Psychologists confirm that yes, you really are being made physically ill by election uncertainty

A supporter of Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton reacts at the election night rally in New York.
A supporter of Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton reacts at the election night rally in New York.
Image: Reuters/Adrees Latif
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Forehead sweats? Racing heart? Clammy palms?

Unfortunately for opponents of Donald Trump, the US election results just got interesting. Despite expectations that favored Hillary Clinton, the US presidential election results are looking more and more unreal—but they’re still having very real psychological and physiological effects.

For those hoping for a Clinton victory, this is coming as a surprise. And psychology shows that it is sometimes better for us to be pessimistic from the start rather than suddenly thrown into the realm of uncertainty. The illusion of hope is more anxiety-inducing that the certainty of failure.

Just take a look at this gif from the New York Times’ live presidential forecast meter, and try not to panic:

Sometimes we are more adversely affected by not knowing if a result is going to be positive or negative than we are by expecting a negative result. For example, this Harvard study proposes an “uncertainty intensification hypothesis, whereby uncertainty makes unpleasant events more unpleasant.” Another paper by researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison says, “Uncertainty about a possible future threat disrupts our ability to avoid it or to mitigate its negative impact, and thus results in anxiety.”

“As the projection approaches 50%, this produces a feeling of maximal uncertainty and feelings of anxiety—especially for supporters who expected to win (i.e.: Clinton supporters),” Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, told Quartz. This means that Trump supporters are less susceptible to feeling anxious about the very same flip-flopping poll projections.

However, David Dunning, a social psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, was a little more hopeful. “The worth of evidence depends on strength, the conclusion the evidence suggests, the weight of that evidence, and how reliable or sturdy that evidence is,” he says. “People play too much attention to strength, but often ignore weight. Thus, any election-return snippet suggesting Trump will win; no, Hillary; wait, Donald; hold on, now it’s Clinton only whips our beliefs and emotions around.”

“Why pay so much attention to an indicator with so little weight that it flits around on a puff of momentary news?  Better yet to wait for the morning, when the election returns—for better or worse—are set in weighty stone.”

Deep breaths, America. We might be in for a long night.