Every politician knows that the key to winning elections is to make great promises. Campaigners promise to cure the ills of society including taxes, war, government corruption, and pollution. Instead, if elected, they will bring about vast improvements in education, employment, infrastructure, and the economy.
The size of the elected office seems almost correlated with the size of the promise. Even at the state or local level, however, politicians in close races may attempt to extract a few additional votes by promising to improve a specific problem that an interest group cares about the most.
There's no need here to detail the many broken campaign promises that have accumulated throughout history. For example, when Jon Stewart interviewed Barack Obama, he questioned whether the President had substituted campaign "audacity" with legislative "timidity." Whether or not this was a fair characterization, the point is that no politician is immune from either (a) not living up to pre-election hype or (b) being accused of (a). Interestingly, the media clips from the interview did not show the President's entire response, which clarified how he intended to make step-by-step progress.
In many ways, voters are the eternal optimists who can't learn from experience. We want to believe that our politicians will improve our lives. But when post-election reality hits, we forget how unrealistic we were in believing that somehow "this time," the outcome would be different. In 2008, many Obama supporters and independent voters alike got caught up in this sort of mass delusion of inflated expectations. Supporters sought miraculous results from Obama and the Democratic Congress who they voted into office and when the miracle failed to materialize, they reacted with outrage and contempt. Tea Partiers capitalized on the angry mood of disillusioned voters, many of them basing their candidacies on the premise that their candidates would fulfill a new set of largely unrealistic promises.
It may seem that the negative climate in politics has gotten worse in recent years, but broken promises and voter discontent are hardly 21st century phenomena. Perhaps what's new is the extensive repository of videos that can now be contrasted with the actions (or inaction) of those who've won an election. People don't have to rely on the sometimes vague and obscure print media; a politician's glaring inconsistencies now goes viral within minutes of the discovery.
Research in marketing psychology provides intriguing insights into why broken campaign promises "hurt so bad." The effect known as "negative expectancy disconfirmation" has been demonstrated in studies involving consumer products that fail to deliver on their promised effects. According to this research, we have a bias toward being more angry when a product fails to perform than to be happy when it lives up to its claims. What's worse, as shown by Canadian team Peter Darke and colleagues (2009), when one product fails to perform, we generalize to other similar products. We may even generalize to the advertising agency that marketed the product and also distrust the other products it promotes. We may even go beyond this irrational extrapolation to distrust the competitor's product or very different products from very different firms. In fact, we stop trusting all advertising, period.
This particular study involved ads for stain removers that failed to perform, a relatively small stakes situation. As the impact on our lives of broken promises becomes more pronounced, as when we vote someone into a position of high authority, the effect can only be magnified. In other words, we come to distrust all politicians, all of those who work for politicians, and at the national level, Washington (or London or Rome or Ottawa, etc.) completely.
In the U.S. presidential election of 2008, numerous first-time voters not only hopped on, but led, the Obama bandwagon. Many experienced the expectancy disconfirmation effect for the first time. In fact, we're seeing this now in polls showing the disaffection of young voters toward the political process. Older and more cynical voters most likely have built up enough defense mechanisms so as to avoid the most painful stings of disappointment. However, it seems that no one is completely immune to negative expectancy disconfirmation.
If politicians are ever to be able to lead, there will have to be an end at some point to the negative expectancy disconfirmation effect. We have to learn to trust again. Great leaders require not only the ability to take bold action, but the willingness of citizens to allow them to try to win without having to make wild and unrealistic promises. On the morning after, it would be nice to wake up and be able to feel that whoever won or lost, the change is one we can truly "believe in."
To sum up, the apparently pervasive nature of negative expectancy disconfirmation is hard to fight. Here are some suggestions for avoiding its impact on your life:
1. Read both sides to every story. Inform yourself of what people actually said on the campaign trail, not what they were reported to have said.
2. Listen carefully to what politicians say. Try not to project your own wishes and desires into a candidate's statement. Sometimes we hear them say what we want them to hear.
3. Offer to volunteer for a candidate you trust. Whether it's a vote for the local school board, town official, or state representative or senator, you might feel more invigorated if you can work on behalf of a cause that's important to you.
4. Make up your own mind. Polls are becoming as pervasive as campaign ads, and they don't stop after the election. Don't be swayed by sample statistics and keep a sharp eye on those margins of error which can be as high as 3%.
5. Teach your children well. If adults become disaffected by the political process then what people fear about our society being in decline will come true. Keep a balanced but positive perspective on the democratic process for the sake of the next generation.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010
Darke,P.R., Ashworth, L., & Main, K.J. (2009). Great expectations and broken promises: misleading claims,pproduct failure, expectancy disconfirmation and consumer distrust. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 38, 347-362.
