A failure of Janusian thinking – I simply do not understand the thinking of a Trump voter.

I believe there is value in trying to understand how a person has a different position than yours, but try as I can, I have been unable to understand the diversity of Trump’s base and their zealous commitment to him. I have tried to understand the thought process that brings them to believe in things like xenophobia, anti-immigration, the wall, racism, or the “hoax” of Covid-19.

Being completely unable to understand the rational basis of those positions, I realized my problem was applying a logical thought process to attempt to understand positions that are rooted in emotion. But I could find no logical pathway that took me down the trail of supporting putting children in cages, relaxing restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, or believing there are “good people on both sides.” I even tried waving an American flag over my head as I was looking for that path but even that did not help.

Bottom Line

 As are the vast majority of posts on this site, this one is not seeking wide readership and certainly not critical acclaim. It started with the modest, self-serving goal of understanding Trump supporters and morphed into the rambling article before you. To spare the unfortunate who have wandered here, this is the bottom line:

  • With no judgment implied, the differences in peoples’ brains shape their perspective on everything including.
  • Conservatives, and by extension, Trump supporters, likely have a part of their brains called the amygdala.
  • The amygdala is colloquially known as the “fear center” and causes feelings of survival at the expense of deliberate thought.
  • Trump is a master at exploiting the emotions driven by the amygdala.
  • Trump demonstrates his unwavering faith to his supporters and their causes by deploying “costly signals” that irreversibly alienate him from the “other side” and thereby bind his supporters to him.
  • Trump exploits the principles of Terror Management Theory that says people are driven by an unconscious awareness of their own mortality. Trump synthesizes a threat (Mexican rapists and killers) and then offers a succoring solution – “THE WALL.”
  • Tugging at his supporters’ desire to defend the status quo, also known as system justification, Trump provides reasons why “the system” is under attack.
  • The “backfire effect” says that it is not productive to argue facts with a person having emotionally held views as it only reinforces their belief.
  • Memory is shaped by partisanship. Conservatives are likely to have false memories of Obama’s actions simply because he is not one of them – he’s in a different tribe.
  • It is argued that there are two types of thinking- System 1 and System 2. Trump supporters preferentially invoke System 1- the autonomic, reflexive, reactive system.
  • Perceived risk is more important than the actual risk in driving behavior. Trump artfully manipulates perceptions of risk.
  • Perceived risk is amplified by social interactions.
  • Social media is supremely effective at amplifying risk and creating echo chambers of like-minded people that generates a positive feedback loop that intensifies their positions – whatever that position might be.
  • Lack of intergroup contact exacerbates prejudice and Trump’s supporters are the most isolated group conceivable.
  • It is in the neurobiological, psychosocial fabric of Trump supporters to believe in conspiracy theories – the lifeblood of Trump’s campaign of disinformation and doubt.
Some see a gray shoe, others see it as pink

These observations are not intended to personally disparage people who support Trump. They do so not through any means of logic or critical thinking. They are not dumb. Well, some certainly are, but those who are not are the ones who confuse me. They see the world through an entirely different biological lens. It is a lens they did not choose just as I did not choose to have a quiescent amygdala and a healthy anterior cingulate cortex. They see a pink shoe while I see a gray one. Still, it is frustrating to hear a Trump supporter babble things that are patently, unequivocally ridiculous, and often outright dangerous. I would like to be optimistic and believe those things both sides hold to be valuable will be uniting – family, security, and prosperity. But that will not be the case because there are 70 million people who voted for Trump, and I have no way to really understand them. My Janusian thinking exercise is a dismal failure. Nevertheless, the article must go on so, presented below is slightly more information on the observations in the above bullet list.

Neuropolitics

The reason I can’t understand the 70 million people who voted for Trump is that there are fundamental differences in the structure of our brains that cause us to view the world through radically different lenses. Yes, I am once again getting back to one of the concepts in neuropolitics that argues the amygdala is anatomically more prominent and functionally more active in conservatives than liberals. [1] The amygdala is sometimes characterized as the brain’s fear center that determines whether one fights or flees. It is also thought to play a key role in emotional salience by tagging emotional experiences so that they can be better recalled in the future. All in all, the amygdala plays a role in conservative’s desire to maintain the status quo. In contrast, liberals tend to have more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex – an area responsible for empathy, impulse control, emotion, and decision-making.

In one research paper[2], participants were asked to write an essay supporting the candidate of another party. Specifically, Bush supporters were asked to write a paper supporting Obama, and Obama supporters were asked to write a supportive paper of Bush. Of the identified liberals in the study, 28% complied with the instruction to write a pro-Bush essay while no Bush supporters agreed to write an essay that portrayed Obama favorably.

