Whatever Makes You Feel Good

10/12/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Economics is based on one simple idea: people do what is in their self-interest. Any decision they make -- whether it's about which car to buy or which presidential candidate to vote for -- eventually comes down to self-interest. But self-interest doesn't just mean money. It's time to start thinking about psychic self-interest, too.

What's good for your wallet may not necessarily be good for your psyche. Barack Obama has some very wealthy backers who are likely to face higher tax rates if he's elected president. They're willing to give up millions to see him in the White House, because seeing him there will make them feel good.

Anything that makes you feel good is in your psychic self-interest, whether it's tangible or not -- for example, making history with your vote in the 2008 presidential election. A few weeks ago, Barack Obama held the monopoly on history-making votes. Now, Sarah Palin is offering voters a history-making alternative. As well as catering to the conservative base of the Republican Party, she's bidding on the psychic self-interest of millions of voters who might have tilted to Obama.

And she's not just offering the chance to make history. Palin offers two other psychic benefits to voters. First, she doesn't make them feel inferior. She seems like the sort of person you could sit down with to share a beer, without feeling like you were out of your league. She makes people feel good by speaking about simple, timeless themes rather than complex geopolitical concepts or arcane health care plans. Second, Palin taps into the psychic self-interest motherlode that is the American dream: "If she can make it onto the ticket, I could, too."

It's the old Al Gore versus George W. Bush story: would you rather vote for some Ivy-educated smartypants, or the guy who might as well be your chipper, wisecracking neighbor? Those two candidates offered different kinds of psychic benefits. Gore appealed to those who wanted a safe pair of hands running the country, even if they couldn't relate to him personally. Bush made people feel good about themselves by sharing their values and relating to them on a more basic level.

At first glance, it seems like Bush voters were the more self-centered group; their psychic benefits only had to do with how they felt about themselves, not on how society as a whole was doing. But that's not necessarily true. They undoubtedly believed that society would be better off if someone like Bush could impose their shared values.

The same may be true for McCain/Palin voters. And the Republican ticket is trying hard to offer them one more psychic benefit: the pleasure of transgression. The campaign is seizing every opportunity to paint the candidates as mavericks, devil-may-care politicians who are rupturing the status quo. The pitch is tantalizingly simple: vote for them, and taste the wild side of life -- be a rebel, even if you're voting for the incumbent party. It's almost sexual.

Can Obama match these psychic benefits? It's getting tougher for him by the day. He has chosen to abandon his inspirational, forward-looking tone in favor of direct attacks on the Republican ticket. That may be a recipe for a more thorough debate of the important issues facing the nation, but it also detracts from the psychic benefits he can generate. No one likes a bully, no one likes a pessimist, and no one likes negative politics. Even the Obama faithful probably aren't feeling as good about themselves as they used to.

Yet regaining the psychic advantage may be crucial. When Americans step into the voting booth, they want to step out feeling good. In fact, the chance to experience a quick rush could outweigh any thoughts of abstract concepts like college tuition grants and gas prices. Americans place much more importance on present happiness than they do on the future, economists have learned. Indeed, the difference is so great that people may regret decisions they made in the past with full knowledge of the consequences that would ensue.

The solution for Obama may lie in his face-to-face encounters with McCain. He already has the edge going into the debates; he's younger, better-looking and taller than McCain -- all traits associated with winners in the United States. Americans like winners; they get psychic benefits from being on the winning side of practically anything, from baseball games to beauty contests. If Obama can score clear victories in the debates without seeming overly intellectual, patronizing or dismissive, he may still be able to turn psychic self-interest to his advantage. His election could depend on it.