You're Not Moving to Canada: The Psychology of Post-Election Melodrama

For the vast majority, the effects of Obama's victory will be much less drastic than expected.

suitcases orig 615.jpg

Eight years ago, when the polls began to favor George W. Bush over John Kerry, thousands of progressive Americans planned their exodus to Canada. Canadian immigration applications rose threefold as Kerry's demise loomed, and when Bush emerged victorious, some diehard liberals followed through and fled northward. But six months later, when the post-election smoke cleared, the numbers turned out to be far less impressive than they first appeared. Many of those early applicants withdrew their immigration papers, and chose instead to brace for four years of mild, protracted disgruntlement. In fact, when analysts looked back, the rate of U.S.-Canadian immigration fell during the six month period following President Bush's election to a second term in office. Two years later, on the other side of the political aisle, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh famously promised to leave for Costa Rica if the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010. The Act passed, but Limbaugh continues to live in Palm Beach, Florida.

Now that Barack Obama has emerged victorious, a new crop of immigration promises will go unfulfilled. Just after the election, Republicans are hurting -- but they'll calm down just as Kerry supporters did when Bush was elected to a second term in 2004.

The question, then, is why we're treated to this spike in melodrama every four years. And the answer comes down to a simple psychological truth: that people have no idea how much pain they'll feel when they experience a dreaded outcome.

Psychologists have known this for some time now. In 1978, Philip Brickman and his colleagues interviewed accident victims, lottery winners, and a sample of control citizens who hadn't experienced a major life event. The accident victims were in rehabilitation following major trauma that rendered most of them unable to use their arms and legs. In stark contrast, the lottery winners had won an average of $2 million in today's terms. If Obama supporters are happier than Romney supporters today, you'd surely expect that margin to pale in comparison to the disparity in wellbeing between lottery winners and accident victims. A researcher interviewed the lottery winners, accident victims, and controls one at a time, and asked them how happy they generally felt on a scale that ranged from "not at all happy" to "very happy." The lottery winners and controls were generally happier than the accident victims, but the difference was strikingly modest. All three groups used the more positive half of the scale, indicating that they were generally pretty happy, and the lottery winners were only a single point happier than the accident victims on the six-point scale.

Brickman's results were far from a fluke, as a group of social psychologists showed sixteen years later, in 1994, when George W. Bush beat incumbent Democratic governor Ann Richards to become the 46th governor of Texas. Shortly before the election, Dan Gilbert and his colleagues asked a sample of voters to predict how they'd feel when their preferred candidate either won or lost the election. Anticipating a Bush victory, the Democratic voters expected to be much less happy than they were before the election, while Republican voters expected to ride a wave of long-term elation. A month later, when the researchers contacted them again, the voters had returned to the business of everyday life, noting that they were just as happy or sad as they had been before the election. The election's effects on their lives, for good or bad, were surprisingly modest and short-lived.

More recently, we've come to learn plenty about why people overestimate the impact of major life events (and election outcomes) on their enduring sense of wellbeing. Our tendency to overestimate the impact of these events -- known as the impact bias -- comes down in large part to two psychological quirks.

The first of those quirks is the urge to forget that life is about far more than election outcomes--or even the ability to walk following a devastating accident. In truth, most of life is a series of mundane events, from rising in the morning to eat breakfast, to choosing an outfit for work, to reading the newspaper; and so on. We tend to reconstruct the past by remembering the few very emotional events that punctuate our otherwise routine existences, but those events are in the tiny minority. (Danny Kahneman and his colleagues have shown this in many studies when they've asked people to carry small electronic diaries in which they indicate what they're doing and how they're feeling dozens of times a day.) In the end, the events that unite election winners and losers, or accident victims and lottery winners, are far more plentiful than the events that distinguish those groups. Despite what Hollywood might have you believe, even the rich and famous go to the bathroom, suffer occasional bouts of indigestion, and sometimes wish the dog would walk itself. The pain of Obamas's victory will subside for Republicans, and their lives will continue to be dominated by the same pedestrian events that dominated them before November 6, 2012.

The second foible that explains why defeat only stings briefly is our tendency to overestimate how long psychological pain will last. Just as you might treat a deep gash with antibiotic ointment and bandages, we're equipped with a sophisticated psychological immune system that targets serious psychological injury. For ardent Romney supporters--particularly those who expected him to win easily--that pain is likely to be severe, and the psychological immune system kicks in more keenly following greater injury. So while the loss hurts a lot at first, it hurts less with each passing day, until the post-election era becomes a new normal. Like Ann Richards supporters a month after she lost the 1994 Texas gubernatorial election to George W. Bush, in a matter of weeks Republicans who promised to decamp to Canada if Barack Obama won a second term will go back to living the same lives in the same country they inhabited before the calamity of a Democratic victory in the 2012 Presidential election.