JONATHAN CHAIT OCTOBER 20, 2010
Polls have shown that the public trusts President Obama and Congressional Democrats more than Congressional Republicans. Yet the public is prepared to give the Republicans a huge victory. Why? Shankar Vedantum says it's something called "action bias":
When we are stuck in a bad place, whether that bad place is a marriage, a traffic jam, or a weak economy, it is very tempting to try something new. Psychologists call this the action bias—and it turns out to have surprisingly broad ramifications.
When a company starts losing money, or a whole industry starts losing ground because of a new technology, most of us follow leaders who call for revolutionary change—even if no one really knows what change is needed. Leaders who advocate the status quo look like dinosaurs.
This is why tough times produce radical measures, radical leaders, and radical change. The call for revolution sounds weird in good times, but when things are bad, upending the status quo feels irresistible. We rarely think about selling stocks when their value is rising (when we could lock in our gains) but are enormously tempted to sell, sell, sell when their value starts to fall.
Goalies facing penalty kicks—a bad place to be if you are a goalie—are heavily predisposed to dive to one side or another to save a goal, even though their best odds of saving a goal are when they stay in the center. In one analysis of 293 penalty kicks in elite championship soccer, researchers Michael Bar-Eli, Ofer H. Azar, Ilana Ritov, Yael Keidar-Levin, and Galit Schein found that goalies had a 14 percent chance of stopping a goal when they dived to the left and a 13 percent chance when they dived to the right. The chance of stopping a goal when they stayed in the center was 33 percent. But, like voters and people stuck in traffic jams, goalies facing penalty kicks are drawn to action, not inaction. The analysis of the championship penalty kicks found that goalies stayed in the center only 6 percent of the time.
Why do we habitually choose action over inaction when things are bad? The intuitive answer is that action promises to get us out of the mess we're in. But that intuition turns out to be wrong. The action bias is driven less by the fear of failure than by the fear of regret.
I think there's something to this, and it helps explain the almost monotonic pattern in which voters turn against incumbents when the economy is bad. In fact, voters who disapprove of both President Obama and the Republicans are voting overwhelmingly for the Republicans.
But it's worth recalling that the main factor in this election is not that Republicans have won over disaffected Obama voters. It's that Republicans are planning to vote at higher rates than Democrats. Here's a PPP analysis from August:
The Democrats' big win in 2006 was not driven by the enthusiasm gap, but because a lot of people who had voted for George W. Bush in 2004 switched over to supporting Democratic candidates. According to the 2006 exit poll the electorate that year was actually more heavy on Bush voters than the 2004 electorate that reelected Bush. 49% were Bush voters to only 43% who were Kerry voters, compared to Bush's 51-48 popular vote victory in 2004.
The reason Democrats won even though the electorate disproportionately consisted of Bush voters was that 15% of those Bush voters cast their ballots for a Democrat, a pretty large amount of crossover.
There aren't nearly that many Obama voters leaning toward the Republicans this year. Our last national generic ballot survey found only 8% of people who voted for the President in 2008 were planning to support the GOP this year. But those surveyed represented an electorate that favored Barack Obama by only a point, 46-45, and because of that the generic ballot was tied despite the small number of voters crossing over.