Blogs > Stone Age Brain | Rick Shenkman > Why Is Trump So Popular?

Aug 11, 2016

Why Is Trump So Popular?

tags: election 2016,Trump

At the start off the summer I answered a bunch of questions by the website, 52 Insights.  Today they published excerpts.  Here's the full interview. 

In your article in ‘Wired’ you discuss how the public is fooled into supporting candidates on the basis of ‘good looks’. Can you tell us a bit about the science behind this phenomenon?

Remember John Edwards, the good-looking American politician who ran for president in 2004? The first thing people noticed about him was how good-looking he is.  Those looks helped him immensely, quickly separating him from the pack of candidates who ran that year.  Normally, good looks in politics can be a red-flag; voters often draw the inference that good-looking people are superficial.  But Edwards’s story helped ease people’s concerns.  He was reported to have a great marriage.  And most importantly, his wife wasn’t a “looker.” In fact, she was kind of dowdy. That helped.

Here’s what the science says.  Science tells us that we make up our minds about people we meet in milliseconds.  Within 167 milliseconds – faster than the blink of an eye – we begin to decide if we like the person.  A lot of factors can shape our response:  whether they look like someone in our family, our tribe, or our friendship circles, for example.  But one of those factors is their attractiveness.  Numerous studies done in the last half century demonstrate that we are inclined to respect and trust people who are good-looking. They tend to get better higher-paying jobs and are promoted more often.

But what makes someone good-looking? It’s how average they look.  Let me explain, because this sounds crazy. I’m not talking about a person with a non-descript look.  Science defines average differently.  An average looking person to a scientist is someone whose face is well balanced and even from side to side and up and down.  Balance is the key.  You can get this effect by morphing the images of a hundred people into one.  Scientists find that when they do this the resulting image is considered attractive.

Why is favouring good looks in a leader evolutionarily a smart thing?

Now we get to the interesting part.  Evolutionary Psychology teaches us that a person with average looks – as scientists define average – is favored by potential spouses and others because people who look this way are more apt to be healthy.  And we all naturally respect and admire healthy people.  In addition, good looks are an evolutionary sign of good genes.  A person who looks good is naturally going to find it easier to win the spouse they want (probably someone with lots of resources of one kind or another), which creates a virtuous circle.  The good-looking people draw spouses with more resources, benefitting their children, who in turn are able to attract other people with lots of resources, and on and on.  This is one of the powerful results of what Darwin called sexual selection. 

Now you may ask yourself what this has to do with selecting leaders. Well, apparently what happens is that we often apply the same criteria to our choice in a leader as we do to our choice in a mate, resulting in our favoring leaders who are better looking. 

But the process is much more complex than I’m suggesting.  Studies show we are drawn to leaders who are strong, tall and decisive, whether they’re good-looking or not.  In war-time we are drawn to leaders with squarish faces and in peacetime to those with round faces.  As with everything involving human beings, there’s usually no one criterion at play in our behavior.  We are drawn this way and that by multiple instincts.  An individual’s looks are just one of many traits we take into account when selecting a leader.  A good-looking leader who is unable to develop strong coalitions with others probably won’t go far.

Can you talk about some of the candidates we’ve seen in the presidential race over the last few months? Has there been evidence that this science has played a role in the success of certain nominees? (Call me a cynic but I don’t think Trump has a particularly appealing face.)

Trump won the GOP nomination for a variety of reasons.  I don’t think people were drawn to him because he’s attractive like John Edwards.  As I said above, looks are just one of many qualities we want in a leader.  In Trump’s case he clearly projects strength, which is always a high priority for voters. He’s also narcissistic, and we know from studies of corporate leaders that narcissism (up to a point) is often helpful as an individual climbs the greasy pole. He’s also tall; in US elections the taller candidate almost always wins.  Finally, he’s white.  That’s a critical and obvious factor.  Because we are tribal by nature we are inclined to trust people who look like us and a majority of voters are white (though that will be changing).

I certainly don’t hold to a reductionist view, though.  Culture can trump biology. But science does help explain Trump’s appeal.  When a series of aversive events (as the social scientists put it) strike a community the people living in that community, save for those who possess enough knowledge to frame the events in a broad perspective, let their instincts drive their response.  That’s apparently what has been happening this year.  Bad and bewildering things have happened to white middle class voters in the last generation.  In the Bad category:  Incomes are flat. Millions have lost good-paying manufacturing jobs.  And in the Great Recession many lost their houses. In the Bewildering category: Blacks got civil rights. Gays began to marry.  And men lost the right to rule the roost.  What science tells us is that when people face adversity in circumstances like this they vote against the incumbents and go for outsiders or for politicians who exploit their fears. That favored Trump.

Proof?  His voters haven’t cared that the media have rated his statements lies over and over again or that he seems uninformed about most of the issues he’s addressed.  What they care about is that he’s avowedly been in their corner.  He’s regarded as their champion.  This is important because in the end elections are always about the voters.  Trump makes his voters feel smart.  He validates their deep-felt view that they have been trampled on by elites uninterested in their welfare. 

