 at 17:53
• You create an untenable dichotomy, dear Michael. I have no problem with a user who is very confused, and isn't quite sure what the question they need to answer even means. Saying as much, and stating the question, and identifying definitions of say two terms in the question, and specifying, say, "when they ask "at most one", are they asking for all cases with one such occurences, or all cases less than or equal to one such occurrences?" That's a good question. What is not a good question is "Prove xyz. I have no clue." Period. But you're just playing games now, @Michael ... – amWhy Oct 2 '18 at 17:54
• @MishaLavrov : I down-vote flawed postings. It seems as if some people downvote postings when they see them as evidence of something wrong with the poster. But clearly there is insufficient evidence to pass such judgments here. – Michael Hardy Oct 2 '18 at 17:55
• ...and mis-characterizing folks who care and want to help, but care enough not to make students even more helpless than they've learned to be when they've come to rely on MSE to "do their work for them." I respect users more than that. And you weren't asked to come here to babysit. – amWhy Oct 2 '18 at 17:56
• @amWhy : I can't afford to play games. If someone posts "Prove xyz." that's usually a bad posting that should be closed. (But in some cases the content of "xyz" might be something to consider.) But there are many postings that don't look like that that get down-voted. – Michael Hardy Oct 2 '18 at 17:57
• Where ever did you get the impression that I believe every post with a close post earned that close vote, @MichaelHardy? Again, you are mischaracterizing me. But not all upvoted posts deserve their upvotes. Until that fact gets as much attention as your and a few others spend vilifying anyone who downvotes a post you think is fine, I have nothing more to say. Anyone reading this conversations will clearly see you are rather more polarized than I. Have a good day, Michael. Good bye. – amWhy Oct 2 '18 at 18:05
• I'm not sure that this answer is self-consistent. The first paragraph says that we should consider the community, not just OP; the second paragraph says that a downvote cannot be useful unless it is explained to OP. But I understood that votes are primarily for the benefit of the community, not the OP: to tell third parties whether the question is worth their time or not. – Peter Taylor Oct 3 '18 at 10:06
• I removed a lot of comments on this post. For those wondering why a certain chat-room was deleted: it was not deleted, but it is not generally accessible at the moment. This was mentioned in the Math Mods' office chat, which as a rule is a good venue to get informed about such things. Another would be flags. Idle speculation in comments is not. – quid Oct 5 '18 at 10:54

I will concentrate on the question why MSE may be somewhat different in this respect and refrain from the discussion about the value of down-votes with or without explanation.

This applies at least to answers (but admittedly to a lesser extent to questions): Many other sites' posts are much more subjective and opinion-based. If I got a down-vote without a comment, I would simply assume that the down-voter disagrees with the opinion reflected in my post. Everyone has the freedom to disagree in this case and it does not mean that something is wrong with the post itself. But the posts here (usually) aren't (or shouldn't be) opinion-based.

I would be curious to see if there is a significant difference between the main site and this meta site, which is full of opinions.

• I agree there is something to this - sometimes the person who was downvoted thinks that mathematical correctness is the only criterion for voting (which, of course, it is not). Other times, the post presents an interpretation of "how to think about" the topic, and like all interpretations these can be subjective, even though they are about math. So the misplaced beliefs that "all math is objective" and "only correctness is a criterion for voting" cause people to argue about downvotes. – Carl Mummert Oct 5 '18 at 13:52
• @CarlMummert: I do have this thought process with answers. After getting my fair share of anonymous downvotes on my answers I realized that some downvotes are given for answers to poor questions. These downvotes I happily ignore, but apart from this I do feel that a downvote indicates some room for improvement. – Paramanand Singh Oct 5 '18 at 15:36