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It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that what drives people’s decision making process is their yearning to believe they are in control of everything in their lives and that there are easy solutions to complex problems. Neither of those are true. And yet, there are many examples of people “going with their gut” or believing anecdotal reports over expert evidence.

Examples of this behavior can be seen in many areas ranging from believing acupuncture works [1],[2] to fear of  Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) [3] to those without celiac disease believing avoiding gluten is healthy. [4] None of those three examples is true, but convincing someone who believes they are will be challenging. The reason is that their position is based in a personal belief they are true and not in any objective evidence that they are.

It’s hard to convince a person with a belief-based opinion to change that opinion by providing facts. Just try convincing a Trump supporter that the President is wrong on any issue and you’re likely to get a response that includes not caring about the facts because the President makes them feel good. No matter how overwhelming those facts to the contrary may be, it is unlikely they will displace an opinion that is rooted in emotion. In fact, it’s possible the opposite may occur in what has been defined as a “backfire effect” where providing contrary facts actually causes strengthening of a belief-based opinion. [5]

The other problem in decision making is that people feel that every problem has a simple solution that they can personally identify and implement on their own. However, as H. L. Mencken observed in 1920, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” [6] In some cases there isn’t a simple solution. That may be hard for some to accept so they substitute a belief-based solution that is unsupported by any facts. That imparts a sense of control that empowers regardless of the efficacy of the solution.

A belief-based approach to life may be seductive because it is easy. One does not need to commit to the effort required to be a critical thinker or to have mindset of a skeptic. It is far easier to exploit motivated reasoning and find “facts” that appear to support a position based in belief. [7] Equally easy and equally wrong is to fall prey to the trap of logical fallacies. For example, your physician may not be able to relieve your leg pain so you take matters into your own hands and visit an acupuncturist. Even if you might accept that there’s no scientific evidence to show that acupuncture works, you may believe it works because it’s been around for centuries – a classic example of the appeal to antiquity logical fallacy.

The way to combat the false beliefs that acupuncture works, GMOs are dangerous, or Donald Trump is competent, is to accept that such beliefs are based in emotion and not fact. The next step is to then commit to challenging yourself to spend the time and effort to objectively assess the evidence and be willing to concede your long-held beliefs may be just that – beliefs.

It’s perfectly acceptable to reject the succor of “ignorance is bliss” and approach all decisions with a healthy dose of skepticism and objective, critical thinking. If you do, you may find yourself offended by GMO-free labels on food and offended by Donald Trump being president. Both are nonsensical.

 

[1] https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/reference/acupuncture/

[2] https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/acupuncture-doesnt-work/

[3] http://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/mark-lynas/gmo-safety-debate-over

[4] http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/going-gluten-free-just-because-heres-what-you-need-to-know-201302205916

[5] http://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/Misinformation_and_Fact-checking.pdf

[6] https://books.google.com/books?id=hy47AAAAYAAJ&q=well-known#v=snippet&q=well-known&f=false

[7] http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney

I noted in a posting last November (February 19, 2017 – Holding President Trump Accountable for “soundly and quickly defeating ISIS”) that Donald Trump should be held accountable for his unequivocal proclamation:

“We are going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction.
They’ll have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.”

Today is February 19, 2017, the date certain by which Trump promised to have a definitive plan to soundly and quickly defeat ISIS. I have a simple question – where is it?

I think the obvious answer is that there is no such plan and to the President, it really doesn’t matter that there isn’t. It was preposterous proclamations such as this one that ginned up his base, fueled the machine of Islamophobia, and ultimately made him the President. He has consistently and artfully exploited the disconnect between truth and facts.

But we should not forget that Trump rode to victory by exploiting the fears and gullibility of his base. We should take every chance to hold him accountable for statements he has made. It will be challenging. When journalists have pressed him for details on his strategy for addressing terrorism and global conflicts, he unapologetically channels President Nixon and hides behind the subterfuge of those plans being kept secret for strategic purposes.

Whether the chaos of the first 30 days of the Trump administration is by strategic design or is merely an expression of Trump’s personality, I fear one consequence is that accountability for unambiguous proclamations such as this one will be lost in the fog.

So, I ask again my simple question. Mr. President, where is the plan you promised you would have today?

