Arthur Markman is Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing in the Department of Psychology. His research examines the way people think and reason, from the effects of motivation on learning and performance, analogical reasoning and categorization to decision-making and creativity. Markman also is an expert consultant to the Dr. Phil show and writes the blog “Ulterior Motives” for Psychology Today magazine.
Preferences increase optimism about future outcomes.
We’re getting close to the election now. If you watch TV on election night, you’re guaranteed to see the same images that we have seen in election coverage in the past. Supporters and campaign workers for the two main candidates gather in an auditorium. There are streamers and balloons. As the election returns start to come in, one group gets more excited while the other group stares dejectedly at the TV monitors. The sadness seems enhanced by the sense that supporters of the losing candidate really thought there was a reasonable chance they were going to win the election.
In this age of polling, how could supporters of both major candidates in an election each think they were likely to win the election?
A paper in the January 2010 issue of Psychological Science by Zlatan Krizan, Jeffrey Miller and Omesh Johar examines the factors that lead supporters of a candidate to believe that their candidate is going to win.
Obviously, there are a few kinds of voters. Many people have strong party affiliations, and they will tend to support whatever candidate their party puts up in an election. Others are more independent and make their choice of who to vote for as the election draws closer.
For those people who make their decision late, one possibility is that they make a judgment about which candidate is going to win and jump on the bandwagon as the election draws closer. A second possibility is that the growing appreciation for a particular candidate increases their belief that the candidate is going to win the election.
To distinguish between these possibilities, the researchers studied a group of undecided voters in the month before the 2008 presidential election between Barack Obama and John McCain. Each week for the four weeks before the election, people expressed who they were leaning toward voting for on a scale from 1 (strongly leaning toward Obama) to 7 (strongly leaning toward McCain). They also rated their belief about how likely the candidates were to win the election on the same scale. (The order in which the questions were asked was varied throughout the study.) Finally, after the election, the researchers got ratings of people’s excitement or disappointment after the election.
This kind of design that takes place over time allows the researchers to examine whether a preference for a candidate at one time predicts the strength of their belief that the candidate will win on the following week. Likewise, it is possible to determine whether belief about whether a candidate will win affects likelihood of voting for that candidate the following week.
The results demonstrated strongly that people’s opinion about who they were going to vote for had a big influence on their opinion about who was going to win the election the following week. The reverse was not true though. Beliefs about who was going to win the election did not affect people’s choices about who they were going to vote for.
These results clearly support the idea that as people select a candidate to support in an election, they become more optimistic that their favored candidate will win.
What does this matter?
By the day of the election, those people who were the strongest supporters of John McCain were also the ones who felt he had the best chance to win the election. Remember that the 2008 presidential election was not particularly close. Barack Obama was declared the winner soon after the polls closed on the West Coast. Yet, ratings taken right after the election by these researchers suggest that those people who felt strongest that McCain was going to win the election were the ones who were most disappointed at the outcome.
This disappointment can make it more difficult for people to accept the results of an election and can help polarize public opinion. Thus, candidates who lose an election should help their supporters cope with disappointment and move beyond the election results to bring greater unity to the population after the election.
More election posts from Arthur Markman:
- Oct. 19: Agreeing to disagree: The difference between talking at and talking with someone else
- Oct. 12: Who would believe that Obama is Muslim?
- Oct. 5: Do you really know why you hate the incumbent?
Visit the mid-term elections blog series home page for a complete lineup of faculty experts’ analyses.