One morning in spring 1983 I found myself explaining all this to one of the yeastiest twenty-year-old undergraduates I have ever met, Harold Zillow. His ideas, his energy, his originality, and his enthusiasm were remarkable. I explained the CAVE technique to him and described the vistas it might open up, trying to impress him and recruit him to the University of Pennsylvania.
The American Presidential Elections
WHAT KIND of president do American voters want? Does optimism make a difference to the American voter? Political science was Harold Zullow’s hobby, and he began his graduate research by indulging in his hobby. We reread the nomination-acceptance speeches of the big losers and big winners of recent times. The discrepancies in optimism stuck out. Listen to Adlai Stevenson, twice a big loser, accepting his first nomination before the Democratic convention in 1952:
When the tumult and the shouting die, when the bands are gone and the lights are dimmed, there is the stark reality of responsibility in an hour of history haunted with those gaunt, grim specters of strife, dissension and materialism at home, and ruthless, inscrutable and hostile power abroad.
The Presidential Primaries
IN JANUARY 1988, thirteen contenders were out on the Hastings, speaking day after day in New Hampshire, Iowa, and elsewhere. Six Republicans were slugging it out, with Robert Dole and George Bush neck and neck in the polls. Smart money thought Bush would lose; Dole was tough and Bush a wimp. But the evangelist Pat Robertson, the conservative Jack Kemp, and the general Alexander Haig could not be counted out.
The Democratic race was completely up for grabs. Gary Hart seemed to be making a comeback from sexual scandals and was once again leading the polls. Senator Paul Simon, Governor Michael Dukakis, Senator Albert Gore, and Representative Richard Gephardt were all rated as having a chance. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, it was thought, would get only the black vote.
The 1988 Presidential Campaign
ON L Y HAL F THE primaries were over when we got a call from The New York Times. The reporter we had sent our predictions to (it was he who actually first suggested we CAVE the stump speeches), seeing how well they were working out, had written a story about it. “We’re going to run it on the front page,” he said, and asked who would win the election. We tried to be evasive. In the stump speeches, we determined, Bush was noticeably more optimistic than Dukakis.
Bush would win the election by 6 percent. But we were unwilling to make a prediction on the basis of just the stump speeches. Not only were there few event-explanation quotes in Bush’s speech, but all our previous presidential-election data were based on the nomination-acceptance speech, not on primary speeches.
The Senate Elections
THIRTY-THREE Senate seats were being contested, too, and for Twentynine of them, we were able to obtain speeches both candidates had given earlier in the year. Mostly in the summer and the spring. Most of these were the speeches the would-be senators made when they announced their candidacy-that is, well before the close of the campaign. So possum differences-unlike those in the final Bush-Dukakis debate could hardly stem from being ahead or behind in the polls. The day before the election, Harold ran his final possum analysis of the twenty-nine and committed himself, with sealed envelopes sent to various unimpeachable witnesses.
Explanatory Style across Frontiers
IN 1983 I WENT to Munich to attend the Congress of the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development, and on the second day I fell into conversation with an intense young German graduate student who introduced herself simply as Ele. “Let me tell you the idea I had when you were talking this morning about the CAVE technique,” she said. “But first let me ask a question. Do you think that the benefits of optimism and the dangers of pessimism and helplessness and passivity reflect universal laws of human nature, or do they hold true only in our kind of societyWesternized, I mean, like America and West Germany?
That was a good question. I told her I sometimes wondered myself whether or not our concern with control and with optimism was conditioned by advertising on the one hand and the Puritan ethic on the other. Depression, I said, doesn’t seem to occur in non-Western cultures at anything like the epidemic rate it does in Westernized ones. Perhaps cultures that aren’t obsessed with achievement don’t suffer the effects of helplessness and pessimism the way we do.
WHAT USED TOP ASS for psychohistory was a far cry from anything Hari Selden would have respected. It didn’t predict, it “postdated,” and in doing so it peeked. It reconstructed single lives, not the actions of groups of humans. It used questionable psychological principles and no statistical tools.
It is only a beginning. It does suggest that psychologists of the future need not confine themselves to questionable laboratory studies or expensive studies of groups over time to test their theories. Historical documents can provide a rich testing ground, and predicting the future can offer an even more convincing test of theories. Hari Selden, we like to think, would have been proud.