 

I embrace being different. Diversity of ideas, experiences, and perspectives is the foundation of great friendships, exceptional relationships, profitable businesses, and prosperous countries. However, the mere fact that someone is different from a group in some manner does not necessarily mean that person automatically has superior competency to address important, complex issues.

It seems to me that the loyal supporters of President Trump conflate being different with being competent. Their argument goes that Trump must be doing something great because so many Washington insiders disagree with him. Yes, President Trump is definitely different on many levels, but time will eventually show that those differences are more effective in achieving TV ratings and Twitter followers than accomplishing anything positive for America, or even his loyal supporters.

I have called Trump the Potemkin president because there is little intellectual substance behind his 140 character tweets. There is little substance to his executive orders. I can see little substance in anything he says. Well-reasoned substance no longer emanates from the Oval Office as it has with all previous presidents. In that regard, President Trump is truly different.

potemkin-village

Maybe it’s his random birth into a life of privilege that feeds his self-delusion that he is more than one of  the facades in Potemkin. Or, as some have suggested, maybe he really does suffer from NPD – Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Regardless of the cause, I don’t know which is worse- a person who actually believes he or she can excel in a job for which they have no experience, or the person who knows they are incompetent but doesn’t care. Neither personality trait is consistent with being president of the United States. Such actions may be more aligned with what I’ve observed in some CEOs of companies.

Sarbanes-Oxley notwithstanding, there is a small subset of CEOs that may have deluded themselves into thinking they have the luxury of insulating themselves from bothersome facts. The delusion includes believing that in the event of failure there is always a golden parachute and bankruptcy to protect their personal wealth. Neither of those options are viable when leading a country as its president.

America in not a business and does not need a CEO with a cheerleader enthusiasm that requires no supporting facts. Surely you, too, have at one time heard the delusional cheers. Your team is down by 40 points with minutes to go and the cheerleaders are enthusiastically shouting cheers of impending victory. It simply doesn’t work that way, and it’s a dangerous delusion to think it does.

In politics, as in life, success is achieved by hard work. In Washington that means working with opponents to compromise on solutions that neither side loves, but in the end gets something done. No great compromises were ever hammered out in Twitter. I would like to think that anyone who embraces the sophomoric slogan of make America Great Again would also realize that their false goal would not be accomplished by Tweets. The reality is they probably do and that is the real problem.

I had nothing less than an epiphany last weekend when I happened to catch an infomercial on TV for a silicone muffin pan. You know the kind I mean.

“The amazing silicone muffin pan that will never stick or never wear out, and it’s only $40 dollars. But, wait! Act now and you get two amazing silicone muffin pans for just $40 (plus shipping and handling). And, if you act in the next 10 minutes you can get both for only $25 (plus shipping and handling). Of course, if you’re not completely satisfied, you can get your money back.”

ron-popeil-american-inventor

Ron Popeil was a trail blazer in direct marketing on television. He was a genius. Who could forget the pocket fisherman or the set-it-and-forget-it rotisserie. The genius of Popeil is the emotional impulse buy. Who really needs a silicone muffin pan, but, what the heck. It’s on TV, I get two for the price of one, and there’s a money back guarantee. What could go wrong?

What goes wrong is that the silicone muffin pan sucks, and rather than go through the hassle of fighting for that money back return, it’s easier just to forget it and wait for the next TV special. The lesson is that people have a short memory when it comes to being duped by media messaging. People are used to making impulse purchases and shrugging off inferior products, that’s what I fear has happened with Trump. People were swayed by Trump’s savvy messaging and voted for him, just like they bought the silicone muffin pan.

I think the voters who elected Trump were enthusiastic and eager to buy what he was selling, but when it turns out the muffins are sticking to the Donald, the attention and the interest of those voters will have moved on. The only problem is that Trdonald-trump-suitump is not a silicone muffin pan. Maybe that’s not being fair to the minority of the electorate that voted for him. Maybe they read and evaluated his detailed policy positions and considered his vast experience in government before casting their vote for him.

No, I think “Make America Great Again” is pretty much the same as “the amazing silicone muffin pan that never sticks.” My hope is that while people may forget their impulse buy of that silicone muffin pan, they will remember what they bought with Trump and not hesitate to get their money back by voting in the mid-term elections in 2018.

