Promises promises: When politicians don’t deliver

The harsh reality of the morning after

Posted Nov 02, 2010

Every politician knows that the key to winning elections is to make great promises. Campaigners promise to cure the ills of society including taxes, war, government corruption, and pollution. Instead, if elected, they will bring about vast improvements in education, employment, infrastructure, and the economy.

The size of the elected office seems almost correlated with the size of the promise. Even at the state or local level, however, politicians in close races may attempt to extract a few additional votes by promising to improve a specific problem that an interest group cares about the most.

There's no need here to detail the many broken campaign promises that have accumulated throughout history. For example, when Jon Stewart interviewed Barack Obama, he questioned whether the President had substituted campaign "audacity" with legislative "timidity." Whether or not this was a fair characterization, the point is that no politician is immune from either (a) not living up to pre-election hype or (b) being accused of (a). Interestingly, the media clips from the interview did not show the President's entire response, which clarified how he intended to make step-by-step progress.

In many ways, voters are the eternal optimists who can't learn from experience. We want to believe that our politicians will improve our lives. But when post-election reality hits, we forget how unrealistic we were in believing that somehow "this time," the outcome would be different. In 2008, many Obama supporters and independent voters alike got caught up in this sort of mass delusion of inflated expectations. Supporters sought miraculous results from Obama and the Democratic Congress who they voted into office and when the miracle failed to materialize, they reacted with outrage and contempt. Tea Partiers capitalized on the angry mood of disillusioned voters, many of them basing their candidacies on the premise that their candidates would fulfill a new set of largely unrealistic promises.

It may seem that the negative climate in politics has gotten worse in recent years, but broken promises and voter discontent are hardly 21st century phenomena. Perhaps what's new is the extensive repository of videos that can now be contrasted with the actions (or inaction) of those who've won an election. People don't have to rely on the sometimes vague and obscure print media; a politician's glaring inconsistencies now goes viral within minutes of the discovery.

Research in marketing psychology provides intriguing insights into why broken campaign promises "hurt so bad." The effect known as "negative expectancy disconfirmation" has been demonstrated in studies involving consumer products that fail to deliver on their promised effects. According to this research, we have a bias toward being more angry when a product fails to perform than to be happy when it lives up to its claims. What's worse, as shown by Canadian team Peter Darke and colleagues (2009), when one product fails to perform, we generalize to other similar products. We may even generalize to the advertising agency that marketed the product and also distrust the other products it promotes. We may even go beyond this irrational extrapolation to distrust the competitor's product or very different products from very different firms. In fact, we stop trusting all advertising, period.

This particular study involved ads for stain removers that failed to perform, a relatively small stakes situation. As the impact on our lives of broken promises becomes more pronounced, as when we vote someone into a position of high authority, the effect can only be magnified. In other words, we come to distrust all politicians, all of those who work for politicians, and at the national level, Washington (or London or Rome or Ottawa, etc.) completely.

In the U.S. presidential election of 2008, numerous first-time voters not only hopped on, but led, the Obama bandwagon. Many experienced the expectancy disconfirmation effect for the first time. In fact, we're seeing this now in polls showing the disaffection of young voters toward the political process. Older and more cynical voters most likely have built up enough defense mechanisms so as to avoid the most painful stings of disappointment. However, it seems that no one is completely immune to negative expectancy disconfirmation.

If politicians are ever to be able to lead, there will have to be an end at some point to the negative expectancy disconfirmation effect. We have to learn to trust again. Great leaders require not only the ability to take bold action, but the willingness of citizens to allow them to try to win without having to make wild and unrealistic promises. On the morning after, it would be nice to wake up and be able to feel that whoever won or lost, the change is one we can truly "believe in."

To sum up, the apparently pervasive nature of negative expectancy disconfirmation is hard to fight. Here are some suggestions for avoiding its impact on your life:
1. Read both sides to every story. Inform yourself of what people actually said on the campaign trail, not what they were reported to have said.
2. Listen carefully to what politicians say. Try not to project your own wishes and desires into a candidate's statement. Sometimes we hear them say what we want them to hear.
3. Offer to volunteer for a candidate you trust. Whether it's a vote for the local school board, town official, or state representative or senator, you might feel more invigorated if you can work on behalf of a cause that's important to you.
4. Make up your own mind. Polls are becoming as pervasive as campaign ads, and they don't stop after the election. Don't be swayed by sample statistics and keep a sharp eye on those margins of error which can be as high as 3%.
5. Teach your children well. If adults become disaffected by the political process then what people fear about our society being in decline will come true. Keep a balanced but positive perspective on the democratic process for the sake of the next generation.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010





Darke,P.R., Ashworth, L., & Main, K.J. (2009). Great expectations and broken promises: misleading claims,pproduct failure, expectancy disconfirmation and consumer distrust. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 38, 347-362.