Monday, August 25, 2008

The Soreness of Losing – Clinton Edition

A dark cloud of cranky Clintonism is hanging over the Democratic convention in Denver. Dark muttering about not supporting Obama because Clinton (either one) was disrespected just won’t go away.

There are many plausible explanations, including egotism, frustrated feminism and the Boomer/GenX divide. I rather like an appeal to the psychological phenomenon of loss aversion: people feel a loss more keenly than a gain.

Technically, loss aversion is the tendency to prefer avoiding losses over acquiring equivalent gains. I like to think of it this way: Imagine a store selling widgets. They can either sell them for $100, and offer a 5% discount for cash, or sell them at $95 but impose a $5 surcharge for someone buying with a credit card. The discount feels like a gain to the cash customer, and the surcharge feels like a loss to the credit card buyer. The net effect is the same, but the loss is felt more keenly than the gain. Therefore, stores will more likely post the credit card price and offer cash discount than impose a surcharge.

Clinton supporters went into the primary campaign assuming that they were going to win. Obama’s win is a keen loss to them; something that these people felt they already “had” is being taken away. For the Obamans, on the other hand, the win was a bonus; they never really expected it. They’re happy about it, of course, but don’t feel it as profoundly as the Clintonistas feel their loss.

There is probably little that the Obama campaign can do to assuage their pain. The best hope for the Democratic party is the operation of another cognitive bias: the tendency for people to overestimate the length or the intensity of an emotion, known as impact bias. Even though the Clintonistas may not feel that way now, by the time the November election comes around their current disaffection will have passed, and they will vote the Democratic ticket.

No comments: