The big letdown

Why do our leaders disappoint us? It might have something to do with us.

By Drake Bennett
October 10, 2010

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America is disappointed. The economic recovery, such as it is, has produced few jobs and little growth, the war in Afghanistan is going poorly, and Washington’s political culture, which President Obama took office promising to reform, is as vitriolic and paralyzed as ever. As a supporter put it to Obama at a Sept. 20 town hall meeting, ”I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people. And I’m waiting, sir. I’m waiting.”

There’s no question that the president has failed to live up to the expectations of many of his supporters--expectations he created with his empyrean campaign rhetoric. But it turns out that human beings are easy to disappoint. Research suggests that even when people know that someone has nothing but bad options to choose from, they still blame the decider for a bad outcome. And while disappointment and regret and even anger are often spoken about in similar terms, psychologists see them as distinct emotions, triggered by different sorts of events and motivating us to act in different ways. Even disappointment itself comes in flavors: Being disappointed with a person feels different from being disappointed with an outcome, and demands a different response.

In short, alleviating disappointment means understanding what someone actually means when they say they’re disappointed. And for a politician, it means realizing that a certain amount of disillusionment is built into the system--the natural human optimism that allows people, election after election, to believe campaign promises also consigns them to repeated bouts of disappointment. Even if a voter manages to keep his expectations low in the fever of a campaign, research suggests that his conception of the counterfactual--what might have been if different decisions had been made, different policies pursued, or different politicians elected--grows increasingly positive in his memory, setting him up for disappointment.

”People forget over time what they expected, and their counterfactual tends to get rosier and rosier over time,” says George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University. ”Obama is being judged by a rising disappointment standard, so people are really disappointed, [even though] if right in the middle of the financial crisis they had been told how things were going to turn out they would have been thrilled.”

Everyone has felt disappointment, if not in a political leader then in a friend or a colleague or a spouse. We tell each other not to get our hopes up, and then we go and do just that.

Yet while there’s a burgeoning therapy movement to help people manage anger, and a plethora of consumer products to shield us from disgust, there’s far less recourse for people who would like to target disappointment. Some psychologists, political scientists, and economists do study it, though--when we feel disappointment and why, who is more prone to it, what mitigates and exacerbates it. Much of this research looks at the emotion in the context of personal decisions rather than electoral politics, but the findings can nonetheless help make sense of the way people vote and the way they come to feel about the people they vote for.

Psychologists define disappointment and regret straightforwardly enough: They are what we feel when events don’t live up to expectations. Regret is triggered when we think our own decisions don’t pan out, disappointment is what we feel about circumstances that are beyond our immediate control.

Of the two sister emotions, regret is by far the more studied. Regret--or, more accurately, our desire to avoid future regret--is a major factor in how we decide what to do, what to say, and what to buy. A man might go on an adventurous vacation because he doesn’t want to regret missing the opportunity, or he might forgo ordering a fifth and then a sixth cocktail because he regretted it the last time he did it.

Disappointment, on the other hand, usually drives us to do not much at all, making it a less fruitful emotion for marketers and professional motivators. Negative emotions like anger or fear give people energy and incentive to act; disappointment does the opposite. That difference is reflected in polling right now that shows a yawning enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats, with the former angry, motivated, and eager to vote, and the latter listless and expected to stay home in the upcoming mid-term elections.

”With disappointment and sadness, they’re very low-energy kinds of states,” says Art Markman, a psychologist at the University of Texas, ”Which is why people who are sad and disappointed don’t do things like vote.”

Disappointment researchers also emphasize, however, that the emotion varies depending on its target. Research by Marcel Zeelenberg and Wilco van Dijk, two Dutch psychologists, has found that when people are disappointed in other people--a friend that fails to show up for a birthday party, for example--they tend to be angrier and less sad than when they are disappointed in a blameless outcome like a rained-out baseball game.

