Shortly after the presidential election, I talked with a young man who was distraught over the outcome. He had convinced himself that Mitt Romney would win, and it was difficult for him to acknowledge that voters had selected the person who seemed to him the worse candidate.
His disappointment expressed a sincere belief that America would be permanently harmed by continuation of President Barack Obama’s foreign and domestic policies and fear that his own prospects for a successful life would be diminished.
It is easy for those on the winning side to discount the disappointment of those on the losing side. It is easy, but unwise; for when the voting population is closely divided between two parties, it’s likely that most voters will be disappointed much of the time. This means that we are all faced, on a regular basis, with the question of how we should respond to the frustration of our political hopes.
Hopes and fears are based on what we imagine the future will be like.
Most of us rely upon experts to tell us what the future will be like in complex areas of life, for example, world conflict, stock market and jobs.
For the most part, the experts are mistaken.
We rely upon our own judgment to predict whether we will be positively or negatively affected by how things turn out.
For the most part, we are mistaken.
Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, studies how experts make predictions. In his book “Expert Political Judgment,” he demonstrates that experts are no better than the average informed citizen at predicting future outcomes. Moreover, the better-known experts — those who are most often interviewed on radio and television and quoted in the newspapers — are even more likely to be wrong than those who are less widely known.
But we are not only poor predictors of future events, we are also quite poor at predicting how we will respond emotionally to those events. Daniel Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” studied two groups of people, those who won a state lottery and those who lost the use of both legs in an accident. He discovered that just one year after the event, both groups of people returned to the approximate level of happiness that they had before those events.
A century before the advent of modern empirical psychology, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the essay “Experience,” noted that “we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their errors.”
Daniel Kahneman, author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, has amassed decades of evidence showing that even though we all believe that our decisions are based on rational deliberation, that belief is just another example of pervasive wishful thinking. Our judgments are nearly always less reliable than we think they are.
After the Shay’s Rebellion of 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to James Madison, advising him to be patient, not to overreact. Jefferson understood that our emotional response to events is generally unwarranted, and that democracy depends on our willingness to work through difficulties together, even in the face of serious disagreements. He said, “those characters wherein fear predominates over hope ... may conclude too hastily that nature has formed man insusceptible of any other government than that of force, a conclusion which is not founded in truth, nor experience.”
None of this means that it doesn’t matter who wins an election, or what judges are appointed, or what laws are passed. It certainly does matter, though precisely how it matters often isn’t evident until years later, when we have a chance to look back over the history of events and draw lines of causation from decisions to results.
What it does mean is that we are never justified in wronging one another for the sake of a future that may or may not come to pass. We are never justified in deceiving, manipulating or coercing our fellow citizens for the sake of political gain. To do so is to exchange an uncertain benefit for a known harm.