By BENEDICT CAREY
The economy, “super PAC” money, debate performances, the candidates’ personalities. Roll it all together, and it’s obvious who’s going to win.
Or, uh, it will be.
Amid the many uncertainties of next Tuesday’s presidential election lies one sure thing: Many people will feel in their gut that they knew the result all along. Not only felt it coming, but swear they predicted it beforehand — remember? — and probably more than once.
These analysts won’t be hard to find. They will most likely include (in addition to news media pundits) neighbors, friends, co-workers and relatives, as well as the person whose reflection appears in the glare of the laptop screen. Most will also have a ready-made argument for why it was inevitable that Mitt Romney, or Barack Obama, won — displaying the sort of false, after-the-fact “foresight” that psychologists call hindsight bias.
“The important thing to know about hindsight bias is that it not only changes how you see the world, but also how you see yourself in it,” said Neal Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, who just published a review paper on the bias with Kathleen D. Vohs of the University of Minnesota. “You begin to think: ‘Hey, I’m good. I’m really good at figuring out what’s going to happen.’ You begin to see outcomes as inevitable that were not.”
Long the province of political scientists, historians and pollsters, voters’ behavior has more recently attracted the attention of psychologists. They have dug into the field over the past decade or so, finding a wide-open arena in which to test results from lab studies and in some cases drawing interest from campaign strategists. If politics is individual psychology writ large, then thinking about politics should be subject to the same shortfalls and quirks as thinking about anything else. And so it is, to some extent — presenting some of the same opportunities for self-correction.
The most obvious carry-over to politics is confirmation bias, the reflexive instinct to begin with an assumption — say, that poor people are lazy — and notice only evidence that’s supportive, like malingering, ignoring the efforts of the rest of the $5-an-hour night cleaning crew.
Hindsight bias is close to the reverse. People retrofit their opinions and judgments to the evidence, in this case to an election result, but just as often to a political decision (or nondecision) that went wrong. Of course it was clear that Saddam Hussein was bluffing about weapons of mass destruction. Anyone could have seen that. Of course the consulate in Benghazi needed beefed-up security.
This combination of Confirmation Bias and Hindsight Bias means that people tend to come out, on net, pretty accurate in their perceptions.
Campaigns exploit this instinct, particularly when appealing to voters who second-guess decisions of someone they put in office, said Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to President George W. Bush and co-founder of No Labels, a nonprofit devoted to bipartisanship. “As the challenger, you need to win over some of those voters,” Mr. McKinnon said in an e-mail. “You need to give them an out for their ‘voters’ remorse.’ It’s not them, you see, it was him.”
In contrast, the Obama-Romney race is pretty exciting because it's hard to predict. The closer something is to a fifty-fifty tossup, the more exciting we find it.
But, as the odds approach 50-50 and excitement and controversy mounts, the return on genuine expertise diminishes. If the Big Event really is a coin flip, then any nimrod has as good of a chance of being right as the finest expert. (This is surprisingly little understood, in part because it's so much fun to make fun of experts. The reality is that what makes an expert an expert is that he's right most of the time about the stuff he ought to be right about, the boring stuff, but nobody can be right all that often about the exciting stuff that's fascinating to the public precisely because it is so uncertain.)
So, the penalties for not knowing what you are talking about when it comes to predicting exciting events are small. Thus, for instance, we see vast numbers of professional pundits getting all worked up over the Gender Gap in this election and few even mentioning the much larger Marriage Gap (as I noted in my current VDARE.com article, which you should definitely make sure to read. Trust me, I'm an expert.)
But, in the short run, so what? The nimrods have almost as much of a chance of being right about what will happen next Tuesday as the seers. Hence, why bother to learn how the world works, since the world is most interested in the outcomes of virtually unpredictable events?
On the other hand, in the long run, the boring, predictable stuff like the Marriage Gap really does matter. In fact, the more predictable it is, the more it matters.