Regardless of one's political affiliations, Tuesday's midterm elections triggered a seismic shift not only in the balance of power in Congress but in the emotions of many voters throughout the country as well.
For most of my liberal friends, the Republican landslide left them filled with deep dread. For most of my conservative friends, the election infused them with a giddy excitement about glorious days ahead.
Interestingly, the psychological literature suggests that both sides have at least one thing in common -- their sense of gloom or exuberance for the days ahead is probably greatly over-exaggerated.
Clearly, over the past few days the emotions of Democrats have become more negative and the emotions of Republicans have become more positive. And I am certainly not suggesting that this week's election results were inconsequential. However, research would suggest that the expectation of never-ending dread and deepening optimism held by liberals and conservatives (respectively) is likely over-estimated by both groups.
Specifically, research has shown that people are very bad at affective forecasting (i.e., the accuracy with which people anticipate their emotions and how long their positive or negative feelings will last). For instance, research in the literature shows that people overestimate their emotional reactions to positive and negative events in a variety of circumstances. As an example, people asked to forecast how they would feel if their current relationship ended expect to feel worse than people who actually do experience break-ups.
In another study, researchers asked new faculty members who had not yet stood for tenure at their university how they would feel either 5 years after receiving tenure or 5 years after being denied tenure. Not surprisingly, these pre-tenured faculty members expected they would feel very elated 5 years after successfully earning tenure but would feel very depressed 5 years after failing to get tenure. Yet when assessing actual faculty members who either did or did not receive tenure, there was no difference in their emotions five years later. Those who were denied tenure found other things to make them happy and those who received tenure had little time to revel in their accomplishment.
Relevancy for the most-recent election
But perhaps one of the most striking demonstrations in the literature, and one that is especially germane to the events of this week, was a study looking at how people would feel following a political election loss. Specifically, they asked supporters of (then) Texas Governor Ann Richards how they would feel if she lost her bid for re-election to (then) upstart politician George W. Bush. When asked pre-election, her supporters forecasted that they would feel very sad one month after the election if Richards were to lose. As we now know, Bush defeated Richards, bringing about the undesired outcome for Richards's supporters. Yet interestingly, when her supporters were contacted one month after the election and asked about their happiness, Richards's supporters were actually far happier than they expected, and they were even happier than Bush's supporters (whose candidate actually won the election).
What underlies this effect?
In short, it appears that people are pretty lousy at predicting their emotional reactions and their duration for both good and bad events alike. That is not to say that the election will not make Democrats depressed and Republicans elated in the short run. However, in the long run, the expectations of protracted "doom and gloom" for Democrats or "happy days are here again" for Republicans is probably too strong.
There are a number of reasons why our affective forecasts are errant. For starters, we are often unaware of what other factors will enter our lives to offset the misfortunes or joys that we anticipate experiencing. The lover whose heart is crushed will find new loves, new friends, and new hobbies that in the present they cannot foresee. And similarly, the recipient of a new promotion will not anticipate how the added responsibilities and more demanding travel schedule will consume one's time and energies. Also, our emotions tend to have fast, strong swings but do not persist at intense levels for very long. Thus, the sting of a bad election night or the giddiness of a new political landscape will all-too-quickly subside. And lastly, people engage in a variety of psychological processes such as rationalization and motivated reasoning that will slowly but surely reshape their perceptions of reality and can make even an unthinkable situation more acceptable (and sometimes, ironically, welcomed).
In a climate where political antipathy seems inexhaustible and people of divergent political orientations seem to have no common ground, it is refreshing to realize that psychological processes will exert themselves similarly regardless of whether one is a strident Obama supporter or a tricorn-wearing Tea Party supporter.
Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Affective forecasting. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 35, pp. 345-411). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.