Psychologist Jessica Paterson Ph.D. summed it up succinctly – “Amygdala activation is Trump’s bread and butter.” [3]

All of that oversimplification of neuroscience indicates that a person with an especially active amygdala may view the world from a different perspective than others. That is not always bad. During a wartime battle, the single-mindedness of purpose and absolute conviction of one’s action attributable to the amygdala is arguably a positive attribute. Those same amygdala-driven attitudes also seem to be effective in politics – just ask yourself why Mitch McConnell has been so effective at advancing his agenda in the Senate.

What political neuroscience means to me is that I will never be able to see events the way a Trump supporter sees the same event. And they will never see my position no matter how clear the facts are, or how logical my arguments seem – to me. Sometimes, it’s tempting to think you could get the Trump supporter to see the light if you could just sit them down, make them listen, layout the hard cold facts, and explain how they all built to one solitary, unambiguously correct solution. The chances of success are minimal. The thing is, they likely would say the same thing about persuading you to see a topic their way. In fact, there are studies that show the more you try to convince someone they are wrong, the more recalcitrant they become. (ref backfire effect)

If it is true that there is a neuroanatomical predilection for Trump’s divisive actions to resonate with some people more than others, what is it about Trump that has tapped into that so effectively to create a base that is so blindly devoted to him? Whether by chance or cunning, Trump has created a loyal following the likes of which are usually only seen in a cult. There are some well-identified psycho-social observations that are a good construct for understanding why he may have so much power over his base.

Costly Signal Deployment

Psychologists talk about the concept of intentionally sending signals to others that show their commitment to the group but incur some “cost” to the sender. Joshua Greene is a professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of “Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them,” In a Harvard Gazette interview[4] Greene summarizes costly signals and how Trump uses them.

  

“A tattoo is a costly signal. You can tell your romantic partner that you love them, but there’s nothing stopping you from changing your mind the next day. But if you get a tattoo of your partner’s name, you’ve sent a much stronger signal about how committed you are. Likewise, a gang tattoo binds you to the gang, especially if it’s in a highly visible place such as the neck or the face. It makes you scary and unappealing to most people, limiting your social options, and thus, binding you to the gang. Trump’s blatant bigotry, misogyny, and incitements to violence make him completely unacceptable to liberals and moderates. And, thus, his comments function like gang tattoos. He’s not merely saying things that his supporters want to hear. By making himself permanently and unequivocally unacceptable to the opposition, he’s “proving” his loyalty to their side. This is why, I think, the Republican base trusts Trump like no other.”

Greene also offers a different interpretation of social conservatives saying, ”In sum, American social conservatives are not best described as people who place special value on authority, sanctity, and loyalty, but rather as tribal loyalists — loyal to their own authorities, their own religion, and themselves. This doesn’t make them evil, but it does make them parochial, tribal. In this, they’re akin to the world’s other socially conservative tribes, from the Taliban in Afghanistan to European nationalists.”

Terror Management Theory

This theory argues that human behavior is shaped by a constant, subconscious distress about the inevitability of death. It might follow that this undercurrent of the fear (remember the amygdala?) of death would tend to draw people to more conservative political candidates. Trump is a master demagogue having said early in his campaign, “You have people coming in, and I’m not just saying Mexicans — I’m talking about people that are from all over that are killers and rapists, and they’re coming into this country.” [5] To exploit that subconscious fear of death, one must have a solution to the crisis they just conjured. In Trump’s case of the Mexican killers and rapists, it is simple – build a wall. It does not matter that a wall will do very little to prevent border crossings. The real power of the wall is that it is a solution to protect Americans – white Americans – from a lethal, albeit fictional, threat.

System Justification and Motivated Reasoning

 The concept of motivated reasoning has been well studied and has gained acceptance as a common way for some to arrive at a position on a topic. Rather, those people already have arrived at a position that is based on intuition, emotion, or a “gut feeling.” [6] Once that position is set, the person then searches for “facts” and circumstances that appear to support that position.

It’s easy to see how motivated reasoning is the underpinning concept that supports system justification which Jost [7] has defined as, “the tendency to defend, bolster and justify aspects of the societal status quo, often at a nonconscious level of awareness.” In the same article, Jost noted, “when the system’s shortcomings are exposed, people may (paradoxically) evaluate it more positively in the service of system justification motivation.”

