Narcolepsy Could Be ‘Sleeper Effect’ in Trump and Brexit Campaigns

Kevin Lewis sent along this example of what in social science is called the “ecological fallacy”:

UNDER EMBARGO UNTIL MARCH 8, 2018 AT 10 AM EST

Media Contact:
Public and Media Relations Manager
Society for Personality and Social Psychology
press@spsp.org

Narcolepsy Could Be ‘Sleeper Effect’ in Trump and Brexit Campaigns

Regions where voters have more narcoleptic personality traits were more likely to vote for Donald Trump in the United States or for the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom, revealing a new trend that could help explain the rise of fearmongering populist political campaigns across the world, according to new research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Researchers analyzed personality traits from online surveys of more than 3 million people in the United States and more than 417,000 people in the United Kingdom. Election data was compiled from public sources.

“Our study reveals how narcolepsy or sleep hardship is shaping the global political landscape,” said lead study author Martin Sandman, PhD, a psychologist and associate professor at Sommeil University of Technology in Australia. “One could also call this ‘irrational’ voting behavior because the surprising success of Trump and Brexit weren’t predicted by models that relied on a rational understanding of voters.”

Narcolepsy hasn’t previously been associated with voting behavior, suggesting that it could have been a “sleeper effect” with the potential to have a profound impact on the success of populist political campaigns across the globe, Sandman said.

The Trump and Brexit campaigns both promoted themes of fear and lost pride, which are related to narcoleptic personality traits that include persistent feelings of exhaustion, insomnia, collapse, or restfulness. Regions in the United States with greater support for Trump were very similar to areas in the United Kingdom that supported Brexit, including a higher percentage of white people and lower levels of college education, earnings and liberal attitudes. Former industrial areas that are now in economic decline also were more likely to support Trump or Brexit.

The Brexit vote in June 2016 by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union succeeded by a very narrow margin, with 51.9 percent of voters in favor. Trump’s presidential victory in 2016 also shocked many people, with him winning 30 states and the electoral vote tally even though 2.8 million more Americans voted for Hilary Clinton.

Trump’s crucial voter gains above the performance of 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney occurred largely in areas with high levels of narcoleptic traits, including battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio, which shifted from Democratic in 2012 to Republican in 2016. Trump’s populist campaign also was especially successful in former industrial centers that are now in economic decline, including the Rust Belt region across the Midwest and Great Lakes.

The researchers examined regions, not individuals [emphasis added], and were studying larger trends relating to psychological traits, not specific diagnoses of mental illness for any voters. The study also excluded Northern Ireland from the Brexit analysis because of the lack of available data.

The fears and worries of voters with narcoleptic personality traits should be taken seriously, and blankets and pillows should be provided during political campaigns to allay those fears, Sandman said. Education also could be a buffer against fearmongering populist political campaigns because regions with higher rates of college graduates had much lower levels of narcolepsy, he said.

I’ve changed a few words above, but the basic ideas shine through clearly.

In all seriousness, I think it’s (a) irresponsible for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology to promote this sort of hype, and (b) ludicrous for it to be “UNDER EMBARGO” as if it’s some big breakthrough.

If you want to make some maps of aggregate patterns of survey responses, go for it. Do some scatterplots and regressions too, why not? But the political interpretations, all based on those aggregate correlations—they’re ridiculous. The Society for Personality and Social Psychology can and should do better.

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