Behavior Economics

Risk Aversion: The Psychology of Biden and Warren’s Candidacies

This is the third in my series on the psychology that governs the candidacy of the five leading presidential candidates: the Ol’ Pussy Grabber, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg. We’ve already addressed the psychology of the Ol’ Pussy Grabber (psychological threat), Bernie Sanders (authoritarian personality), and handicapping the race overall.

Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren’s campaigns seem to be opposite sides of the coin. Both are governed by prospect theory, the decision making theory of behavioral economics by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, heroes of Ye Olde Blogge.

Prospect Theory

Prospect theory is the idea that people use the probable effect of a decision on their immediate situation as the determining factor in the choices they make. In other words, the way people make decisions is based on whether the outcome will improve their situation or make it worse.

When confronted with a choice, people instinctively, meaning occurring outside of their awareness or done without conscious thought, predict the results of their choice. Because the outcome of a decision cannot be perfectly predicted, these decisions are said to occur under a condition of uncertainty. But, not all choices are created equally. The way the choice is presented or perceived greatly affects the choice people make.

Tversky and Kahneman have determined that people will make one choice if it is presented as making a gain or improving their situation and the opposite choice if it is presented as a loss or worsening their situation. It’s weird. If you want to read more about this, I recommend Election 2020: Who Can Beat Trump or Predictions, Pundits, and the 2016 Election: The “Are You Happy Now?” Edition. They both cover aspects of the theory in more depth.

Tversky and Kahneman have summed up their findings in one pithy phrase:

People hate taking risks, but people will take a risk to avoid a loss.

This principle is a very hardy finding. It is supported by numerous studies done in many countries with thousands of participants. It holds up well. Also, it applies to both the Biden and Warren campaigns.

Joe Biden’s Campaign

Biden is seen as a sure thing. He’s a known quantity. He has a sunny beaming smile with his astonishingly large, straight, and white teeth (implants?). He has a permatan and that always coiffed hair. He is hygienic, groomed, and accessible. He reminds everyone of a Ken doll.

Status Quo Bias

He also can take advantage of the status quo bias. The status quo bias is the belief that staying with what you have is better than changing. It is the reason that incumbents have such an advantage. People hate taking risks. Changing from what you have is a risk.

Given that Biden was Obama’s veep, he inherits a bit of status quo. It is his biggest advantage in this election.

Given that the Ol’ Pussy Grabber is seen as such an unmitigated disaster by most people, and we all live in terror of him winning re-election, we are all living with a heightened sense of uncertainty and anxiety. A kind of angst hangs in the air. People want a sure thing or as sure of a thing as they can get. Biden fits that bill.

Biden’s task is not to screw up, which is a Himalayan task for him!

Elizabeth Warren’s Campaign

Warren is the perfect anti-Ol’ Pussy Grabber. She is calm, thoughtful, informed, planned, organized, in short, everything you’d want in a president. Of all the people who have run or are running this year, she is the most opposite of the Ol’ Pussy Grabber. It is her main advantage.

However, she has a big disadvantage: she’s a woman. Biden has worked in the chief executive’s office. Warren has some good experience as a senator and administrator, but she is still a bigger change than Biden would be. She’s even a bigger unknown than Sanders or Buttigieg because she’s a woman. We assume men are competent, but women have to prove it.

People aver risks, unless it is in the face of a loss. Warren must frame an election of everyone else as a loss or a bigger risk than her in order to make her candidacy more viable. I’m not suggesting she go negative, though.

  • Biden is going backward to a time that is no longer viable.
  • Sanders is too much risk. We need change and big structural change, but not as much as he is suggesting. Also, she’s delivered the goods before; Sanders has named post offices.
  • Buttigieg is untested and untried. He’s a nice guy with great ideas, but we don’t know how he’d perform.
  • The Ol’ Pussy Grabber is a loose cannon at best and wrecking our democracy, alliances, and environment.

It is this perception of her as a risk, i.e. woman, in a time of extreme uncertainty that is hurting her candidacy and causing her to slump in the polls.

Image Attribution

The image was found using a Creative Commons search. It was posted to Flikr. It was made by Frankieleon. It is licensed as Attribution 2.0 Generic.

12 replies »

    • Howdy James!

      I think Biden could ensure his election if he would announce that he would only serve one term and serve as a bridge for the next generation of Dem leaders. I don’t think such a pledge would help Warren or Sanders and would be unnecessary for any of the other candidates.

      Many people are speculating that Harris might be Biden’s best choice, but I don’t think they get along at all. Warren and Biden dislike each other, too. She humiliated him as a witness before one of his committee hearings about consumer credit.

      I think his best choice would be Stacey Abrams.



  1. Another thing that Warren offers in the way of less risk compared with Sanders is a degree of flexibility in how to reach similar goals as opposed to his “do it all at once” rhetoric (like promising to just ban fracking without explaining how 48% of American homes will be heated without Natural Gas, and where the new jobs will be for a large number of people). Sanders exudes passion. Warren exudes competence, which is not as exciting, but safer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!

      The question of how competence is perceived is an interesting one. Men are conferred a high degree of competence based upon gender and can enhance their perception of competence by being angry when their competence has been challenged. It’s one reason why Congressional Republicans are always angry and shouting during hearings. But, women have very limited ways of demonstrating their competence. If they are angry, they’re seen as being unstable and bitchy. Women have few avenues open to them to demonstrate competency.

      Sanders is given the benefit of the doubt. Warren is not.


      Liked by 1 person

      • [sigh] – Sadly true. Warren has taken a good shot at it with “She has a plan for that.”, but for some a wonky woman is even scarier than an angry one.

        And Biden also is granted a perception of competence despite his many flubs and gaffs.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Bob!
          There is no one running who is more prepared to be president than Warren. Not Biden in spite of his experience as VP and close relationship with Obama. Biden will be more akin to Reagan as president: hands off, persuadable, big picture if there is any picture. Warren is persuadable but has definite ideas and preferences.


          Liked by 1 person

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