This concept is very similar to the backfire effect [8] [9] where questioning a person’s beliefs tends to reinforce those beliefs. This is a conundrum when thinking about the Trump supporter. If they are provided cold hard facts that Trump is a poor businessman, they may very well double down on their belief he is.

Nam [10] believes that motivated reasoning allows people who believe society is inherently good just as it is, to justify or rationalize shortcomings and inequalities. Further, she found that the “amygdala is linked to the tendency to perceive the social system as legitimate and desirable.” She believes “this preference to system justify is related to these basic neurobiological predispositions to be alert to potential threats in your environment.”

A follow-up study by Nam indicated that a larger amygdala volume is associated with a lower likelihood of participating in a political protest. At their core, political protests are designed to question or disrupt the system which is antithetical to a person who believes that systems are inherently good and should be stable.

Memory altered by partisanship

 In “The Partisan Brain: An Identity-Based Model of Political Belief,” [11] Bavel summarized several key concepts: “Political polarization is most likely when users employ moral/emotional language. This may reflect ideological differences between people on the left versus right or partisanship. Online partisan criticism that derogates political opponents increases political polarization. Liberals are somewhat more likely to share cross-ideological content on social media (i.e., information posted by people with different ideological beliefs).

Democracies assume accurate knowledge by the populace, but the human attraction to fake and untrustworthy news poses a serious problem for healthy democratic functioning. We articulate why and how identification with political parties – known as partisanship – can bias information processing in the human brain. There is extensive evidence that people engage in motivated political reasoning, but recent research suggests that partisanship can alter memory, implicit evaluation, and even perceptual judgments.”

Thinking, fast and slow

In his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman argues that our brains have two distinct ways of thinking. He calls them System 1 and System 2 and they serve two very different functions. System 1 thinking is characterized as reflexive, rapid, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, and unconscious. An example would be asking to complete the phrase “George W.” For most people, the word Bush quickly comes to mind. Another example is to solve the equation of 1+1. In contrast, System 2 thinking is slow, effortful, deliberate, logical, calculating, System 2 would come into play for activities such as parallel parking a car, counting the number of vowels in a sentence, looking for a specific child in a classroom, or solving the equation of 12×18.

In the short video below, Kahneman notes that because of System 1, “A great deal of prejudice is built in.” In order to overcome prejudices, effort is required by using System 2. Since the majority of human activity is governed by System 1, would it be a bridge too far to suggest that Trump supporters do not invoke System 2 to understand why Trump is a failure as a human? This brings us back to the idea that many Trump supporters seem gleefully unencumbered by critical analysis of facts.

In the video below, Kahneman touches on some key points of System 1 and System 2.

Perceived risk versus actual risk

Paul Slovic was one of the earliest academics to elevate the importance of perceived risk versus actual risk. He has written extensively about the factors that contribute to risk perception and how they impact diverse domains. [12] One of the key elements of his work was to describe the characteristics of events that elevate risk perception. He said the more dreadful the risk and the less control we have over it, the higher the perception of risk. Based on that premise, the fear some people have of flying is easily explained. All aircraft crashes are catastrophic, and passengers have no control of the flight. In contrast, drivers are in control of their cars and many crashes are not fatal. And yet, far more people are killed in car crashes each year than aircraft crashes.

Trump is a master at exploiting these tendencies to elevate what his supporters see as dangerous. A clear example is his rhetoric of the lethal danger from the horde of brown people in Mexico eager to sneak across the border to rape and pillage white folk, his folk. Once he has elevated the risk perception, he can be his supporters’ savior by building the “wall.” Their response is pure System 1.

Social amplification of risk

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. [13] That is to say, as people gathered to discuss a topic, the risk associated with that topic increased. Keep in mind, when Kaperson wrote his article, there was essentially no internet [14] and yet the social structure and communication channels were still sufficient to amplify risk. Today, in 2020, a mere 32 years later, there is no doubt that the ability to have social, albeit virtual, interactions is unrestricted. If there were social amplification of risk observed in 1988 with the “primitive” communications channels then available, the opportunity to amplify risk today is unbounded.

This escalation of risk based on the advancement of technology is manifest in the proliferation of opinion-based echo chambers that are positive feedback loops that reinforce the participants’ particular point of view. Note well that these echo chambers are frequently not founded on critical thinking or System 2 efforts. They are based on visceral reactions to some perceived threat. The apparent limitless collection of vitriol-filled groups on Facebook is disturbing.

