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.


Related Links:



Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman


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