Do you think before you make a promise to someone? What if you can’t deliver on your word? Does it really matter? The world isn’t going to come to an end, is it? Well, actually no, but have you considered . . .
Many people are pretty casual about making promises. As a result, promises are frequently made at the drop of a hat with no real intention of keeping them. “Let’s do lunch,” “I’ll call you later,” and “I’ll be there in five minutes” are all examples of throwaway promises that are frequently made but seldom kept. However, this casual attitude can have real consequences.
When you break a promise, no matter how small it may seem to you, alarm bells aren’t going to go off, but it can damage a relationship or your reputation. Think about it — when someone else breaks a promise to you, or gets caught in a lie, doesn’t that make you feel violated or cheated? You can’t help wondering whether you were wrong to ever trust that person.
Getting away with a lie can also be dangerous because it fools liars into believing they’re invincible and that they have little chance of getting caught. Before you know it, lying can become a habit, forcing liars to spend precious time and energy keeping their stories straight. Once others learn about the lies, some people may forgive, but they surely won’t forget.
Promise to Tell the Whole Truth
A promise is a promise. Some folks apply a rating scale, believing that breaking a big promise is inexcusable, while a small one is acceptable. That’s simply false. While breaking a big promise, such as failing to repay borrowed money, can torpedo a relationship, reneging on promises, such as being on time, casts doubt on future behavior.
Remember, trust is built through a series of experiences shared with others. When behavior is consistent, faith in the relationship develops. When promises are broken or people are misled, the bonds of trust are breached.
Broken promises imply that the offenders either didn’t think before making the promises, or don’t care that they’ve let you down. They’re also implying that their needs are more important than yours. So, be careful about the promises that you make and with whom you make them.
Never promise the moon. If you can’t keep a promise, don’t make it. For example, you may not be able to guarantee someone a five percent investment return, but you can show them your track record and promise them that you’ll work hard on their behalf; you can’t guarantee that you’ll arrive in two hours, but you can promise that you’re going to leave at 10am; you can’t promise anyone sunny weather, but you can promise to hold the umbrella open for them if it rains.
Some broken promises are excusable. If you can’t deliver something on time because of an uncontrollable event, such as a family illness, most people will understand that the lapse was unintentional. On the other hand, breaking a promise intentionally (oversleeping) is different — you’ll have to face the consequences.
When you distort the truth by exaggerating, spinning the truth, or withholding key facts, you also weaken your credibility for the future.
Half the truth is often a whole lie. Lying comes in many forms. Some people exaggerate or stretch the truth to make something look more attractive. Others “spin the truth” by presenting “selected” facts that support their position. Withholding key facts is also lying — it’s clearly meant to deceive. When you tell a lie, everything that you say in the future may be treated as suspect. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”
When people are dishonest, they send the message that they lied because either they don’t have a strong case or they have something to hide. Once they’re caught in the act, liars will find that others may start requesting everything in writing, may start looking over their shoulder, and may question their motives. Most importantly, after they lie, everything said from that point forward won’t carry the same credibility.
You’re judged by the company you keep. When people cover for the misdeeds of others, they’re as guilty as those who committed the “crimes.” If you’re tempted to cover for someone else, first consider whether it’s worthwhile to put your own reputation on the line for anyone who’s undeserving of your good name.
Your Word Is Your Bond
There was a time when keeping your word held special significance. We took great pride in being of good character. Personal integrity was both expected and valued. That was a time when everyone knew each other’s family, and you wouldn’t do anything that would cast a shadow on your family’s good name. It was a time when integrity was instilled in children at a very early age and was viewed as instrumental in achieving success. The truth is, our world may have changed, but the importance of integrity has not. While we may not know everyone in our own town, the world is still smaller than you think. Create some bad news and you’ll learn this for yourself.
Every time you give your word, you’re putting your honor on the line. You’re implying that others can place their trust in you because you value integrity and would never let them down. It goes without saying that if you don’t live up to your word, you may end up tarnishing your credibility, damaging your relationships, and defaming your reputation. Most importantly, you’ll be letting yourself down.
But . . . when you operate with complete integrity, what you say will be taken at face value, your intentions will be assumed honorable, and your handshake will be as good as a contract. Most importantly, you can take great pride in the standards that you’ve set for yourself and sleep well at night knowing that your conscience is clear. As for others . . . just when they think they’re fooling the world, they’ll realize that they’re only fooling themselves. A promise is a promise after all.
What do you think? Are people too casual about making promises?
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The Values on Which Trust Rests
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Posted on Filed Under: Blog, Self-help, Trust and Integrity Image licensed from Shutterstock