Most people select a party that has followers who resemble themselves and often retrofit their beliefs and philosophy to align with it

Just one look at the dejection on the faces of Romney supporters or the jubilation of Obama supporters on election night should tell you that politics is first and foremost a very emotional affair.

Ann Romney was crying while her husband delivered his terse concession speech, not because a majority of Americans voted against his economic policy, but because of the personal and highly public rejection of Mitt Romney as their next President.

Nor were President Barack Obama’s supporters ecstatic because his health care policy would not be overturned. Rather, both camps were in the grip of powerful emotions akin to the passion of spectators rooting for their team at a sporting event.

Oh, yes, Democrats will wax passionately about social justice and income inequality, and Republicans will carry on about the pernicious nature of big government and the virtues of individual achievement.

But political affiliation is not driven by ideas alone. Most people do not choose a political party by carefully analysing its policies or even its track record for competence. Instead, some social scientists argue that people select their political party in early adulthood the way they choose their friends or social groups: They go for the party that has people who resemble themselves. Once you’ve selected your party, you are likely to retrofit your beliefs and philosophy to align with it. In this sense, political parties are like tribes; membership in the tribe shapes your values and powerfully influences your allegiance to the group.

So strong is the social and emotional bond among members of a political tribe that they are likely to remain loyal to their party even when they give it low marks for performance. Yankees fans don’t jump ship when their team loses any more than Republicans switch parties when they lose an election.

Research has shown that when a team wins an athletic contest, fans the next day speak about how “we won”, and feel generally more optimistic, stronger and self-confident. Conversely, the losing side feels depressed, defeated and angry.

Interestingly, some studies found that testosterone levels rose in a group of male fans whose team went on to win and fell in fans whose team was defeated. Testosterone is well known to elevate both mood and aggression. Thus, winning or losing doesn’t just change your mood; it changes your physiology and brain function.

Political defeat unleashes similar painful emotions, and there is some preliminary evidence that it has biological consequences as well. For example, a study in 2009 found that during the 2008 presidential election, a group of McCain voters had an increase in the stress hormone cortisol after the announcement that Barack Obama had won, while those who had voted for Mr. Obama had no significant change in their cortisol levels. Cortisol is secreted by the body in response to acute and chronic stress. The clear implication of the study was that political defeat is a biologically stressful experience.

Not just that, but political contests have an element of thrill and expectation that is a bit like gambling. Intrade, for example, gave real-time market predictions about the probability of winning for each presidential candidate. Everyone who voted essentially bet on a candidate and expected a reward. We are hard-wired to go after various rewards and get a squirt of dopamine in our brain’s reward circuit when we get one. This dopamine signal confers, among many things, a sense of pleasure. Conversely, when we don’t get the reward we expected, the activity in our reward circuit is suddenly depressed and we don’t feel very good.

What makes political loss particularly painful for followers is the defeat of their leader, whose appeal derives in large part from the ability to make followers feel understood and cared for. In this sense, an effective leader arouses feelings in supporters that resemble the feelings children have for their parents. That’s why watching your presidential candidate go down is a bit like seeing your father get fired or beaten up.

But what is the experience of defeat like for the candidate himself? One gets a clue from the work of William Shaffir, a sociologist at McMaster University in Canada, who interviewed defeated politicians who spoke to him on the condition of anonymity. As one defeated official told Mr. Shaffir: “It's a sudden stop. It’s just like someone shut off the tap. It just ends. It’s over. It’s death.”

The defeated candidate experiences an abrupt and painful loss of social role a classic stressor that can trigger depression. When the election is over, the followers go back to work. But the defeated candidate has to reinvent himself and find a new role in life.

So for those of us celebrating this presidential election, we should not forget that though victory is sweet, it can be short-lived. Sooner or later we will be the losers. A little chest-thumping is in order and is even good for tribe morale. But we should try our best not to gloat. — New York Times News Service

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