Election Day: The saddest day of the year?

Winning barely improves happiness of victorious political party, study finds


Election Day is difficult for many political candidates. But it’s no picnic for their supporters either.

A new study co-authored by a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis shows just how tough election days can be.

The study, co-authored by Lamar Pierce, PhD, associate professor of organization and strategy at Olin Business School, finds that winning elections barely improves the happiness of those from the winning political party, and that losing reduces self-reported happiness and increases sadness substantially.

The study, “Losing Hurts: Partisan Happiness in the 2012 Presidential Election,” was published in the Harvard Kennedy School research working paper series and co-authored by Todd Rogers, PhD, from the Harvard Kennedy School; and Jason Snyder, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles Anderson School of Management.

The researchers used thousands of daily online survey responses from CivicScience, a market research and data intelligence company, to compare the happiness and sadness reported by those who identify with political parties in the days surrounding the 2012 presidential election.

The sadness effect lasted for about a week, but eventually partisan losers recovered.

“One of our main findings is that the pain of losing the 2012 presidential election dominated the joy of winning it,” Pierce said.

The asymmetry the researchers observed between winning and losing is in line with past research on happiness — bad things tend to hurt more and last longer than comparable good things.

To benchmark exactly how intense the pain of election losses can be, the researchers employed the same methodology used on the election data to study the effects of two national tragedies – the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing – on Americans’ emotions.

Despite the highly traumatic nature of the two events, the results indicated that the sadness increase and happiness decrease that followed reflected only half the effect of an election loss on partisans, with two notable exceptions – respondents who had children, who were distinctly less happy and more sad after the Newtown shooting; and Boston residents, who responded similarly after the marathon bombing.

Prior research has shown that partisan identity shapes social, mental, economic and physical life. This new research shows that it can have intense effects on identity and well-being.

“We find that partisan identity is even more central to the self than past research might have suggested,” the researchers write. “In addition to affecting thinking, preferences, and behavior, it also has sizable hedonic consequences, especially when people experience partisan losses.”

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