 

I don’t think I’ve ever done more than a single posting in a day, but today will be an exception. This morning, I opined about how fear and emotion instead of logic and reason persuaded enough voters to give us a president elect Trump. I blamed the amygdala.[1]

A key point of that post was that Trump didn’t need well-developed policy positions because he was pitching an emotion-based message. During the campaign, one-liners, sound bites, and various logical fallacies were sufficient to get Trump elected. If fear resonated with his supporters, then that was what Trump was selling.20120306-presser

In stark contrast to Trumps single-sentences policy statements, I just watched President Obama in his last international press conference in Peru. As I listened to Obama’s well-reasoned responses, I realized that there may never be such a stark contrast between outgoing and incoming presidents.

Very things in life are black and white. There is complexity and nuance in everything we experience – at least for some of us. President Obama has been criticized in the past for offering long, rambling, complex answers to questions. In a Twitter-inspired world where a full 140-character tweet is a polemic, Obama’s five-minute answer to a question of how to achieve world piece is considered boorish and pedantic.

I will miss his thoughtful, longish answers. They made logical sense to me. All I had to do was listen and follow along. He provided background, context, and logic that usually lead to an inescapable conclusion. If his conclusion didn’t make sense, at least I had a framework by which to understand the differences between him and me. Differences are fine as long as they can be resolved through a fact-based analysis.

I wonder how Trump will handle his first press conference as president. I suspect there will be few long, rambling, fact-based answers. Instead, I suspect his answers will be short, emotional, anger-based, and always black and white. Hello, amygdala! His answers will be ideally suitable for social media and will be easily captured in a 140-character tweet. I don’t need to think, I just want to “Make America great again.”

But, we should not forget that nothing in the world is truly black and white. Nothing is simple. Everything is nuanced. Complex problems never have simple answers, no matter what a candidate tells the voters.

I will miss Barack and his long answers. Those long answers made me feel like he understood the complexity of the problem. They made me feel like he could actually develop a response, and not just come up with a reaction. Those long, rambling answers made me feel safe- it was a great eight years for that feeling. Yes, I will miss those long, reassuring answers.

 

[1] https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2016/11/20/understanding-the-trump-victory-its-the-amygdala-stupid/

Ever since Trump’s implausible victory, experts have been scrambling to explain the ties that created his winning coalition. For all practical purposes, American presidential elections are binary – pitting one Republican nominee against a Democrat nominee. It sounds simple enough. Members of each party elect delegates that choose a candidate to represent them and a nominee is chosen, QED. But in 2016 things were upended by the impact of social media and the role of the amygdala. [1]

The past is not prelude.

In the past, the belief-sets that attracted an individual to a given party were relatively well-understood. Democrats tended to have progressive social views, be pro-individual, have modest incomes, and see a role for government in society. In contrast, Republicans tended to have a clear view of social norms, be pro-big-business, have greater income and wealth, and think a small government was the best.

Of course, those characteristics listed are imprecise and open to criticism, but the point is that it seemed feasible to reliably group people into one of two camps. It was an orderly era, and one which pollsters must have found blissful.

What resonated with Trump voters?

The era of easily recognized voting blocs appears to have been relegated to history with the Trump victory. Everyone is now trying to understand what positive, unifying chord Trump struck with his coalition that so effectively obliterated previous voter affiliations and so effectively confounded pollsters.

It would see there was no positive, unifying chord that motivated people to vote for Trump. Instead there was a negative chord of fear that resonated with millions of voters. Fear that Islam was intrinsically evil, fear of Mexicans flooding the border, fear of Obamacare, fear of ISIS, fear of immigrants, fear that America wasn’t great. Fear. Trump is an irrational pick for president, but when people vote their fears, they are by definition being irrational.

Year of the amygdala.

amygdala_smallWhat Trump did to build his coalition was to effectively communicate a message of fear. To be sure, a message of fear needs no great policy paper to support it. It needs few facts. Trump was roundly criticized during the campaign for not having defined policies or even clear policy positions. In reality, he didn’t need them. What he was selling, and what his voters bought, was a message that precisely targeted the “fear center” of our brains – the amygdala.

Chris Mooney has written extensively about a possible connection between the big five personality traits (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) and activity in the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).[2] In one article Mooney described the role of the ACC as “the error-detecting region that is thought to be involved in causing us to stop repeated patterns of behaviour and change course.”[3]

If Mooney is correct about neurophysiological differences influencing political behavior, then clearly this election should be remembered as the year of the Amygdala. It is a year when people left previous beliefs behind, or were highly motivated to turn out and vote simply because the Trump message of fear was irresistible.

