NO MATTER WHO WINS this year’s presidential election, those political partisans who supported the losing ticket may wish to plan a vacation or queue up their favorite films to prepare for a very difficult week ahead.  While a post-election letdown should be anticipated, especially for the losers, the depths of that sadness may come as a surprise.

Those depths are documented in a research study co-authored by Harvard Kennedy School Associate Professor Todd Rogers. His report finds that winning elections only slightly improves the happiness of those affiliated with the winning political party, while those on the losing side experience dramatic levels of sadness for as long as a week.

“People’s social, physical, economic, and mental lives are shaped by their partisan identities – and these social identities are widely and deeply held. The current research vividly shows that these identities also have important consequences to people’s hedonic lives,” the authors conclude. “Winning an election is fine, but losing one is painful, at least in the short run.”

Rogers, along with coauthors Lamar Pierce of Washington University in St. Louis and Jason Snyder of UCLA, analyzed thousands of daily online survey responses to compare the happiness and sadness reported by those who identified closely with political parties in the days surrounding the 2012 presidential election.

The researchers learned that the sadness effect lasted for about a week, but eventually partisan losers recovered. 

The asymmetry the researchers observed between winning and losing is in line with past research on happiness - bad things tend to hurt more and last longer than comparable good things.

To benchmark exactly how intense the pain of election losses were, the researchers compared the effect to that of two national tragedies.  Using the same methodology, the researchers found that respondents with children were distinctly less happy and more sad following the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. But they also found that this sadness increase and happiness decrease was half of the effect of an election loss upon partisans.

Similarly smaller effects were found for those living in Boston during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Prior research has shown that partisan identity shapes social, mental, economic, and physical life.  This new research indicates that it can also have intense effects on identity and well-being.

“We find that partisan identity is even more central to the self than past research might have suggested,” the authors conclude.  “In addition to affecting thinking, preferences, and behavior, it also has sizable hedonic consequences, especially when people experience partisan losses.”

Losing an election hurts. But why?

In an episode of HKS PolicyCast, behavioral economist and Associate Professor Todd Rogers demonstrates that electoral losses don’t just hurt, they hurt bad. More so even than major national tragedies.

He also discusses our tendency to believe in a favorable future, and the concept of paltering, which describes the active use of truthful statements to mislead.

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