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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.” Below is a press release that I’ve changed in only a few places:

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.

P.S. The above link was to a press release which no longer works, and I can’t find it on the Internet Archive either. So instead here’s a link to the original paper. It was the press release that I mildly altered in the above post.

P.P.S. As discussed in the comments, the original paper was not about narcolepsy; the term “sleeper effect” was just a metaphor. You can follow the links to see the original article and press release.

19 Comments

  1. Jeff Cooper says:

    This… must be a hoax? “Sommeil” is French for sleep and the author’s name is “Sandman”?

  2. Dale Lehman says:

    I’ve asked about this before but don’t have an answer I really understand. How is this different from issues with much of the work from Raj Chetty and the Equality of Opportunity Project (http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/). Their work is very well done, widely read, and, in many ways, top notch. However, the correlations they analyze appear to all be done at the aggregate level (aggregations into income quintiles, for example). Shouldn’t the same concerns about the potential for the ecological fallacy be relevant to that work?

    Putting the clear overhype in the above example, I think the potential misleading effects of aggregation are not well understood and inadequately treated in both teaching and research. When individual data is actually available, it should be easy enough to test whether (and to what extent) the aggregate patterns hold at the individual level. So, why not at least report that?

  3. Jeff says:

    I’ve actually experienced an increase in many of the sleep-hardship symptoms mentioned in the article since the 2016 election. So this probably explains the incumbency advantage, too.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Totally fresh browser, never before seen this site. I click this link but see no comments on the page:
    https://andrewgelman.com/2018/09/12/narcolepsy-sleeper-effect-trump-brexit-campaigns/#comment-884566

    It is not a caching issue.

  5. YG says:

    I think your link is down. Is this the study you’re alluding to?
    http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1948550618755874

  6. Billy Buchanan says:

    As someone who has narcolepsy with cataplexy, I believe the rag that published this garbage should retract the entire article. Narcolepsy is not a personality disorder. Current prevailing theory has attributed narcolepsy (particularly with cataplexy) to an autoimmune virus that attacks a specific set of neurons responsible for the secretion of hypocretin. The only possible way that narcolepsy would affect someone’s voting behavior is if they were failing to take their medication, in which case it would be a selection mechanism and would not lead to biasing the voting decision; quite simply, without medication it becomes unsafe to drive and that would keep individuals with narcolepsy out of the polling place.

    Most impotently is that insomnia is the exact opposite of narcolepsy. I’m amazed that someone found it logical to attribute a condition that prevents individuals from sleeping (insomnia) to a condition that prevents people from staying awake (narcolepsy).

    Thanks for pointing this one out so that more people can respond to this journal’s editors.

    • Andrew says:

      Billy:

      I apologize for any confusion, and it seems that the link I’d originally posted (to a press release) is down. The original paper was not about narcolepsy; see the new link at the end of the above post.

      • If narcolepsy is not mentioned in the original study then please edit it out of your post. Narcolepsy is a very specific neurological condition that actually involves much more than simply being sleepy. As commented above, narcolepsy also has nothing to do with a persons personality. There is already enough misinformation about narcolepsy circulated and this doesn’t help.

        • Gyglörbys says:

          I strongly disagree. It is obvious that this post is NOT intended as some sort of infoblurb on narcolepsy — the post is obviously intended as a satire of a shoddy press release, and if you are unable to understand that context it is solely your problem. Everyone should be able to understand that this post is NOT a realistic depiction of narcolepsy; again, if you think so, you are the problem.

          I’ve encountered a fair share of death and illness during my lifetime, both having to lose my loved ones and having being ill myself, and I thoroughly resent this modern fashion of walking on eggshells and censorship. My mother, before succumbing to cancer, made constant fun of her condition; I’ve made fun of mine (not cancer, by the way) and I encourage everyone to do so.

  7. Chad Rummel says:

    For those wanting to see the real press release that SPSP published, it’s linked here: http://www.spsp.org/news-center/press-releases/neuroticism-sleeper-effect. It makes no mention of narcolepsy.

    • Andrew says:

      Chad:

      Yes, that’s the link I had before! For some reason it was not operating for awhile.

      As noted in the post above, I changed some of the words in the press release. The “sleeper effect” thing made me think of narcolepsy. For reasons discussed above, I thought the original press release was pretty ridiculous.

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