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How Your Brain Makes Decisions When You Hate All Your Options

Source | FastCompany : By ART MARKMAN

You’ve heard by now that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have higher “unfavorables” than “favorables,” in pollster parlance. In other words, more U.S. voters seem to dislike the two presidential candidates than like them. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, for instance, Clinton’s favorable-to-unfavorable scores clock in at 41% to 53%, respectively, and Trump’s at an ever more lopsided 33% to 61%.

So it’s fair to assume that, on average, voters aren’t exactly selecting a candidate they’re excited about—many are simply picking the one they dislike the least. And when we see our options as presenting us with a choice between the lesser of two evils, it subtly changes how we decide.


When people are dissatisfied with all of their options, research suggests that they often focus on finding reasons to reject one over the other rather than reasons for preferring one. This may sound like the flip side of the same coin, but there’s a crucial difference: When we adopt what psychologists term a “rejection mind-set,” we home in on negative information about our options and fixate on the one with the smallest potential downsides.

A “selection mind-set,” on the other hand, makes us assess our choices according to opposite criteria: we focus on the positiveinformation at hand, searching for the option with the greatest possible upsides. How we feel about our options, in other words, alters what we think it is that we’re choosing—in our minds, anyway, it changes their very substance.

That may help explain why so much information about the candidates this election cycle is so markedly negative, with reports ofalleged scandals and corruption dogging both Trump and Clinton in arguably greater proportion than coverage of their policy proposals. So while part of that, as some have noted, comes down to editorial choices by media outlets, it’s also a pretty accurate reflection of the type of information large chunks of the electorate seem to demand in order to guide their decision.

So while it may be true that there’s been less substantive coverage of either candidate’s proposals, it’s probably wrong to assume that means voters don’t care about the actual policies at stake. It isn’t that people are totally uninterested in how either candidate would actually govern if elected, it’s that they’re likely paying closer attention to the proposals and ideas they disagree with than to those they support.

And the sharply negative campaign messaging observers were predicting months ago probably isn’t just a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of the news media. It’s also a conscious choice by both campaigns, which are responding to voters who are more likely to be animated by reasons to reject their opponent. Just last week, amid a fresh round of questions about her emails and practices at her charity foundation, Clinton grabbed headlines bycharging Trump with spewing “racist lie[s]”—meanwhile, a glib New Yorkmagazine headline said, “Clinton Just Gonna Run Out the Clock on This Email Thing.”

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