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The Pain Is Never as Bad as We Fear

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, November 13, 2006

Dear supporters of Republican politicians voted out of office: Yes, it feels terrible, but it won't feel this way for long.

That's the message Daniel Gilbert has for supporters of candidates who lost major races in Tuesday's elections. And while the Harvard psychologist is no fan of the current White House, he says the same goes for President Bush, who was unofficially downgraded by the election last week from lame duck to sitting duck.

In fact, there is an irony here, because Gilbert first learned what happens to supporters of candidates who lose elections a dozen years ago, when he was studying an election where the same George W. Bush was the winner.

In an experiment conducted among voters in Austin in 1994, Gilbert and his colleagues asked people to predict how they would feel if their candidate won or lost, in the race between Bush and Democratic Gov. Ann Richards.

Not surprisingly, supporters of both politicians predicted they would be devastated if their candidate lost and said they would be delighted with victory. Bush, of course, defeated Richards, setting him on a course that eventually led to the White House.

About a month after the 1994 election, Gilbert had researchers call the same voters to ask how they felt. Supporters of Bush said they were still delighted -- exactly in line with their prediction.

But supporters of Richards, who had said they would be devastated, were significantly happier than they had predicted.

"When partisans imagine being devastated when their candidate loses, they focus on how they will feel when they think about it," Gilbert said. "What they fail to realize is how seldom they think about it."

Although the recent election offers an immediate venue to apply this finding, it is an insight with very wide implications for human behavior.

Gilbert, the author of a successful new book called "Stumbling on Happiness," has found the same phenomenon when it comes to any number of other negative experiences. When people are asked to imagine a bad thing -- whether this is losing your wallet or losing your child -- they vastly overestimate how unhappy they will be afterward.

The psychologist is not saying that people "get over" tragedies and that they experience no sadness. Defeats and losses hurt, but what Gilbert's research has found is that people do not hurt nearly as much as they fear they are going to hurt.

"We are not the field of fragile flowers that a century of therapists have made us out to be," he said. "We are remarkably resilient. . . . It isn't the case that life returns to normal and you get over the death of a child. But what it is, is that it is worth living again and that is something most of us cannot imagine."

The reason Gilbert's research has broad resonance beyond elections is that the fear of pain and hurt keep many people from taking chances with life and love. It helps explain why human beings are extraordinarily risk-averse: Experiments show, for example, that people are far more worried about losing a certain amount of money than losing out on the opportunity to make that same amount of money -- even though the loss of a potential gain ought to sting as much as an outright loss.

What people forget, Gilbert said, is that we have a psychological immune system that works very much like a physiological immune system. After a loss, people find themselves distracted by events that have nothing to do with the loss. They realize they have other things in their life they are grateful about, or simply other things they must attend to. But this is difficult to sense ahead of time -- indeed, when you are asked to imagine a terrible thing happening to you or someone else, it feels crass to say that after a tragedy we will still be spending time fuming in traffic jams or laughing at inane television shows.

When people are asked to predict how they will feel about something, they think about just that one thing instead of all the other things that make up everyday life.

"When you ask people how would you feel a year after going blind, they imagine a lack of eyesight," Gilbert said. "A year after this happens, every day is not about being blind, it is about making peanut butter sandwiches for your children and getting to work. Being blind is not a full-time job."

And people also fail to realize their immense (and immensely healthy) capacity to rationalize losses away.

Think Gilbert is talking through his hat? Consider this.

Two weeks before Election Day, Gilbert made me a prediction: "If the Democrats take the House and if the Democrats take the Senate, within 48 hours Republicans will be explaining to themselves why this will not be a bad thing," he said. They will say, " 'It will help the next election. It will discipline the White House.' In a week, many Republicans will wonder why they ever wanted it to be otherwise."

And here is what conservative Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, told Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz last week after the election: that "there's also been a sense among conservatives for a long time that Republicans deserved to be taken to the woodshed, and perhaps this will be cathartic."

Gilbert was wrong about only one thing. Lowry's rationalization took only 24 hours.

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