To those taking a strictly rational approach to politics, Trump’s appeal is hard to fathom.  But for most voters – a majority of whom don’t know we have 3 branches of government – what matters is not reason so much as what they feel. 

It’s not a surprise that he’s drawn much of his support from so-called low-information voters.  They aren’t so much thinking hard about the qualities they want in a leader as reacting to what they hear when Trump turns up on their television screens. They’re going on instinct. These instincts were shaped by evolution:  We are drawn to our own kind. We give in to fear when our amygdala is activated by scary headlines and demagogic politicians. And so on.

You mention how masculine faces are more appealing to voters during wartime and feminine features more appealing in peacetime. This is fascinating. Does this fact hold up historically, if you look at past heads of state?

No one has performed controlled experiments involving subjects shown a large data set of the images of past presidents. But studies show that college students taking the measure of a face shaped like George W. Bush versus a face shaped like John Kerry preferred the face that resembled Bush’s. This was back in 2004 during the Iraq War.

Now we do know that the taller candidate has almost always defeated the shorter candidate in US presidential history, so that certainly tells us something.  It helped that George Washington towered over his peers (he was around 6 feet two inches).  He looked like a commanding figure. Back in the Stone Age an individual’s sheer size would have mattered to people.  It’s no surprise that we favor tall leaders, therefore.

What are the other main ways in which our stone-aged brains hinder us when it comes to politics?

I think I addressed this earlier.

Do you think that being aware of this tendency to make instinct based decisions means that we can force ourselves to think more rationally? Or will we continue to make the same mistakes?

Low information voters are always going to be less rational than is desirable.  Lacking information they are going to go on instinct.  And they are in the majority.  But we can teach everybody how their brain operates.  People who understand how their instincts shape their responses can second-guess those responses.  That’s what makes me hopeful.  Science is giving us the chance to act more rationally.

It’s important to note that our problem is not that we get emotional.  Intelligence is married to emotion, scientists have found.  Brain-damaged individuals who lack an emotional response to events find that they cannot make decisions.

The key then is to ask ourselves whenever we go on instinct – and we do all the time in politics as in life – whether our instinctive responses in a particular situation are appropriate.  Is the context right? In some cases it’s right to fear a stranger.  But in our multi-cultural world it’s not right to fear people solely because they look different or talk different. So if we catch ourselves demonizing someone on those grounds we know we need to second-guess ourselves.

Do voters care about the truth at all or is this another thing the more primitive side of ourselves doesn’t care about? People must know that what Trump says isn’t true so does this suggest that it just doesn’t matter to them?

Truth matters less to voters – all voters – than you’d suspect.  Why?  Because we are biased.  The more biased we are toward a person or party the less willing we are to acknowledge that they may have lied or mangled the truth.  As Harvard’s Steven Pinker says, we aren’t interested in the truth prevailing so much as our version of the truth, which can be quite different.

Once we have settled on an opinion we are very reluctant to change our minds.  Neuroscience studies performed by Drew Westen show that when we are exposed to information that is contrary to our beliefs we immediately discount it.  Our neurons stop firing.  As social psychologists discovered in the middle of the 20th century we don’t like dissonance and automatically try to eliminate it.  One way to do that is to ignore evidence that goes against our beliefs.  When we do that we feel better – and our physical health improves.

You say that voters made an irrational decision by getting behind Sanders because it is “a year when the anti-politician was cool.” Do you think that was all it was about? What in our stone-aged brain is tricking us in exactly the same way as with Trump?

I have never said that people voting for Sanders were irrational.  What I’ve said is that people have been drawn to him primarily because they wanted an outsider.  He confirmed his voters’ bias against the establishment and offered an indictment of the establishment.  His supporters found this pleasing.  He told them what they wanted to hear.  When the media did the arithmetic and found his prescriptions wanting his voters didn’t particularly care. By then they had already made up their minds. That his tax plan wasn’t well-thought out didn’t matter. Hillary’s numbers have added up better.  But that doesn’t mean that her voters are more rational.  Her voters by and large had their own instinctive reasons for giving her their support.  As human beings we are all of us subject to the pull of instinctive behavior.  Most importantly, we go along with our group.  This is because we don’t break ranks.  If the group with which we identify shares a particular point of view on a political subject we will tend to go along.  We’ll either conform our view to the group’s or convince ourselves that the group shares our view. 

I know that this is distressing to hear.  We’d like to believe in the Enlightenment view that politics is about the settling of differences through the exchange of views based on hard evidence.  But this simply isn’t true.  Most of the time we come by our views through other means. But as I said above, science is giving us reason to hope.  By learning how our brain works we can second-guess ourselves.  I know I’m repeating myself. I just want to make sure your readers don’t walk away dispirited.

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