Why This Election Is Much Less Satisfying (or Harrowing) Than You Thought It Would Be

Winning is much less satisfying when the other side doesn't concede it was wrong, for one.

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Jason Reed / Reuters

If you're the sort of person who lives and breathes elections -- and if you're reading this, there's a good chance you are -- you probably had a deep emotional investment in this one. You might have predicted that you'd be impossibly elated or horribly depressed in its aftermath. Expecting that is natural, but as it turns out, it's also wrong.

Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard researcher in happiness studies, has shown repeatedly how crummy human beings are at predicting what will make us feel good. Again and again, we suffer from something called "impact bias," in which we overestimate how much influence a particular outcome (like winning the lottery or becoming a paraplegic) will have on our mood. And the presidential election is no exception, as Gilbert and colleagues found when they tested this theory on the Bush v. Gore showdown.

In 2000, while the nation was baiting its breath and biting its fingernails during the Florida recount, Gilbert and others polled college-aged Bush and Gore supporters about how they thought they'd feel in the election's aftermath, depending on what happened. The subjects were polled again when Al Gore conceded a month later. The Bush supporters didn't feel nearly as happy as they'd predicted they'd feel, while the Gore supporters didn't feel nearly as bad. The scholars wrote that Bush supporters likely engaged in "focalism," a phenomenon in which people consider only how a single event might make them happy, without considering all the other things that might affect their mood when the occasion arises. Gore supporters, meanwhile, appeared to rationalize the defeat by downplaying their support for Gore (a kind of sour grapes effect), and by describing the issues at stake in the election as less important than they had previously.

There's another reason why this election, like all elections, might not be as satisfying as Obama supporters expected it to be. It has to do with the way losers concede. From the candidate on down, they'll usually allow that they ran a mediocre race, but they rarely allow that the winners were right - or even that they had a point - which is what winners want most of all. Instead, the losers reiterate that the fight goes on. "This election is over, but our principles endure," is how Mitt Romney put it in his concession speech. Or, as George F. Will put it, "This election was fought over two issues as old as the Republic, the proper scope and actual competence of government. The president persuaded...almost exactly half the voters. The argument continues."

These tendencies -- how people fail to predict their own happiness, and how political losers concede -- hold true across elections, and regardless of party. But there's a third factor at work that's specific to this particular election, and it has to do with how human beings value potential over actual accomplishment. As Karla Starr wrote recently in Slate, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that subjects preferred unknown but promising individuals over people of actual significant accomplishment. An accomplished basketball player was overthrown for a rookie with good-looking projected stats. An artist believed capable of winning a particular award was more appealing than an artist who'd actually won it. Researchers believe that rather than shying away from uncertainty, people actually like it - so long as the little information available is positive. We tend to extrapolate out from those clues, to assume there's moregood stuff where they came from.

Let's face it: This might as well be called the Barack Obama effect. Four years ago, one of the greatest arguments launched against the then-Illinois senator was what John McCain called his "naivete and inexperience." And of course, all "that hopey, changey stuff" was so powerful precisely because Obama was so different, so young, so new -- so very promising, in fact. Today, we know who he is -- and what he's capable of. The Barack Obama effect may explain why 2012's enthusiasm for the president wasn't quite like 2008's enthusiasm for the candidate, and it may also explain why that all just-elected excitement for the guy will probably fade pretty fast.

Which might be of some comfort to the president. When all those disaffected Obama voters turn against him once again, he can tell himself it's not entirely his fault. Our cognitive biases are showing.

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Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a former Washington Post reporter.

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