Every four years, thousands of Americans threaten to leave the United States if the “wrong” candidate becomes president. For many voters this year, that candidate is Donald Trump.
A number of celebrities, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O’Donnell and Cher, have threatened to flee the country if Trump wins the election in November. Jon Stewart says he plans to escape planet Earth altogether. Rob Calabrese, a Canadian radio host, has urged Americans to join him on Cape Breton Island, in northeastern Nova Scotia. “How much would it cost for a three bedroom lakeside home in your state? About a jillion dollars?” Calabrese asks on his website. “You would need to BE Donald Trump to afford a place like that. But in Cape Breton, we have the most affordable housing market in North America!” You can expect more of the same if Trump actually does lock up the Republican nomination, and even more if polls start to show that he could win the general election: Google searches for “move to Canada” spiked on Tuesday night as Trump romped through Super Tuesday.
In truth, though, few of Trump’s detractors are likely to leave the country because of November’s results. And had Mitt Romney won in 2012, as I wrote then for the Atlantic, few diehard supporters of President Obama’s would have done so, either. This pattern has a history: Twelve years ago, as George W. Bush took a commanding lead over John F. Kerry in the polls, Canadian immigration applications tripled. Visits to the immigration department’s website skyrocketed from an average of 20,000 per day to 115,000 the day after Bush won the election. A small crop of diehard liberals followed through, but U.S-Canadian immigration was ultimately unchanged in the year following the election. Two years later, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh promised to move to Costa Rica if the Affordable Care Act passed. It did, but Limbaugh still lives in Palm Beach, Fla.
Why do so many disgruntled voters threaten to leave the country, only to see so few actually follow through? Because people overestimate how much pain they’ll feel when they experience a dreaded outcome.
This isn’t news to psychologists. In 1978, Philip Brickman and his colleagues interviewed accident victims, lottery winners and a control sample of people who hadn’t experienced an unexpected major life event, good or bad. Many of the accident victims could no longer use their arms and legs, while the lottery winners had won an average of $2 million in today’s money. As much as progressive voters hope for a Democratic president, the gap between that outcome and a Trump administration must pale in comparison to the difference in well-being between lottery winners and accident victims. But when a researcher asked the lottery winners, accident victims and control subjects how happy they generally felt, the differences between the groups was strikingly modest. On a six-point scale that ranged from “not at all happy” to “very happy,” all three groups used the more positive half of the scale, and the lottery winners were only a single point happier than the accident victims.
Brickman’s results weren’t a fluke. In 1994, George W. Bush beat Texas Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat. Shortly before the election, Dan Gilbert and his colleagues asked a sample of voters to predict how they’d feel if their preferred candidate either won or lost. In the event of a Bush victory, Democrats expected to be much less happy than they were before the election, while Republican voters expected to ride a wave of long-term elation. But a month later, when the researchers contacted them again, most of the voters reported that they were, on average, just as happy or sad as they had been before the election. The election’s effects on their lives were modest and short-lived. Similarly, in 2008, John McCain’s supporters anticipated being far more unhappy after he lost to Obama than they actually were.
There are at least two reasons people overestimate the effect of election outcomes — and other life events — on their enduring well-being. The first is the tendency to forget that life goes on even after traumatic events. Most of our lives consist of a series of mundane events: rising in the morning to eat breakfast, going to work, commuting home, etc. These prosaic events have a greater effect on our daily well-being than, say, election results do, and they tend to be similar for winners and losers, or accident victims and lottery winners. If Trump wins the presidency, the pain of his victory will eventually subside for Democrats, and their lives will be dominated by the same pedestrian events that dominated them before the election.
The second reason that defeat stings less than we fear before our candidate loses is that humans have a tendency to overestimate how long severe psychological pain will last. Just as we might treat a deep gash with antibiotic ointment and bandages, we’re equipped with a sophisticated psychological immune system that targets serious emotional injuries. Self-soothing is distracting and mentally exhausting, so we tend to employ it only for major injuries. As Gilbert and his colleagues explained, “A wife may do the costly cognitive work necessary to rationalize her husband’s infidelity (‘I guess men need to try this sort of thing once to get it out of their systems’), but not his annoying habits (‘I guess men need to experiment with leaving their dirty dishes in the sink’), and thus the wife’s anger about her husband’s disorderliness may outlive her anger about his philandering.” Ardent Democrats may find a Trump presidency more painful at first, but their psychological immune systems should therefore kick in more keenly.
The good news, then, is that a Trump victory in November will distress his critics less severely and more briefly than they imagine. And most of them will go on, like thousands of disappointed voters do every four years, living the same lives in the same country they inhabited before Nov. 8, 2016.