This year, as the mathematical models of New York Times’ Nate Silver and other statisticians began showing that the odds of President Barack Obama being reelected were huge, some disgruntled voters on the right tweeted that they would be moving to Australia if those prognostications proved true.
Eight years ago, it was people on the left who huffed about packing up and leaving the U.S. if President George W. Bush got reelected. Their political haven of choice, however, was closer and colder: Canada.
But, of course, very, very few people actually move when a presidential election — or other political event — doesn’t go their way. (In 2010, Rush Limbaugh famously declared he’d relocate to Costa Rica if the Affordable Care Act became law. He’s still ensconced in Palm Beach, Fla.)
Overestimating the pain
In an article published online Wednesday on the Atlantic magazine’s website, Adam Alter, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at New York University’s Stern School of Business, tells us why Australia need not worry about an influx of immigration applications from America’s Republicans.
“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,” he writes.
Alter points to a classic 1978 study in which social psychologist Philip Brickman made the counterintuitive finding that people who had become severely disabled in accidents were only modestly less happy than lottery winners.
“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,” writes Alter. “Shortly before the election, [Harvard University psychologist] 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.”
A ‘psychological quirk’
One of the “psychological quirks” that makes us overestimate the impact that an event like an election will have on our lives, adds Alter, 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.
Oh, and for those on the right who still insist that they’re going to be decamping for Australia: You may want to do some research first. As one Down-Under resident reminded Republicans on Twitter this week, Australia has universal health care, strict gun laws, no death penalty, openly gay politicians and judges, and a female prime minister who is an unmarried atheist.
You can read Alter’s article on the Atlantic’s website.