I based my PhD thesis on Arie W. Kruglanski‘s famous 2003 paper Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition. In this entry, he describes some of the psychological motivations behind the Trump appeal.

Commentary: The psychology behind voters’ choices – and election madness

By Arie W. KruglanskiVoters in Brooklyn, New York cast their ballots during the U.S presidential election. November 8, 2016.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

More than any other recent presidential campaign, 2016 has been driven by psychological forces far removed from the optimistic rationality of the Founding Fathers.

How do voters make their choices? Do they decide during a rally? Study the candidates’ policies? Research the issues? Watch the debates? See whose clothes or hair style or speaking voices they prefer?

Thomas Jefferson emphasized that an informed electorate is essential to any sound democracy. You would think that in this Information Age, keeping the citizenry informed would be easy. Yet it is information and misinformation that made the 2016 presidential election the nightmare it turned out to be. Here is why:

The concept of “informed electorate” makes two assumptions. First, that voters have “good information,” both fact-based and relevant; second that voters carefully weigh all available information to make a reasoned decision, embodying what political scientist Herbert Simon called “bounded rationality” – making the best possible call in light of the available information.

The 2016 presidential campaign drastically violated these assumptions. Both candidates’ campaigns instead largely capitalized on emotions and optics.

In psychology, we call this heuristic reasoning and accessibility dynamics. Heuristic reasoning is based on association rather than evidence.   It relies on simplistic, often patently invalid rules of thumb to form electoral attitudes and decisions.

Accessibility dynamics give priority to “top of the head” ideas while disregarding long-known, potentially superior, information. Unfortunately, accessibility is driven by frequency of or recent exposure to ideas, rather than their value or coherence. Its actual impact, therefore, can undermine or bias decisions.

How do these psychological mechanisms play out in the 2016 election?

Take the presidential debates, watched by an unprecedented 80 million viewers. While a nominee’s performance  often moved the needle in the polls, it said little about how each would likely function in the Oval Office.

Success in this year’s debates, for example, was often gauged by behavioral quirks, including whether the candidate was too robotic, regularly interrupted an adversary or shouted over them. It was largely unconnected to any substance.

Voters presumably subscribed to the heuristic rationale that a bad (inelegant, inconsiderate, poorly poised) debater would be a bad president – without a shred of evidence supporting such an outlandish contention.

Of course, this sort of reasoning isn’t unique to 2016. It is traceable back to the first televised presidential debate – between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960. Nixon lost that debate, and the election, according to some reports, because he perspired during the broadcast, while Kennedy looked cool and collected. This attested to a ridiculous “sweating” heuristic, by which some Americans allegedly decided on their president.

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore supposedly reacted inappropriately to Texas Governor George W. Bush during a presidential debate. Gore’s eye rolls, repeated sighing and crowding his adversary arguably cost him the election. This loss was based on an absurd “inappropriate debating” guide to presidential performance (that, nonetheless, changed the course of American history.)

Though the disproportionate weight given to irrelevant issues isn’t new, it is pronounced this year because of the remarkable paucity of substantive arguments in the debates. All this casts serious doubt on the crucial role that presidential debates play in American democracy.

Remarkable also is the use of irrelevant heuristics in political smears and guilt by association. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton disproportionately suffered from such unexamined rules of thumb. Her association with various investigations (BenghaziWhitewater“emailgate”helped create her image as dishonest, tricky and untrustworthy – even though she was exonerated in all three. This outweighed America’s sacrosanct “presumption of innocence.”

Meanwhile, it is a political axiom that no presidential campaign can succeed without vast amounts of money for endless TV ads. These ads are considered critical because they build the accessibility of heuristic information – pushing ideas to the forefront of voters’ awareness, where they exert disproportionate influence on decisions. As both common experience and scientific research show, the human attention span is severely limited.

This means that at any given moment, attitudes and opinions are based on a subset of information available in our memory. It also means that pushing information upfront via repetitive TV ads makes it accessible and dominant. Endlessly repeating Clinton’s e-mail debacle or Trump’s pronouncements on Mexicans or women ultimately magnifies their impact on voting decisions.

Repeatedly priming voters’ minds with concepts, whether supportive of or detrimental to candidates’ appeal, builds their chronic accessibility – the ease with which these ideas shape voters’ opinions. Yet their comprehension can be temporarily blocked by recent priming with alternative ideas, contrary in their political implications. That is why the timing of information release is so vital in political campaigning. This helps to explain why the opinion polls, which had seemed so volatile over 5-day periods, tended to stabilize when viewed on a monthly basis.

Consider the recent dramatic developments. Until the release of Trump’s misogynistic video, his poll numbers had been increasing – with 43 percent of respondents professing to vote for him in late September. The video set him back for a while, but ultimately his polling evened out again because of the chronic accessibility of former supportive ideas: The dominance of recent events is short lived, because ideas that were repeatedly primed in the past regain their primacy with the passage of time.

In similar fashion, FBI Director James Comey’s reopening of the email saga hurt Clinton temporarily. Her support in some polls fell around that time, but she too recovered – and for similar reasons.

Obviously, the closer to the final vote that information is released, the greater its accessibility at the critical moment – and the more powerful its impact.

Jefferson’s notion of informed citizenry is just as compelling today as it was 200 years ago. Yet what this concept has come to mean is far different in today’s political reality.

That is why the 2016 electoral campaign in particular has been viewed worldwide “like a bad joke,” “a total loss of dignity” and as “empire moving downhill.” Psychological science tells us how this travesty has happened. It is imperative to use these findings to introduce corrections to the process, in order to align it again with the Founding Fathers’ profound wisdom.

About the Author

Arie W. Kruglanski is distinguished university professor in psychology at the University of Maryland. He is co-founder of START, the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism, and former president of the Society for the Study of Motivation.


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