It’s been a strange year in politics—have you noticed? Republican voters turned up their noses at what might have been the most diverse group of presidential hopefuls the Party has put on offer, settling on (way) outsider Donald Trump, who's headlining a riotous convention in Cleveland this week. Democrats will officially nominate Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia next week, concluding a fierce challenge from self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders that she and most observers hadn't anticipated gaining nearly as much support. And if the drama on this side of the Atlantic weren't enough, Brits narrowly voted to part ways with the European Union.
There’s a single, powerful psychological force that makes all three of these political surprises a lot easier to understand: loss aversion. In general, we work much harder to avoid losses than we do to pursue gains. Here's how it seems to be working lately in U.S. and U.K. politics.
Over the past few months, Trump, Sanders, and Brexit campaigners have all met success by reiterating the message that things are headed in the wrong direction—that sticking with the status quo is equivalent to a sure loss. Here’s a sampling:
We tried it President Obama’s way—doesn’t work. He gave the world his apology tour. We got ISIS and many other problems in return.
The global economy is not working for the majority of people in our country and the world. This is an economic model developed by the economic elite to benefit the economic elite. We need real change.
If people feel they have lost control completely, and we have lost control of our borders completely as members of the EU, and if people feel that voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step. I find it difficult to contemplate it happening here, but nothing’s impossible.
Disavowing business as usual and calling for a clean slate is nothing new. To a certain extent, it's just how most politicians speak. But the the fact that these politicians in particular have each been this successful campaigning almost exclusively on such a message is remarkable. And it highlights a pattern in human behavior that's well-known to psychologists: Our aversion to losses is often powerful enough to cause us to take risks that don’t always make much sense (at least not in the modern world).
This isn't a political question, it's a probabilistic one. Suppose, for example, that you're facing a certain loss of $3,000. The person to whom you owe that large sum, however, is willing to offer you a type of lottery: You can spin a wheel (one that's been verified as legitimate and will lead to a fair outcome) that will come up red 80% of the time and green 20% of the time. If you spin green, you will owe nothing; if your spin lands on red, however, you'll owe him $4,000. What do you do?
On average, the lottery is less attractive than just paying the $3,000 outright. That is, if you spun the wheel over and over you could expect to lose $3,200 per spin. But when faced with this decision in a study, the overwhelming majority of subjects chose the lottery over the sure loss; their appetite for risk rose.
Our aversion to losses and our willingness to accept risk are closely intertwined. As of this week, more than two-thirds of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, and the sentiment in the U.K. on the eve of the Brexit vote wasn’t much better. In other words, there are lots of voters who aren’t just clambering for change; they’re willing to take a chance of making things worse in exchange for a chance at making things better.
Without question, there are additional psychological forces that have contributed to the Brexit, Sanders, and Trump surprises (not to mention the political ones). Our tendency to focus on the present and our commitment to upholding the group, for example, are two other tendencies that are both clearly at work. It would be wrong, too, to paint the policies of a candidate like Sanders and those of somebody like Trump with the same brush.
But it's nonetheless true that loss-aversion is the obvious common thread tying these calls for radical change together.
Brexit has come and gone, and Sanders has bowed out to endorse Clinton. Much of the rest of the U.S. presidential campaign will revolve around how the candidates frame themselves and their opponents. But the past year in politics has made one thing abundantly clear: If most voters see the status quo as a loss, the Clinton camp may be making things harder for its candidate than necessary.
As recently as last month, Clinton framed Trump as too risky and too negative, saying:
We cannot put the safety of our children and grandchildren in Donald Trump's hands. We cannot let him roll the dice with America.
This approach may fall on deaf ears among undecided voters who believe things are headed the wrong direction already. To them, such a risk isn’t as off-putting as Clinton might think.
There’s a lot that can and will unfold before the election comes to a close in November. By my reckoning, much of what happens will depend on how undecided voters see the status quo—and how the candidates choose to tap into our natural aversion to losses. But for now, anyway, it's pretty clear what's working.
Bob Nease is the former chief scientist of Express Scripts, and the author of The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results (HarperCollins) as well as over 70 peer-reviewed papers.