The social amplification of risk

No discussion of why Trump appealed to so many voters would be complete without at least mentioning the role played by social media. In 1988, Kaperson introduced the concept of social amplification of risk whereby the perceived risk of an event could be exacerbated by social activities and communication.[4] If Trump is nothing else, he is a master of social media. What a powerful combination – to sell a message of fear and then intensive the fear of that message through social media.

On social media, facts are irrelevant to the message of fear. Speaking of facts, it was recently reported that “top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.”[5]

If this continues, we may someday find ourselves electing a person that’s never held political office, has no policy positions, but knows how to amplify messages of fear through social media.

It’s not just Trump.

It wouldn’t be at all unexpected to see Trump surround himself with amygdala-driven operatives. That is a discomforting thought – a room full of cabinet members or advisers, probably mostly white men, succumbing to the calls of their over-active amygdalas to react to events because they’re afraid.

Yes, there’s no doubt the world can be a scary place, but responding to frightful events is different than reacting to them. Trump will never change. Those of us who see the positive potential of America and the world must be vocal and visible in our optimism and must be ever vigilant to recognizing and responding to fear-based actions of a Trump administration.

 

 

[1] The Amygdala in 5 Minutes (YouTube video by neuroscientist, Joseph LeDoux)

[2] The Surprising Brain Differences Between Democrats and Republicans, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/02/brain-difference-democrats-republicans

[3] Political divides begin in the brain

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21428590-200-political-divides-begin-in-the-brain/

[4] Kasperson, R. E., Renn, O., Slovic, P., Brown, H. S., Emel, J., Goble, R., Kasperson, J. X. and Ratick, S. (1988), The Social Amplification of Risk: A Conceptual Framework. Risk Analysis, 8: 177–187. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.1988.tb01168.x

[5] https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/viral-fake-election-news-outperformed-real-news-on-facebook

A date certain

feb20-2017-isisplan-due

February 19, 2017 will provide an early indication that will tell us if Trump has a chance of actually delivering on his campaign promises, or if he became president by pandering to a segment of the electorate desperate for simple solutions to complex problems. On February 19, Trump will have been in office for 30 days and according to him, his top generals will have delivered to him by then “a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.”

“We are going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction.
They’ll have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.”

Democrats and Republicans seek accountability

If nothing else, Trump’s winning the race for president established him as the unparalleled master of reading and reflecting the emotions of his base. Regardless of whether you love Trump, or hate him, there is wide-spread consensus that he never really offered substantive policies to support his emotion-based pandering and demagoguing.

Now that Trump will become president it is incumbent upon all of us to hold him accountable for the statements that swept him into office. Trump supporters will want tangible evidence that Trump is making America great again – whatever that means. And Trump detractors will want to diminish his credibility and degrade his effectiveness by exposing him as an ill-informed huckster, albeit one with finely honed manipulative skills.

Trump’s meandering ISIS “strategy” lands on a 30-day plan

Over the last year Trump presented a meandering approach to dealing with ISIS that ranged widely from sending in 30,000 more American troops[1] to using nuclear weapons.[2] And although Trump claimed he knew more about ISIS than the generals[3], he has given us a date certain for when those same generals must present him with a definitive plan to defeat ISIS.

At a rally in Greenville, North Carolina on September, Trump said without hesitation, but much bravado, that “We are going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction. They’ll have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.” And the crowd went wild.

We’ll have an indication on February 19 if the crowd’s euphoria was justified, or if they were duped into believing that complex, global problems could be solved in 30 days. I wish there were simple fixes to hard problems, but that’s not the way it works. It is not reality – except on TV.

[1]  “Trump is Calling for 30,000 Troops. Would that Defeat ISIS?” CNN, March 11, 2016. Accessed March 16, 2016. Available at:  http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/11/politics/donald-trump-30000-troops-isis/.

[2] “We’re going to hit them and we’re going to hit them hard. I’m talking about a surgical strike on these ISIS stronghold cities using Trident missiles.” http://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/meet-press-transcript-august-9-2015-n408516.

[3] “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me”, Fort Dodge, Iowa speech, http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/elections/presidential/caucus/2015/11/13/trump-his-own-words-highlights-95-minute-rant/75729070/

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