Behavior Economics

Election 2020: The Good, the Bad, and the Stupid — the Psychology of Prediction


The good news: There have been few incidents at the polls on Election Day — seems like a miracle, don’t it? So far, the votes seem to be being fairly counted — knock on something that resembles wood. And, some Repubes — Chris Christie and Scott Walker, because 2024 — are speaking out against the wild claims to having won various states. Pro-tip: using the termherebydoes not make it a legal claim.

The bad News: 170 million real live Americans — allegedly — want four more years of the Ol’ Pussy Grabber. Four more years of #COVID19 pandemic mismanagement? Four more years of destroying the environment? Four more years of destroying farmers and manufacturing through misguided, misunderstood, unnecessary tariffs? Four more years of caged kidnapped children? Four more years of narcissistic revenge and retribution? How is that possible? The roots of racism and misogyny are deep in white America. Isn’t that the only explanation for this outcome other than tampering with voting results.

THE STUPID NEWS: Trump has sued the State of Michigan to stop the count and some of his followers stormed a Detroit vote counting facility chanting “Stop the count.” The only problems is that Biden is ahead in the count, so stopping the count NOW will seal a Biden victory. Hunh? Go figger. But, he’s for continuing the counts in Arizona and Nevada where he’s behind, so there is an inherent logical inconsistency, but a narcissistic consistency. He’s also threatening to send in armed federal agents to counting centers. And, the maddening thing is that while the Ol’ Pussy Grabber sounds desperate, he could still turn out winning after all the votes are counted!

EMOTIONAL DECISION-MAKING: As the election approached, there were lots of prognostications and naked speculations by the professional and arm-chair punditry about a Biden landslide, Biden taking Florida, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina. There was more speculations about senate races and the Dems picking up five, six, seven seats. It was a foregone conclusion that the Dems would continue to hold onto the House and pick up seats.

As the returns rolled in, each one of those rosy predictions failed to materialize, and we were all plunged into 2016 flashbacks. I went to bed (we live in Cambodia, so about 12 hours ahead of the East Coast) with Trump substantially ahead in Pennsylvania and slightly ahead in Michigan and the rest of the disasters around the country. I was convinced that it was a little too perfect. The revenge of the narcissistic wounds of Trump. The polls were wrong! #COVID19 was not an issue! Lindsey Graham avenged! I was convinced that the Russians had delivered the salve to Trump’s narcissistic wounds succeeding in destroying the Democratic party and unleashing the raging narcissist to parcel out his retribution to the country. And, it still may be.

Luckily, when I woke up for good — it was a restless night’s sleep — Michigan and Wisconsin had been awarded to Biden, and pundits were predicting that it was likely that Biden would come back in Pennsylvania and had a chance of coming back in both Georgia and North Carolina. Of course, as the day wore on, the possibility of Trump coming back in Arizona had improved. So, I guess it’s only partially clearer only by virtue of being nearer the end. God, please let it end… with a Biden victory.

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As I write, Trump has been awarded Texas and Florida and is ahead in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Georgia. He’s catching up in Arizona and Nevada. Depending on how those five states turn out, we get all possible results:

  • 270 electoral votes for Biden
  • 270 electoral votes for Trump
  • A 268 electoral vote tie in which case Trump wins because it goes to the House and I’m pretty sure that the Repubes will improve the number of state delegations they hold
  • And larger wins for Biden and Trump — no duh!
  • You can try playing around with it yourself using NBC’s interactive electoral map. And, let us know what you find in the comments!

There is a peculiarity in our cognition that produced all of the angst we feel around the election. The prognosticators were giving us conditionals, “if Biden wins Florida…” and probabilities, “it is possible that the Dems could…” but our brain hears them or process them as definite statements, Biden will win Florida and the Dems will win. We can’t help it. Thinking is hard. Trying to keep track of conditional outcomes and the ramifications of those possible outcomes takes more working memory than we have to devote to it. So, like in so many other situations, we take the complex and reduce it to something easier. A conditional or probability becomes a definite.

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Rachel Maddow was talking Wednesday evening on their Election 2020 show said it best. She said she was cognitively prepared for the election to drag on beyond Election Day and for no winner to be announced, but when it was unfolding, she emotionally reacted to it. She said she knew that the order of reporting would be same-day votes going overwhelmingly for Trump and mail-in and early-voting, Biden, and that the leads would switch and narrow as each type of vote was reported, but as it happened, she was frustrated, anxious, and angst ridden.

This reaction reflects the way our brains are hardwired: we are inclined to reacting emotionally, we value our emotional reactions over our cognitive reactions. When I looked at Trump up by 5% in Pennsylvania before I went to bed, I thought it wouldn’t be possible for for Biden to catch up. It seemed too late and too much for Biden to make it up. But, seven hours later, he was making the vote up. I should note that four of the five states remaining are within 1% with votes still being counted.

Trying to think in percentages, especially nested percentages, and conditionals, as in There are 53,000 votes being reported and if 60% of them go to Trump, he may overtake Biden. What? Your reaction is to be anxious. It really doesn’t do anything to help us understand the situation better. In some ways, it would be better not to report these things at all.

Throw in the lawsuits and all of the counties yet to be counted and most of our heads are just drowning in cortisol. You hear numbers like 820,000 votes left to be counted and 200,000 vote differences, and you think, those are big numbers. They seem so big that they seem insurmountable, yet they are.

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In many ways, we do ourselves a disservice by reporting in such granular detail. It results in lots of needless angst. We should vote and get periodic updates on the count, but go about our days until the results are reported. It would be much healthier.

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Image Attribution

“The Good, the Bad, the Ugly / Le bon, la brute et le truand” by Franckybrique is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

5 replies »

  1. Tuesday night I had a Zoom get together with a few local Indivisibles. We were all at media-chatter-speculation burn out by 10pm and called it a night. The broadcast media’s allergy to dead air and the resulting need to just keep talking whether there is anything new to say is maddening and leads to the ultra granular “analysis”. It is amazing how many people who say they voted for Trump say they did because the economy is so great when it is clearly not and with the no-covid-relief-bill eviction catastrophe looming and something around 20 million still out of work. As for the Senate, the Turtle Head appears to be staying in charge there and will resume his role when Obama was President of Chief Obstructer of everything Biden tries to do.

    Still, as of this morning the AP has Biden within 10 Electoral votes of winning and everybody is lawyered up.

    I’m missing Molly Ivens and Kurt Vonnegut. They would both have a lot to say now.

    Liked by 1 person

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