Monday, February 15, 2010

Wishful Thinking

I've always liked scholarly work in the area of wishful thinking and I've published a few pieces myself on this very human tendency to project our own preferences on predictions of some outcome.  In other words, because we prefer a certain candidate, we're more likely to predict that candidate will win an election.

This study examines the 2008 election and young people, which is a neat twist.  Published in Psychological Science, the authors find results that are not very surprising if you've read deeply in the literature -- such as those with stronger partisan ties are more likely to engage in wishful thinking.  They do something here many studies do not, following people over time.  That's different and important.  They conclude:
Taken together, these findings make for the most compelling case to date that electoral expectations are indeed driven by political preferences. These expectations, in turn, influence reactions to the election, so that above and beyond the influence of political preferences, optimism about the losing candidate can also exacerbate disappointment.
The first part, that preferences drive expectations, is hardly new.  Study after study has documented this effect.  Indeed it's a lot more complicated than that.  Partisans are more likely to see their candidate as a winner even when presented polls that suggest otherwise.  So are those who feel strongly about an election.

It's that last line I find fascinating, the "exacerbate disappointment."  I spent a couple of months cranking data to test if those who expected to win an election -- but lost -- had lower feelings of trust in the democratic process than perhaps those who were also on the losing side but expected to be losers.   I didn't find much, but dammit it's a good idea, so maybe I'll revisit the issue some day.  The problem is, this gets all caught up in which political party is the winner and loser and what election you study.  The 2000 presidential election year, for example, is an obviously weird one, and 2004 only a little better, and a 2008-only focus means the losers are clearly GOPers who may be pissed a losing but, I suspect, don't score low on trust in the democratic process.  The only way to truly do this is to collapse many years together and examine the trust thing.

Finally, the study's major flaw is that it fails to cite my own wishful thinking study.  Reason enough this study should never have been published! (just kidding.  really.  okay, maybe not)

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