Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Inside the Curious Mind of America's Conservative Voter - Sort of Like Pavlov Only Without the Dogs

A lot of us are flummoxed at how Donald Trump remains at the top of a heap of contenders for the Republican presidential nomination.

From a psychological perspective, though, the people backing Trump are perfectly normal. Interviews with psychologists and other experts suggest one explanation for the candidate's success -- and for the collective failure to anticipate it: The political elite hasn't confronted a few fundamental, universal and uncomfortable facts about the human mind. From The Washington Post:

We like people who talk big.

We like people who tell us that our problems are simple and easy to solve, even when they aren't.

And we don't like people who don't look like us.

Most people share these characteristics to some degree, but they seem to be especially prevalent among Trump's base. Trump's appeal certainly has other sources, too, such as the nostalgia he so skillfully evokes, his financial independence from special interests, and the crucial fact that he had his own reality TV show. Some Republicans like Trump's anti-establishment approach. And many support Trump because of his substantive positions -- his views on immigration, his antipathy toward China, his defense of Social Security, or his opposition to tax deductions for wealthy bankers.

Trump doesn't give the kinds of speeches that political consultants are used to hearing. He certainly doesn't deliver lines that are carefully formulated for applause and for prime-time sound bites. His style has been called a "word salad."

Still, he is an effective speaker, psychologists say. In fact, decades of research show that charisma has more to do with a person's demeanor than what he or she is saying, says Stanford University's Jeffrey Pfeffer.

In one series of well-known experiments conducted by the psychologists Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, subjects were able to predict how students in a college classroom would evaluate their teachers at the end of the term, based on 30 seconds or less of soundless footage of the instructor. The subjects in the study couldn't hear the words coming out of the instructor's mouth, but what mattered for the students was gesture and affect, not substance.

Voters listening to politicians on television are just like the students in those classrooms, says Pfeffer, a psychologist who studies leadership.

"Most of the electorate would not pass a test on what anybody's positions are on anything," he said. "Nobody cares." Conservative voters, for instance, seem not to mind Trump's favorable comments on national health insurance andeminent domain.

What can win over voters is what Pfeffer called "narcissism."

"They're responding to dynamism, to force, to movement, to smiling, to facial expressions that convey authority," he said. Trump "does it with more force. He does it with more energy. Energy is contagious."

Both conservative and liberal voters can be susceptible to this kind of thinking. In other ways, though, psychologists believe that conservative and liberal minds work differently, which could help explain Trump's success with Republicans.

The world can feel like a complicated place. There may be no good answers to the problems we confront individually and as a society. It is hard to know whom or what to believe. Things are changing, and the future might be different in unpredictable ways. For many people, this uncertainty is deeply unpleasant.

"People are just inclined to say, 'Okay, to hell with it. I'm not going to figure it out,' " Kruglanski said.

That desire is especially strong among social conservatives, research shows. They want answers, more so than other people.

Over the years, conservative commentators have objected to this characterization of their beliefs. They argue that conservatism isn't a psychological condition, but a set of ideas with a rich intellectual history, developed across generations through rational deliberation.

For their part, psychologists have responded that they aren't dismissing conservativism as irrational. After all, just because people are predisposed to believe something doesn't make them wrong. Saying someone is more likely to find an argument persuasive because of their psychology doesn't invalidate the argument. As psychologists see it, the desire for simplicity is just a fact about the way people think — one that several decades of research has now confirmed.

Hibbing of the University of Nebraska says this need for clarity is important to understanding Trump's support.

"People like the idea that deep down, the world is simple; that they can grasp it and that politicians can't," Hibbing said. "That's certainly a message that I think Trump is radiating."

At Hibbing's laboratory, he and his colleagues study how conservative and liberal subjects react to unpleasant images, such as insects and injuries. They use cameras to track the motion of their subjects' eyes and place electrodes on their skin. Other researchers study the contractions of facial muscles and electrical activity in the brain.

These experiments show that conservative subjects react differently from liberal ones. They sweat more heavily when shown a picture of a dangerous animal. Their pupils focus on disgusting images, and they don't look away.
It's evidence that we don't develop political affiliations just by rationally evaluating competing philosophies and ideologies. Our opinions also have origins beneath the level of conscious thought, in our bodies and our brains.


Deadthoreau said...

You know white working class suicide is at an all time high, overdoses of opiates is at an all time high, gun deaths rival auto accidents for cause of death, inequality is at a all time high and this has all transpired under Republican and Democratic rule. So I'm some working class white American living in a post industrial wasteland like Gary, Indiana, my life and my environment are in shambles. If I can get work it's at the dollar store or KFC where I've got to work for some idiot middle management drone who talks about making your work your passion, and I barely get by working 60 hours a week, soothing myself every night with opiates or booze. Just hanging on by my fingernails psychologically.Then this guy, who's rich, successful and anti establishment gets up on TV and tells me that he'll make America great again and by proxy my life great again. I'd vote for him.

The Mound of Sound said...

I do understand your point and that it's widely shared among 'working class' America. What had been the most robust middle class in the world has been transformed, engineered into what's now called the "precariat." It has become apparent that democracy has died a slow death in the U.S. replaced by oligarchy and transactional government. As Stiglitz powerfully demonstrates in "The Price of Inequality," modern inequality in America is neither merit nor market-driven. It is legislated. Your Congress has quite deliberately facilitated the unearned (but bought and paid for) transfer of both wealth and the political influence it carries out of the middle class to the most affluent. Even Warren Buffett openly states that America has already witnessed class warfare and his class won, noting that his cleaning lady pays a greater share of her income in taxes than he does.

The thing is, the guy who set this decline in motion is the guy who came to power on the promise of making America great again - Ronald Reagan. Every candidate since has echoed the same false mantra. They do it because it works. It's necessary to win office. Best of all, you're not punished when you ignore your promises because the public will accept a scapegoat, a whipping boy instead.

Sorry, amigo, but I don't think you'll find a way out of this absent some sort of public upheaval. Those who have usurped your democracy know that all too well and they're ready for you.

doconnor said...

"For their part, psychologists have responded that they aren't dismissing conservativism as irrational. After all, just because people are predisposed to believe something doesn't make them wrong. Saying someone is more likely to find an argument persuasive because of their psychology doesn't invalidate the argument. "

Believing the correct thing for irrational reasons is still irrational.

The Mound of Sound said...

You have a point, DoC

Dana said...

The American Psychological Association (APA) oughtn't to be taken at face value on anything for a while. This was the only medical association that didn't refuse to assist the DoD in "interrogation techniques" remember.

The organization needs a time out. This report, complete with conclusions, could have been requested and paid for by just about anyone.