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How Voters Psych Themselves Out and Choose the Wrong Candidate

Democrats are psyching themselves out this election season, and psychological research dating back nearly 30 years helps to explain why. Right now, the behaviors and thought processes of Democrats are among the most salient examples of the particular psychological dynamics in question, but there are lots of instances in other important domains as well.

Erika Weisz, a Stanford Ph.D. and Harvard postdoc in psychology, explained what is happening in an article at Nautilus. She offered this example:

Last summer, in a New York Times article about Warren, a voter stated, “I love her enthusiasm. She’s smart, she’s very smart. I think she would make an amazing president,” before adding, “I’m worried about whether she can win.” The voter’s sentiment is reflected in a 2019 poll in which 74 percent of Democrats said they would be comfortable with a female president, yet only 33 percent of them thought their neighbors felt the same way.”

If the person quoted by the Times voted on the basis of her own beliefs, she would vote for Warren. But she’s worried about whether other people will vote for her. Weisz believes that Warren’s political fate could “turn on voters who think she would make a great president choosing another candidate because they think that’s what their neighbors will do.” 

Weisz used Elizabeth Warren as an example, but reasoning about other candidates, too, has devolved into the same dynamics. Above all, Democrats want to beat Trump. By a margin of more than 2-to-1, in the exit polls from the New Hampshire Democratic primary, and probably more generally, voters said they cared more about defeating Trump than about particular issues. 

Rather than voting their own preferences, Democrats try to figure out who everyone else would vote for. They are trying to act like pundits. But just like the pundits, voters don’t know which candidates are most likely to have the broadest appeal. And sometimes their assumptions are just wrong. 

Social scientists have their own jargon-laden name for what is going on — pluralistic ignorance. It could play an outsized role in determining the results of the 2020 Presidential election. 

The pluralistic ignorance process goes like this: You feel a certain way. So do most other people. But you don’t realize other people feel the same way you do. You think it’s just the opposite. You behave based on your false beliefs about other people, rather than behaving in a way that is true to yourself. 

It’s “pluralistic” because you are holding onto two sets of beliefs at once — your true beliefs and what you think other people believe. It is “ignorance,” because you are wrong about other people’s beliefs. 

It is also a shared ignorance. You think your favorite candidate can’t get elected because you assume most people would not vote for that candidate. Lots of other people are doing the exact same thing – they have the same favorite candidate that you do, but they also assume that other people won’t vote for the candidate. That candidate can end up dropping out of the race or getting defeated, not because people didn’t believe in that candidate, but because of the pluralistic ignorance of thinking their own belief in the candidate was not shared, when it was. Too many people end up voting based on their mistaken beliefs about other people’s preferences, rather than their own preferences, which really are popular. 

The psychological dynamics of pluralistic ignorance have also been demonstrated in research on friendships between black and white college students, Weisz noted. Nicole Shelton and Jennifer Richeson asked students about their preferences for having more contact with students from a different race. They also asked how much contact they thought the other students wanted to have with them. Both the black and the white students wanted to have more contact with each other, but both groups mistakenly believed that the other group did not want as much contact with them. That’s the typical pluralistic ignorance pattern of findings. 

It mattered. Other studies by the same authors showed that the students who were especially likely to demonstrate that pattern of thinking were less likely to have contact with people of different races. 

In workplaces, similar psychological dynamics have been documented for the matter of paternal leave. Men who are interested in taking new parent leave assume that other men feel more negatively than they do about the practice. In fact, they were overestimating the judgmental attitudes of other men. But their wrong assumptions mattered, and they were less likely to take the leave they wanted to take. 

The psychology of pluralistic ignorance has been demonstrated in other domains as well, including drinking, willingness to report sexual harassment, and efforts to address climate change. With regard to drinking, Debra Prentice and Christine Schroeder found that educating students about pluralistic ignorance motivated them to make better choices about alcohol. 

No one has yet tested whether it would work to enlighten voters about pluralistic ignorance. If it did work, then more citizens would vote for the person they really do want to be President, and not the person they think other people would want. 

How Voters Psych Themselves Out and Choose the Wrong Candidate

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D.

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single". Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2020). How Voters Psych Themselves Out and Choose the Wrong Candidate. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 26 Feb 2020 (Originally: 28 Feb 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 26 Feb 2020
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