Obama & online dating

If I did not know that the people around me were talking about Obama, I would have guessed that I was among a group of excited fans, infatuated with a rock singer, or a movie star. In fact, when I ask Obama supporters about how they expect him to fare against other US presidents, their general answer is that he is likely to be the best president of all time (some think he will be second to JFK).

Since the emotions and excitement toward Obama seem to be those usually reserved for romantic attraction, I would like to draw on some lessons from our research (Mike Norton, Jeana Frost, and I) on the ways in which people form impressions about others in romantic settings and the pitfalls of their impressions. What we found is that although people expect that the more they get to know another person the more they will like this person, in reality familiarity breeds contempt!

As it turns out, on average, the more we learn about someone, the less we like them. Why is this the case? When we get partial information about others we tend to fill in the gaps optimistically; we assume that they are wonderful, just like us and that they share our exact values and preferences. This may sound like a recommendation to not reveal much about ourselves and as a consequence gain more affection. However, this approach also presents a possible trap: As people learn more, their over-optimistic interpretation dissolves, the disappointment begins, and from then on the disappointment escalates, leading to lower and lower liking. For example, imagine that someone writes that they like music. You assume that it is the same music you like (blues) and you immediately like this blues-music-lover. But when you learn more, you discover that in fact they like classical music, and once you encounter this one disappointing fact, everything you learn afterward is colored by that initial disappointment.

So, what does this say about Obama? In my estimation one of the charms of Obama is that we know so little about him (we definitely know less about him than about Clinton), and I assume that this lack of knowledge, coupled with our tendency to fill in the missing information in an over-optimistic way is one of the reasons for the Obama love fest. It also means that we should expect a hard and disappointing awakening as we learn more about Obama and realize that he is not the super-human we now imagine him to be.

Finally there is also a pragmatic point to all of this: How long will Obama be able to maintain this lack of knowledge about himself? If he can keep it up until the democratic nomination, he might win the nomination. But then the real question is whether he will be able to maintain the lack of knowledge around him until the general election. If he is unable to do this, if we learn more about him between the two elections, we might fall out of love with him just before the real elections.

So I wonder, if the Obama that is a candidate for the Democratic Party nominee (largely unknown and admired), would be different from the Obama that is a candidate for the Presidency (more known and less loved.)