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.