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Was 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, as she puts it, “the victim of a very broad assumption that I was going to win?”
Whether or not overconfidence was directly to blame for her loss, a presumption of victory likely had a profound influence on the Clinton campaign’s decision making because of what behavioral economists, psychologists and scientists have discovered about the psychology of risk.
By way of illustrating that discovery, consider the following two contrasting pieces of advice:
- Play it safe when you’re ahead. You’ve got to shake things up when you’re behind, or else you’ll stay that way.
- What’s the point of being ahead if you can’t take a few risks? It’s when you’re behind that you can’t afford them.
If you’re like most people, it’s the first statement that resonates more – as advice for living and as campaign strategy. The second statement probably makes sense to you logically, but there’s something about it that feels a bit dissonant, counterintuitive and vaguely profligate as advice.
People have these reactions because human beings are cognitively hardwired to be loss averse. We don’t treat prospective gains and losses the same way. When presented with a gain and a loss of equal value, say, a win or loss of $100, the loss feels worse that the gain, sometimes a great deal worse. One of the many consequences that flows from this fundamental fact of human psychology is the notion that you should play it safe when you’re ahead.
Clinton spent virtually the entire campaign ahead in the polls, believing her election victory (a prospective gain) to be nearly certain. This would have put Clinton and her campaign – already known for a cautious and methodical disposition – into an even more guarded and risk-averse mindset, focused on preserving her lead. These restrained qualities were even marketed as a selling point against Clinton’s erratic and unstable opponent.
But is it actually sound campaign strategy to play it safe when you’re ahead and take bigger risks when you’re behind? It certainly feels like it should lead to better strategic and tactical decisions. But does it? Political psychologists who’ve grappled with this question have their doubts. Even in relatively recent presidential campaign history, you can find examples of frontrunners who got too cautious and dark horses whose risk-taking blew up in their faces.
Among the frontrunners who played it too safe, think of Al Gore’s uninspiring rhetoric and wooden campaign style or Hillary Clinton’s cautious defense of establishment political, civic and social norms in the face of Donald Trump’s, James Comey’s, Russia’s and even the media’s defiance of them amidst an electorate hungry for change. And then there are the dark horses whose risks cost them big. Recall John McCain’s choice to put Sarah Palin on the ticket or Mitt Romney’s unguarded moment with campaign donors that was caught on camera.
These real world examples are best understood as illustrative, not conclusive, but they suggest that our assumptions about when and when not to take risks could use some additional scrutiny in light of the psychological science on risk. If the science is to be believed, it’s telling us that unconscious biases like loss aversion are virtually always operating in the background of human decision making, influencing us at every turn.
So what’s a strategist to do? How can we make better campaign decisions when our own cognitive wiring can so easily lead us astray?
Here’s one suggestion. Try to run every major decision you make through a counterfactual scenario where the underlying win-loss conditions are reversed. If you’re 10 points behind, would you play it a little safer if you were 20 points ahead? If you’re 10 points ahead, would you be taking bigger risks if you were 20 points behind? And if it’s a close race, imagine being ahead or behind to varying degrees.
If your strategic thinking changes even slightly or if the counterfactual creates even a shadow of a doubt, then there’s a good chance that loss aversion may be one of the deciding factors influencing your strategy. That doesn’t mean your decision or approach is wrong -- it just means that your fear or overconfidence could be making it for you.
Let me put it a different way. A good strategy or tactic should be good regardless of who’s ahead and who’s behind, because you never really know for sure until the ballots are cast.
David Rosen is the founder of First Person Politics, a consultancy specializing in the strategic applications of political psychology. Follow him on Twitter @firstpersonpol.