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Election 2016

How Your Brain Makes Decisions When You Hate All Your Options

If you dislike every choice you've got, you'll look for one to reject rather than one to prefer—subtle difference, big consequences.

How Your Brain Makes Decisions When You Hate All Your Options

[Photo: Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty Images]

You've heard by now that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have higher "unfavorables" than "favorables," in pollster parlance. In other words, more U.S. voters seem to dislike the two presidential candidates than like them. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, for instance, Clinton's favorable-to-unfavorable scores clock in at 41% to 53%, respectively, and Trump's at an ever more lopsided 33% to 61%.

So it's fair to assume that, on average, voters aren't exactly selecting a candidate they're excited about—many are simply picking the one they dislike the least. And when we see our options as presenting us with a choice between the lesser of two evils, it subtly changes how we decide.

What It's Like To Select Vs. To Reject

When people are dissatisfied with all of their options, research suggests that they often focus on finding reasons to reject one over the other rather than reasons for preferring one. This may sound like the flip side of the same coin, but there's a crucial difference: When we adopt what psychologists term a "rejection mind-set," we home in on negative information about our options and fixate on the one with the smallest potential downsides.

A "selection mind-set," on the other hand, makes us assess our choices according to opposite criteria: we focus on the positive information at hand, searching for the option with the greatest possible upsides. How we feel about our options, in other words, alters what we think it is that we're choosing—in our minds, anyway, it changes their very substance.

That may help explain why so much information about the candidates this election cycle is so markedly negative, with reports of alleged scandals and corruption dogging both Trump and Clinton in arguably greater proportion than coverage of their policy proposals. So while part of that, as some have noted, comes down to editorial choices by media outlets, it's also a pretty accurate reflection of the type of information large chunks of the electorate seem to demand in order to guide their decision.

So while it may be true that there's been less substantive coverage of either candidate's proposals, it's probably wrong to assume that means voters don't care about the actual policies at stake. It isn't that people are totally uninterested in how either candidate would actually govern if elected, it's that they're likely paying closer attention to the proposals and ideas they disagree with than to those they support.

And the sharply negative campaign messaging observers were predicting months ago probably isn't just a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of the news media. It's also a conscious choice by both campaigns, which are responding to voters who are more likely to be animated by reasons to reject their opponent. Just last week, amid a fresh round of questions about her emails and practices at her charity foundation, Clinton grabbed headlines by charging Trump with spewing "racist lie[s]"—meanwhile, a glib New York magazine headline said, "Clinton Just Gonna Run Out the Clock on This Email Thing."

The Rejection Mind-Set's Long, Hard Hangover

The prevailing rejection mind-set may also have implications for how the eventual winner will be perceived after being elected.

Studies have explored the way people determine their satisfaction with a choice once the decision is made. Findings suggest that after making a choice based on negative criteria, people's satisfaction afterward hinges on whether they look back on what selected or instead on what they gave up. If they think about the drawbacks of the option they chose, they're likely to be dissatisfied. If they think about the drawbacks of the options they didn't choose, they're likely to feel relieved that they went with the less-bad of the two.

Sounds intuitive enough, right? This matters, though, because it means that the candidate who wins is going to have a hard time swinging public opinion in their favor—and not just for political reasons, like the polarization of the electorate. By November 9, the focus will be on the new president-elect. And at that point, lots of people—including many who voted for them—will still have serious concerns about the winner's downsides. The best hope of minimizing the fallout will be to focus on the road ahead and the work to be done, but that will be tough to do on the heels of a campaign season so dominated by negative messaging.

Choices You Can Reframe, And Those You Can't

Lastly, it's worth pointing out that these "lesser-of-two-evils" thought patterns occur in contexts that force people to reject options rather than find the most desirable ones. This election season is certainly one of those situations. In other scenarios, though, including in the workplace, we're much more in control over whether we approach decision-making through a "rejection" or a "selection" mind-set. We get to frame our choice, in other words, not the national political climate and all the people and institutions that shape it.

So whenever possible, it's useful to encourage yourself and your colleagues to consciously select an option rather than reject one. In their lives and careers, people reframe decisions all the time—with a little deliberate thought, it isn't difficult to do. But it can make a huge difference not just in how you ultimately decide but how you feel about your decision later.

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