Should you talk more about your opponent’s future than their record?
“Just as the physical immune system wards off maladies, the “ psychological immune system” wards off malaise by marshalling the remarkable human capacities of reconstrual and rationalization” (Gilbert, 2006 ).
Daniel Gilbert is a popular Harvard psychologist, researcher, and author who, aside from being the spokesperson for Prudential, has done some groundbreaking research into what makes people happy and people’s imagination of the future. (I also happened to interview him for an article in C&E, found here )
In a 2011 study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, E.T. Dunn, Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson discuss the “psychological immune response” – and how it can affect the way consumers rationalize (and get past) past mistakes.
One critical point that the authors make, however, is that people don’t understand or adequately compensate for this phenomenon, and tend to “overestimate their vulnerability to negative effect.” You see this, as they point out, in the case of extended warranties.
Extended warranties, your TV, and you.
The theory goes something like this: You go to a store like Best Buy, and you’re about to buy one of those 4D TV’s that curve like Beyonce doing yoga, and on the way out the cashier tries to sell you on an expensive extended warranty. At that moment, unaware of your “psychological immune system” you think about how bummed you’d be if the TV died, and the cost of having to repair it or get another TV. That idea, of course, seems way more traumatic as you’re purchasing the product. However, these kinds of losses actually becomes less traumatic when actually experienced in the present.
In reality, should your TV break after its regular warranty expires, your psychological immune system would kick in, and your unhappiness would be mitigated by rationales and other factors. For some, the trauma of a busted TV is the benefit of being forced to buy a new TV. For others, it might be balanced out somewhat by the low cost of repair. Or maybe, you go read a book and discover you don’t actually miss watching Nancy Grace.
There are numerous studies to support this bias towards a relatively more positive outlook in the present than people projected they would have. (Interestingly, another study showed that generous return policies actually make people unhappier with their products than those that purchase the same product with no return policy. (Gilbert Ebert 2002))
The psychological immune response effect isn’t, of course, limited to TV’s: It explains behaviors and other decisions consumers make (i.e. how they feel about missing a train). (Gilbert, Morewedge, Risen, and Wilson,2004)
But what if this concept was applied to the satisfaction of constituents, and their attitudes towards incumbents? People may not like reality (no one likes having their TV die) – but many cope and even find a level of happiness in hard times. Sure the economy is bad, but I still have a job. Yeah, I’m unemployed but I’m not on the streets?
Does a politician’s poor record or series of mistakes have less impact on us because we are deploying our psychological immune response? That we’re already coping with the present?
Following the logic of the studies, that would seem to have validity.
There seems to be cause to talk about our clients as if they are more like extended warranties. It’s not that my client is so amazing, it’s that can you imagine how awful the future is going to be with the opponent?!
YOU THINK IT’S BAD NOW – JUST WAIT. THINK OF THE APOCALYPTIC FUTURE MY OPPONENT IS GOING TO CREATE FOR YOU. (And now, would you like that warranty?)
These studies suggests that we should at least focus some of our time on the threats of the future. (By the way – two of the most famous ads of all time – Johnson’s famous Daisy Ad (seen here) and the Reagan Bear ad (seen here) do just that.)
The thinking here is ultimately that threats of things getting worse has more impact than the present you’re already dealing with (due to the psychological immune response effect), and therefore should be at least a component of communications.
There’s a possible positive framing of this as well, similar to the bear ad above: “I.e. – When a crisis comes tomorrow, wouldn’t you rather have Joe Candidate (aka the Extended Warranty) there to respond?
If you’re in advocacy, the protection against future threats may be a more salient fundraising argument than help these people now. (At the very least, it might provide a powerful second front in the the argument.)
We’ll be addressing more about future predictions in future editions (pun intended) but in the meantime, while you certainly want to undermine your opponent’s record, you may have more impact talking about the disasters that await the public if your candidate is not elected.