Bears predict Biden. Squirrels foresee Trump.
Why Americans can't resist wacky election predictions
Two Russian tigers and a Siberian bear believe Joe Biden will win the election. But according to the squirrels in South Carolina, President Trump will get his second term. Alas, Paul the Octopus — who correctly predicted the outcome of eight World Cup soccer matches, the odds of which are so unlikely that a probability blog calculated there was potentially a 3 percent chance the cephalopod was genuinely "psychically-inclined" — died back in 2010, and was therefore unreachable for comment.
Don't believe in psychic animals? Then how about the historian who has correctly predicted every election since 1984 and foresees a Biden victory? Or the pollster who successfully called the 2016 election and says Trump will win again? A flea market psychic running for Senate in Kentucky told the Louisville Courier Journal that his divining pendulum gave him a "'don't know' to an almost 'no'" reading for a Trump re-election, while a panel of astrologists consulted the candidates' charts for BuzzFeed and, based on their findings, hedged a Biden win.
Of course, we won't know one way or another until the votes are actually tallied Tuesday night (or potentially much later). Still, it's human nature to try to peer into the future and predict what will happen, particularly when it comes to something as fraught as the presidential election. The danger is that, in 2020, our desire to prophesy the outcome is being weaponized against us — and as agonizing as the final hours or days of this waiting period might be, it's important to remember that this, too, is a part of the process.
Resisting the urge to predict the election outcome, though, goes against our instincts. "The less we know, the more threatened we feel, because lack of knowledge means we don't know what we need to know to protect ourselves, which equates to a lack control over health and safety, life and death," argues David Ropeik, an expert on the psychology of risk. Trying to suss out clues about the future is a human survival mechanism; it also gives us "the feeling of control over our fate." And particularly for this election — which nearly 70 percent of Americans say is a "significant" source of stress for them — the desire to seek out answers is doubly heightened. As Lynn Bufka, a psychologist, explained to NPR, "what causes stress and uncertainty is when things feel out of our control, when they seem like we don't know what's going to happen." And even with the polls showing what looks like a certain Biden victory, it can be hard to trust the numbers in front of us.
We do strange things to try to mitigate this stress. Some of us refresh FiveThirtyEight obsessively, while others turn to more supernatural outlets — even if we sheepishly know better. Americans are especially primed to believe psychics of all species, with more than a quarter of us believing in paranormal abilities like clairvoyance. These superstitions are even a part of our national folklore at this point, from the meteorological (Punxsutawney Phil) to the political, with psychic Jeane Dixon rising to fame after seemingly predicting that the 1960 presidential election would be "won by a Democrat" who would "be assassinated or die in office" (years later, she also predicted that the "war of Armageddon" would end the planet in 2020. Hey, there's still time!).
But when putting your faith in something as unscientific as someone's "gut," much less what they saw in a crystal ball, you can unconsciously start to cherry-pick results you're looking for, either to alleviate your concerns or to confirm them to yourself (I'd never trust a psychic monkey, but Boots the Scottish Goat seems to be on to something). When dissecting how experts missed seeing the results of the 2016 election coming, Salon even cited confirmation bias as a reason "why many election-watchers got it wrong: in the runup to the election, they saw only what they expected, or wanted, to see." Still, even knowing better now, it can be hard to resist looking for random signs that confirm our beliefs: While CNN has made a point of warning its colleagues in the media that "Trump's lies about the integrity of the election make it all the more important that the public understand how projections are made," it has also published a video purporting to show "zoo animals predict[ing] the U.S. presidential election."
Our desperation to know what happens next can also be manipulated. "A recent study found the espousal of conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and belief in the paranormal turn out to be highly correlated with one another," The Guardian has reported, with the elaborate QAnon conspiracy being a surprisingly widespread belief system that encourages adherents to look for signs and read into (frequently hilariously wrong) prophecies. There are other more mundanes ways of shaping public belief too; Fox News, for example, has been "so chock full of pro-Trump commentary and rally coverage that viewers come away with the impression that this race is a whole heck of a lot closer to 50/50 than it actually is," Brian Stelter's Reliable Sources newsletter warns.
President Trump has further intentionally muddied the waters by making the demonstrably false claim that this is the "greatest rigged election in history," as to provide his campaign another outlet to pursue victory if the popular or Electoral College votes don't go his way. Such claims are as baseless as the predictions made by a Pennsylvania bakery's "cookie poll," but also far more dangerous. Already, fears of one side or the other failing to accept the results are high; Reuters is equipping its reporters for post-election unrest in the U.S. the same way it prepares them for covering international conflict zones.
Uncertainty is uncomfortable and hard — but it also means the system is working the way it's supposed to. It's the claims of certainty that are the ones to fear. After all, even science-based polls, like FiveThirtyEight's, which put a Biden win at as high as 89 percent as of Nov. 2, allow for the possibility of defeat or tie, too, with that unvoiced 11 percent identifying a small, but not impossible, probability.
The good news is, most people know this. And without getting sucked in too deep, there's no harm to making predictions all in good fun. Chris-Chris the prophetic squirrel might have eaten more nuts out of a Trump bowl this year, but personally? I'm going with the bear on this one.