Path to victory: Emotions explain Trump’s rise


Special to the Democrat-Gazette

Donald Trump has effectively secured the Republican presidential nomination. He achieved his victory despite opposition from the Republican establishment, which tried hard to bring Trump down.

Yet voters rejected both the pleas of mainstream GOP politicians and the waves of anti-Trump attack ads sponsored by prominent Republican donors.

Politicians and commentators who use traditional frameworks to analyze the situation struggle to explain Trump’s success with voters. Turning to neuroscience provides a more accurate explanation, by revealing that Trump’s popularity stems from his masterful ability to understand and express the emotions of many Americans—Trump’s emotional intelligence.

For example, his slogan, “Make America Great Again,” appeals to the anxiety of many voters still suffering from the consequences of the 2008 economic downturn. They experienced their own lives growing worse and believe that Trump, as a business manager, can make their situation “great again.”

These voters also feel anger toward the political establishment, which they blame for not fixing the economy. Trump does a marvelous job of presenting himself as an anti- establishment candidate by playing up his business background and by sparring with Republican big-wigs.

Proposing the “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” taps into anxieties about Muslims, whom many Americans consider likely to engage in terrorism. Thus, Trump gains significant support by positioning himself as the most powerful defender of Americans against such perceived threats.

Trump also issues provocative statements tapping into such anger and anxiety in an off-the-cuff manner. Such statements cause these voters to feel that Trump is authentic in his sentiments, developing their trust in him.

Moreover, hearing a major political figure express views that these voters previously shared only in private company helps people feel emotionally validated.

Trump’s actions take advantage of how our brains are wired. Intuitively, we feel our mind to be a cohesive whole and perceive ourselves as intentional and rational thinkers. Yet cognitive science research shows that intentional thinking is only a small component of our mind, with most of our mental processes dominated by emotions and intuitions.

These emotions and intuitions make quick snap decisions that usually feel “true,” and are correct much of the time. Yet they sometimes lead us wrong in systematic and predictable ways.

While we can use the rational part of our mind to catch these predictable errors with sufficient training and time, many people currently lack the skills to do so.

Trump’s excellent emotional intelligence makes him capable of speaking effectively to the most powerful part of our brain, the emotional one. His actions exploit—intentionally or not—the systematic errors in our thinking.

By contrast, many prominent Republican politicians do not give our emotional system of thinking due attention.

For instance, Mitt Romney condemned Trump as a “phony” and “fraud.” This type of attack only strengthens the emotional desire to vote for Trump among anti-establishment voters by triggering a thinking error called the backfire effect—a tendency for our beliefs to grow stronger when they are challenged by contradictory evidence.

Motivated by anger and fear, the large majority of Trump’s voters trust him emotionally. As a result, his supporters see whatever they wish to see in him. Yet they may be relying on wishful thinking, another error that involves forming beliefs based on what is pleasant to imagine rather than actual evidence.

While Trump is a master at exploiting the emotional part of our brain, he is not the only candidate doing so. Whatever candidate you are considering, my fellow Americans, I hope you deploy intentional thinking and avoid predictable errors in making your political decisions.

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a tenure-track professor at Ohio State-Newark, and runs a nonprofit that helps people reach their goals using science, Intentional Insights. He is currently living in Little Rock on a year-long research fellowship.