Thomas Levenson has written an interesting post about John McCain and his fascination with high-stakes gambling. While it’s clear that his gambling habit isn’t going to put McCain in any serious financial danger, it does raise questions about his personality. One of the most difficult things voters try to do in an election is to predict the candidate’s future behavior. We know what the candidates have done in the past, but how they’ll respond in future crises is what will matter most if they are elected.
If a new crisis emerges, will the new president take risks, or play it safe? One test psychologists have used to understand risk-taking behavior is the “Asian disease problem.” Imagine that a disease originating in Asia has been transported to the U.S. and is expected to cause 600 deaths. The president has to decide between two possible approaches to the problem. Which should he choose? Let’s use a poll to collect responses (make sure you respond before you read any further!):
Have you answered the poll? Good!
Variants of this test have been used for decades, but there’s a key manipulation I didn’t reveal in the poll. The test has two different forms. In the first variant of the test, both options are expressed in positive terms:
Program A: 200 people will be saved.
Program B: There is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved and a 2/3 probability that no one will be saved.
In the second variant, the same options are available, but they are expressed in negative terms:
Program A: 400 people will die.
Program B: There is a 1/3 probability that nobody will die and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.
We’ll do both variants: after we’ve gotten a good response to the first poll, we’ll substitute in a second poll. Then we should be able to compare results. If our results match the pattern of past research, we should find that many more people are willing to “gamble” when the possible results are expressed in negative terms. This is a classic example of the “framing” problem. But there is much more than can be done with this paradigm. After all, aren’t some individuals simply more willing to take risks than others?
Jennifer Lerner and Dacher Keltner gave a personality test to 75 college students, then presented them with both variants of the Asian disease problem, in random order. The personality test was designed to assess two dimensions of personality: anger and fear. Do these emotions affect responses to the problem? Here are the results:
Respondents rated their preference for each program on a scale of 1 to 6, and their responses are shown as averages heare. As you can see, while both angry and fearful people were less willing to take risks when the impact was phrased in positive terms, angry people consistently took more risks than fearful people.
In three additional experiments, Lerner and Keltner confirmed these results. In one crucial variation, rather than studying people with angry and fearful personalities, they induced anger or fear in individuals, and found the same predisposition for angry people: a greater predisposition to make optimistic assessments of risk compared to fearful people.
John McCain has been noted in the media as a person who is quick to anger. This research suggests that angry people are more likely to take risks. As Thomas Levenson points out, McCain also enjoys gambling as personal entertainment (as does Obama, in an occasional low-stakes poker game). Does this mean he would be more willing to take risks as president compared to Obama? Without a similar analysis of Obama’s personality, it’s difficult to know. This interview suggests McCain may have the hotter temper, but that’s probably something voters will have to decide for themselves. They’ll also have to decide whether risk-taking is an asset or a liability in a president.
And what about the responses to our poll? I’ll discuss those in the comments once we have enough answers to assess the results.
Jennifer S. Lerner, Dacher Keltner (2001). Fear, anger, and risk. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81 (1), 146-159 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168