Why is Trump so Popular?

2016-06-27 14.29.08

Well maybe popular is not the right word, in a Reuters/IPSOS poll only 6% of people who were asked ‘What is your primary reason why you are supporting him?’ responded to the option ‘I like him personally’. But this makes the question ever more intriguing, why are people voting for him?

I gave a talk on neuroscience and leadership last week and it’s quite a useful backdrop to explain, at least in part, the Trump phenomena.


The Science

Neuroscience doesn’t provide all the answers (if only it did) but does unravel some of the ‘mysteries’ of the brain. The most striking thing we’ve learnt through recent advances is the similarities between our brains now and those of our ancestors 50,000 years ago. We’ve also been able to confirm the conscious versus the unconscious elements of decision-making – highlighted by the work of the brilliant Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman.

So if we travel back in time the reasons we respond to certain situations the way do become a little clearer. Being in a group was absolutely essential to our ancient ancestors survival. If you were out of the group, you died and so your genes died off (something to consider for all those who voted to leave the EU). Through evolution the brain mechanisms surrounding group membership became deeply embedded in our brain and are still there influencing our behaviour today.   This is mostly happening at an unconscious level and is amplified when we feel threatened, at which point up to 5 times the blood flow is diverted to our emotional over our rational brain. In the times of our ancient ancestors this aided survival; it was more important to escape a predator than to stand around thinking about it. Because these drivers are powerful yet unconscious they can very easily lead us astray in our day-to-day behaviour.


What’s This Got to do with Trump?

Even the most flexible and open-minded people amongst us are wary of people who are different from us (unless of course we’re very aware and thinking with our more advanced/rational brain regions). Our more primitive brain is only concerned with keeping us safe and being suspicious of outsiders reduces the risk of walking into a hostile environment and being killed.

Trump fuels these fears by arguing that the USA should ‘Keep out Muslims’ and that a wall should be built between the USA and Mexico. Validation is therefore given to what began as a glimmer of uncertainty.

As such, Trump creates negative bias and builds more powerful prejudices which heighten the in-group, out-group divide and furthers the fear of outsiders. Then, and here comes the scary bit, Trump positions himself as the protector, someone who can do something about this troublesome enemy. The emotional brains of his supporters are now clinging on to every word he says. Here is the man who can fight the invading savages who will come and steal their food, take their children and kill them, or so the ancient part of their brain merrily thinks. On top of this, painting a picture of threat over various ‘out groups’ rallies people in the ‘in group’ behind the leader who say they will protect them. It triggers another primitive mechanism in the brain literally designed for survival: ‘If we stick together against the enemy we will be OK’. You can see how this creates a perverse circle of emotional support for Trump.

Meanwhile the rest of the world (and a large number of Americans) are looking on in astonishment. We are not feeling threatened by the same factors, therefore can see clearly and are more scared that Trump will actually become president.


Similar Brain Mechanisms and Brexit?

Is this what happened with Brexit? A slight majority of the population, without clear facts and information to help decision making had to go with their gut. The ‘gut’, in fact being the part of the brain, evolved to keep us safe in an ancient world. This part of the brain feared above all else a potential threat: Invasion from immigrants. A phenomenon described by Kahnemann as heuristics of the brain, is the type of decision that is then post rationalized without us even realizing that’s what’s happening. A decision made unconsciously and irrationally is not generally accepted because other people want to know our reasons why. So, we post rationalize the decision, believing it’s based on knowledge and expertise that hasn’t necessarily been considered or doesn’t necessarily exist. The decision-making is, in effect, faulty. Only time will tell if the decision-making of the majority of Brits was faulty. The rest I leave with you to decide.


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Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman


Are We Finally Learning?

As the BBC post the headline “Air crash investigator to head new health safety body” I am very hopeful. Why?

Aviation safety and psychology may not seem like obvious bedfellows, but they are intricately intertwined. The aviation industry takes human error incredibly seriously, they have to, according to Boeing human error is the cause of 80% of all airline accidents. Take for example the Air France flight 447 that on June 1st 2009 crashed in into the Atlantic Ocean killing all 228 people on board. The cause: human error, the final investigation report reads line after line ‘the crew failed to…’.

Human error covers a fantastic array of factors: tiredness, stress, poor leadership, inadequate communication, dominant personalities influencing group dynamics, poor co-ordination between team members and so the list goes on. The most important aspects in preventing future accidents are recognising the human error, learning about the situation that led to the error and making changes to the way things are done.

In general we are vastly lacking in this form of behavioural learning. At a societal level we do not learn from mistakes and we don’t build on learning from one situation to another. When it comes to behaviour we tend, as a species to make the same mistakes over and over again, generation after generation. And in antipathy to the aviation industry, the medical profession (not just in the UK but worldwide) is a working example of this. For example, in 2000, the BMJ (British Medical Journal) published an international study that looked at the differences in attitude between operating theatre staff and airline cockpit crew. In medicine, surgeons in particular had a dramatically unrealistic view of their fallibility, with 70% believing that they could perform optimally even when they were tired. The aviation industry revealed a more realistic assessment with only 26% of pilots believing they could overcome fatigue. The reality, sleep impairment is biologically equivalent to having alcohol in the blood stream. I don’t know about you but wouldn’t want to get on a plane if the pilot was drunk and I most certainty wouldn’t want to be cut open by a person under the influence. Whilst a fault in the system would have to occur for you to fly with an overtired pilot, the medical systems don’t protect us in the same way. Could this help to explain the fact that in the U.S. up to 98,000 patients die every year as the result of human error?

Aside from the belief of infallibility by medics, errors, when they are made are much less likely to be reported. The BMJ study also found that more than half of medical respondents found it difficult to discuss mistakes and a third of intensive care staff did not even acknowledge that they made any errors. In aviation all mistakes are always analysed and responded to.

The reasons for this are complex, at a simple level there is a stark difference between the nature of errors in the two industries. Airline accidents don’t happen ‘quietly’: a massive object falling from the sky is dramatic, involves a large number of fatalities and attracts a huge amount of media attention. Errors made in the relatively private confines of an operating theatre and interweaved with a multitude of intricate elements, can be brushed under the carpet. But there doesn’t have to be such a stark difference between error reporting in the two occupations. We can learn and progress our understanding of human factors and fallibilities not just in medicine but across all occupations. To do this, passing on knowledge in terms of the systems of error reporting is one crucial factor, but teaching people about behaviour is also critical. If an incredibly well educated surgeon can remain oblivious to the impact of sleep deprivation on their performance, what hope do the rest of us have?

So to sum up, while it’s fantastic that the ‘UK’s chief inspector of air accidents is the leading contender to run a new organisation which aims to make the NHS in England safer.’ it is also critical to recognise that if he is given the job, changes in systems are not going to work until the culture is adapted. Whilst this is a fantastic step in the right direction, to really underpin successfully ‘error recognition’, to make the NHS and other health services safer, the understanding needs to begin at a much earlier stage, being instilled in medical students and then continued through professional development. More broadly speaking to have the same growth and development of society across cultures, children need to be taught about behaviour. This way there is hope that they will grow up with an attitude of self-awareness, willingness to learn from mistakes and a recognition of how things can be improved.

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