Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
May 10, 2019

When National Events Matter for People’s Lives: The 2016 US Presidential Election

by Heather Lench
One happy man is out of crowd of many sad people. 3D rendered illustration.

The U.S. Presidential election of 2016 was unusual in many ways – from the divisive rhetoric during the campaigns to the large social movements that followed. My colleagues and I were following a group of about 1,000 citizens to gauge their emotions after the election. After Donald Trump was unexpectedly elected President, we realized this was a unique opportunity to explore whether this election changed the way that citizens view the quality of their lives overall.

Researchers often assess people’s perception of their lives through measures of “subjective well-being” (SWB), which reflects people’s experiences of happiness and satisfaction with their life. SWB measures have been increasingly used to measure perceived life quality and to compare the  quality of life that people experience in different nations.  Importantly, SWB is not affected by daily events, such as having a great coffee or a relationship break-up. Instead, measures of SWB reflect people’s global evaluation of the quality of their lives and tend to be stable over time.

People typically recover rapidly even after major life events, like an accident that results in severe disability or winning the lottery. Likewise, multiple studies show that elections have little to no impact on SWB. Even among highly invested voters immediately after a highly contested presidential election, elections generally have only moderate effects.  In contrast, on the surface, the 2016 Presidential election seemed to impact people greatly; the media was flooded with images of people crying, cheering, and protesting. But did the election actually have the strong effects that the news reports seemed to show?

To answer this question, we turned to our participants to determine whether, in fact, the 2016 election had a lasting impact on people’s SWB. In addition to measuring SWB, we took several measurements that might explain how people responded to the outcome of the election. These included candidate preference and how much time people spent engaged with election-related media.

We also measured how important our participants judged different moral values. People vary how important they perceive different moral values to be and, according to the theory, conflicts arise when people disagree about the relative importance of these values. Research shows that liberals perceive “individualizing” values (focused on protecting individual people) to be more important than other values. Conservatives also view this as important but place equal importance on “binding” moral values, including loyalty to one’s own group, deference to authority, and a focus on protecting purity. In other words, conservatives focus on protecting and binding their own group (the “in group”) together. In an election in which many policies and statements were relevant to individual rights versus group protection, we expected that the value of these moral foundations would predict people’s responses to the election outcome.

Our results showed that Trump supporters followed the typical pattern after the election outcome: they experienced an initial increase in SWB in the days after the election, but this exuberance had faded when we measured them again three weeks and six months later. Clinton supporters, however, responded differently to the election outcome. They had a sharp decrease in subjective well-being in the days after the election, and, although their SWB improved somewhat three weeks later and six months later, it remained below baseline levels.

Media exposure and moral foundations also mattered. Participants who more strongly valued individualizing moral values showed a stronger link between media exposure and reduced subjective well-being. We speculate that this could result because they were likely to see information in political media coverage that was inconsistent with their moral values.

The fact that the 2016 election impacted SWB is remarkable given that SWB tends to be stable over time and rebounds even after significant life events. Comparing across studies and measures is challenging, but comparing responses to this particular election to classic findings in the field gives some perspective. In other research, people who had become quadriplegic within the last year reported lower happiness than lottery winners and people who did not experience a significant event by a scale difference of about 17%. In contrast, Clinton supporters reported about a 24% scale decrease in happiness during the week after the election. The Presidential  election of 2016 clearly had a notable impact on how people viewed the quality of their lives.

For Further Reading:
Lench, H. C., Levine, L. J., Perez, K. A., Carpenter, Z. K., Carlson, S. J., & Tibbett, T. (2019). Changes in subjective well-being following the US Presidential election of 2016. Emotion.

Heather Lench is Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Texas A&M University and studies and teaches about emotions.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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