Intergroup Contact

 As the name implies, intergroup contact is defined as contact with members not in one’s own group. Studies have shown that intergroup prejudice is reduced when intergroup contact is increased. [15] [16]

It may not be surprising that Trump supporters have less contact with minorities than non-Trump supporters. Rothwell and Diego-Rosell have observed that “…the racial and ethnic isolation of Whites at the zip-code level is one of the strongest predictors of Trump support.” [17]

Conspiracy Theories

No discussion of Trump supporters would be complete without mentioning conspiracy theories – the lifeblood of Trump’s manipulation of his followers.  An article in the New York Times, [18] contains an interview with Shauna Bowes  -researcher, clinical psychology PhD candidate and co-author of the study, “Looking Under the Tinfoil Hat: Clarifying the personological and psychopathological correlates of conspiracy beliefs,” [19] Referencing the work of Bowes, the article states “To rough out a personality profile, or profiles, the research team measured which facets of personality were most strongly correlated to higher levels of susceptibility to conspiracy beliefs. The findings were at least as notable for the associations revealed as for those not found. For example, qualities like conscientiousness, modesty and altruism were very weakly related to a person’s susceptibility. Levels of anger or sincerity bore no apparent relation; nor did self-esteem.” The overlap with the characteristics seen in Trump supporters is apparent.

There are also indications that education is negatively associated with belief in conspiracy theories. [20] As it has been established, the Trump supporter typically has less education than his non-supporter.

Conclusion?

 “To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.” Sun Tzu

The goal of this writing exercise was to help me understand why 70 million people believe Trump is good. I wanted to understand the rationale for their support and the peculiar positions espoused by Trump. From that aspect, this exercise was a failure. I still cannot see the logic of their support. But that’s the thing – there is no logic, facts are fluid and self-defined. The bottom line is that Trump supporters are “wired” differently than I am. The organization of their brain and my brain are different.

The amygdala dominates their outlook on life, their choices, and their behavior. Theirs is a world where preserving the status quo is critical, a world where it is best if everyone looks like them, where they are aware of their own mortality. Their thoughts are dominated by System 1 that reacts to the world instead of trying to understand it. They are susceptible to the lies Trump tells that makes them perceive risk where there is little. And, tying this all together is the technology that everyone seems to love. The ubiquitous smartphone that amplifies the perceived risk 24×7 and facilitates the creation of like-minded echo chambers that further increase the risk perception while simultaneously validating their fears.

Without a media to manipulate, without Twitter, is there any real chance that Trump would have reached his masses? I would like to think not, but history has many examples of authoritarians who rose to power without the benefit of Twitter.

What I must accept is that I can never be Janus when it comes to understanding the thought process of a Trump supporter. I will never be able to understand the Trump supporter while still being my rational self. That leads me to believe there is no use in trying to persuade a member of his base using facts and logic. As rewarding as I’d hope it would be to sit them down, present the cold hard facts, and see their epiphany as they realized I was right and they have been wrong. That will never, ever work. The neuroanatomic reality is that I do not have enough amygdala to ever understand them. And they would agree and feel sorry for me that I had to go through the world encumbered by not having the neural capacity to protect myself from danger.

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

[2] “Not for All the Tea in China!” Political Ideology and the Avoidance of Dissonance-Arousing Situations

  1. Hannah Nam, John T. Jost, Jay J. Van Bavel https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0059837#s2

[3] https://www.adelaidereview.com.au/latest/science/2016/11/02/cognitive-neuroscience-fear-donald-trump-might-president/

[4] Harvard interview: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/09/a-look-at-how-trumps-pointed-rhetoric-binds-him-to-his-tribe-and-it-to-him/

[5] http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1506/29/cnr.02.html

[6] https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(18)30017-2

[7] https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2017/06/system-justification

[8] https://daily.jstor.org/the-backfire-effect/

[9] https://daily.jstor.org/the-backfire-effect/

[10] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/conservative-and-liberal-brains-might-have-some-real-differences/

[12] https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2013/11/15/decisions-based-on-perceived-risk-can-be-hazardous-to-your-health/

[13] 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

[14] https://theworld.com/world/about/history/our_version

[15] Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 751-783. https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-3514.90.5.751

[16] Social Psychological Perspectives on Trump Supporters, https://jspp.psychopen.eu/article/view/750/html

[17] Rothwell, Jonathan T. and Diego-Rosell, Pablo, Explaining Nationalist Political Views: The Case of Donald Trump (November 2, 2016). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2822059 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2822059

[18] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/28/health/psychology-conspiracy-theories.html

[19] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jopy.12588?af=R

[20] van Prooijen, J.‐W. (2017). Why education predicts decreased belief in conspiracy theories. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 31(1), 50–58. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.3301


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