Blind Faith? New Research Reports Voters Show Unfounded Confidence in Their Candidates

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Many Americans stay loyal to their political candidates of choice even when the polls go against them, new research finds.

Psychologists call it the “false consensus effect,” which leads people to project their own preferences on the masses, whether accurate or not.

The study, published recently in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences journal, reports that potential voters undergo a psychological phenomenon described as “disparate perceptual worlds.”

The Medill News Service spoke with Northwestern University economist Charles F. Manski, co-author of the journal article with Adeline Delavande of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex. Here’s what Manski said about society’s approach to presidential and congressional elections.President Barack Obama in Maine during the 2008 campaign. A new study tracked Americans' confidence in their preferred candidates during the 2008 and 2010 elections. (Thomas Owen/Medill)President Barack Obama in Maine during the 2008 campaign. A new study tracked Americans' confidence in their preferred candidates during the 2008 and 2010 elections. (Thomas Owen/Medill)

How did you begin this research and find out about the psychological impact of committing to a candidate?
It actually began in the fall of 2008. Instead of asking people “Which candidate do you prefer?” we would ask them “What’s the percent chance you would vote for one candidate or the other?” We also asked another question: “What’s the chance you think that each candidate will win the election?” We noticed that there was this correlation, that the people who were supporting Obama were giving Obama a higher chance of winning the election and the people who were supporting McCain were giving McCain a higher chance of winning the election. We thought that was kind of odd, because this is a presidential election, there are polls out all the time, and everyone sees the same polls. So you would think that even if people disagreed on who they were supporting, that they should at least agree on what the chances are each one would win. We thought, "Well, that’s just one election." So we asked the same kinds of questions during the 2010 congressional election, and we found we had the same phenomenon. It happened across the board in every state in every race.

From a psychological standpoint, explain the notion of “disparate perceptual worlds” and what sort of state of mind that is?
It turns out that the phenomenon has been reported in different contexts for a long time on subjects that have nothing to do with elections. You could ask someone, “Do you like chocolate ice cream or vanilla ice cream?” You could get results that people who like chocolate ice cream themselves report that they think Americans on average like chocolate ice cream over vanilla ice cream. In terms of what’s going on, whatever people think themselves, they think of themselves as being representative. What make presidential or state elections so special are the polls, and it’s pretty hard not to know what the polls are showing. Even though people are seeing the polling evidence, they’re sort of not paying attention to it and believing whatever they want to believe.

In a reverse sense, could someone on the fence prefer a candidate because they thought that person was more likely to win?
There is a different view, which is that the causality goes in the other direction. It’s kind of a social norm effect, where people start by thinking, “What do other people like?” So you can apply this to elections and say, “Well, if I think that this guy is the frontrunner, then he’s probably a good guy, so I should like him too.” So it’s never been sorted out which way it might go.

Do you find yourself as someone who projects his preferences as the people in this study do?
Personally, I usually think that I’m different than everybody else. I found this kind of amusing, because I never think of myself as being typical. I think there are some of us who feel that whatever we think is in the minority. I think there are people like me who think we are not the majority, but that’s just me.

How might your findings affect the next election?
It’s an interesting question. The general issue on how this may affect voting behavior is quite interesting. It’s very hard to even understand why people vote at all, because in a large election you’re only one vote of millions. There is a view that people tend to vote when they think is a close election, So then their expectations for what’s going to happen will affect whether they vote or not. So this kind of phenomenon that your own preferences may be associated with who you think is going to win and how close the election is could lead to systematic results with certain types of people.

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