For a politician running for reelection in a climate of widespread disappointment, this offers little comfort. Even if she can convince supporters that their disappointment should be focused on the outcome alone--on forces, in other words, beyond her control--the best she can hope for is a base that is enervated rather than actively angry at her.

And, in general, the disappointed seem to prefer to blame people over circumstances. Justin Kruger and Laura Kressel at New York University, along with Jeremy Burrus, then at Columbia Business School, last year published a study in which subjects were told of people forced to make a decision between two or more bad options--in one study the experimenters used summaries of real-life custody cases in which judges had to choose between two seemingly unfit parents. Even when the lack of good options was explicitly laid out in this way, the test subjects still blamed the decision-maker for the poor outcome.

The plight of political leaders in tough times is that there are no good options. Politicians always inherit unresolved problems and myriad limits to action--whether they’re facing economic malaise or intractable foreign wars--and while they can sometimes claim credit for successes they had little to do with, the dynamics of disappointment help explain why voters usually ignore extenuating circumstances.

Over time, people tend to get less rather than more forgiving of missed opportunities. This finding comes from research on regret by Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University and Victoria Medvec of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, but some psychologists see it as applicable to disappointment, as well. Gilovich and Medvec found that the sort of thing people say they regret depends on how far back in time they’re asked to go. When asked what they most regret in their recent past, subjects tend to describe actions--a fender-bender or a reckless comment to a boss--but over the long run, people regret the things they didn’t do, whether it’s not going to night school or never learning to play the piano.

Gilovich sees several reasons for this, but one of them is that over time we steadily minimize the barriers to action that shape our decisions. Our instinct is to come to believe that the thing we didn’t do would have been less difficult than we found it at the time.

”We think it’s easy in retrospect to have learned a foreign language. Sure, we think, we could have found a half an hour a day to listen to tapes. But half an hour a day in actual life is hard to find,” says Gilovich.

Taken together, this body of research underlines just how inevitable some degree of disappointment is, in electoral politics as in our personal lives. There’s ample research in the psychology literature that shows just how incorrigibly optimistic and trusting human beings can be, and how vulnerable, as a result, they are to campaign rhetoric like Obama’s in 2008. ”Don’t compare me to the Almighty,” Vice President Joe Biden likes to say, quoting Boston’s former mayor Kevin White, ”compare me to the alternative.” Even when they think they’re doing just that, though, people tend to romanticize the road not taken.

How does one fight disappointment? In our personal lives we can try to keep our expectations realistic, or work to change whatever it is that’s not living up our expectations. But for an incumbent politician in today’s economic and political climate the challenge is greater. For one thing, successfully running for office is almost impossible without getting people’s hopes up. For another, the problems the country faces are enormous, complex, and not going to be solved quickly.

In the meantime, though, it is possible to find in the research literature a few suggestions for how to at least dilute the disappointment of the electorate. Psychologists categorize feelings as either ”approach” emotions like hope--and, interestingly, anger--that impel us toward the object of our emotion, or ”avoidance” motivations like fear or disgust that drive us away. Hope and anger feel very different, but at the most fundamental level, both emotions send us toward the thing that incited them.

According to Markman, disappointment, because it is deflated hope, is essentially an approach emotion, just a very low-energy one. This suggests that the way to motivate disappointed voters isn’t to try to scare them with the specter of conservative control of the country, as many Democratic candidates are doing. The way to reach these people is, somehow, to reinspire them, to give them a vision of the future that gets them into the voting booth again. Jaded as they may have become, the only hope for reaching these voters is hope itself.

”When you’re trying to appeal to the disappointed Democratic base, the messages still have to maintain some sort of approach focus, focusing on what remains to be done, trying to generate enthusiasm for what has been achieved and what can be achieved,” Markman argues.

With little good news to point to, that would be a difficult trick to pull off. And, of course, if raising hopes did work, voters may have still more disappointment looming in their future.

Drake Bennett is the former staff writer for Ideas.