The goal of this article isn’t to take sides on the election. Rather than simply judging, I hope to present you a window into human nature. This article is about people and animals and physiology. It is about our basic human needs. However, it may enlighten some on why people vote the way they do.
Does anyone remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? You may have learned about it in a psychology class or a business class or both. Here’s a brief refresher course.
In the diagram, you can see that Maslow identified five levels of needs that humans have with the penultimate need being self-actualization (striving to be all you can be/fulfilling your self-potential). Maslow arranged them in a hierarchy stacked atop each other because he believed that you couldn’t progress to the next highest need if the ones below it weren’t fulfilled. In addition, no matter where someone is in the hierarchy at any given time, if a “lower” need suddenly becomes unfulfilled, he or she will immediately drop back down to that level until that need is fulfilled.
At the bottom, are Physiological (survival) needs. If we don’t have the basic necessities of life- water, food, oxygen, sex- nothing else matters. But even within each category of needs, Maslow noted that there was a hierarchy here as well. Thirst he noted in his observations with monkeys is a stronger physiological drive than hunger. Biologically, the body knows that you can go longer without food than you can without water. Sex is the least of the physiological drives- despite the belief of some to the contrary, you will not die without sex, but if you don’t have sex, your DNA will not survive.
Once Physiological needs are satisfied, we become concerned with Safety needs. Safety needs include shelter, personal safety, and protection. People evidence this need by owning or having a personal space, seeking job security, living in a gated community, putting locks on doors, or buying guns. They are concerned with finding order, structure, and predictability in their life and circumstances. During war people in its direct path live day to day with uncertainty and chaos. Their primary concern is safety and survival. Their primary emotion is fear.
Only after Physiological needs and Safety needs are satisfied, do people seek fulfillment of their need for love and belonging. When we feel safe and life seems predictable, we turn our attention to building communities, with helping our neighbors, and seeking and spreading love.
So how does this all relate to why some people vote the way they do? Several fMRI imaging studies have found that some people a have significantly larger part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is part of the forebrain’s fight or flight response. In short, it is the fear center of the brain. This same research also finds that people with a larger amygdala are significantly more likely to identify as conservative and vote Republican. (This doesn't mean that all Republicans have this feature, simply that those who do are significantly more likely espouse a right wing ideology).To read one of the original studies, click here.
The rhetoric of Donald Trump contained many fear-based messages about who was stealing jobs from us, who was trying to come here to either rape us or terrorize us, and who we should or should not trust. For example, he told a crowd in Maine "we have seen many, many crimes getting worse all the time. And, as you know, Maine is a major destination for Somali refugees." "Somali refugees," he said to the audience. "Am I right? Am I right?" Similarly, he has called for a ban, not only on all Muslims, but also on Syrian war refugees, essentially equating them to ISIS terrorists coming to get us.Trump has also made claims that crime as well as police shootings have risen precipitously under Obama (neither is true). Finally, his comments about dangerous undocumented immigrants are also well known.
He also falsely said that Clinton wants to “destroy your Second Amendment,” The New York Times reported. He added, "I only worry for the country, in that Hillary Clinton was careless and negligent in allowing (Anthony) Weiner to have such close proximity to highly classified information. Who knows what he learned and who he told? It is possible that our country and its security have been greatly compromised by this. "
For people with a larger amygdala, these messages have a disproportional impact in arousing fear. Fear, once activated, tends to hijack our higher order cortical functioning, the rational, thinking part of our brain. Therefore, by stoking the fear center, many Americans reverted to Maslow’s second level on the hierarchy. In a heightened state of fear, people don’t care about shattering glass ceilings, civil rights, climate change or even ‘love thy neighbor.’ They care about their immediate need for safety and security. They will revert to their basic animal instinct to survive and will, in effect, chew off their own arm (or vote against their own true self-interest) to do so.
However, the real key was that Donald Trump didn’t just arouse fear in people, he told them he alone could make the fear go away. Instead of selling the American dream, Donald Trump told people he could protect them from nightmares.
I noticed that immediately after the election, the very people who decried the system as rigged and who had aroused all this fear in the first place were now calling for unity and vowing to unite America as a family again. Maslow’s need for safety satisfied, they were now able to move on to love and belonging.
Unfortunately, this teaches us that the winning political strategy isn’t love, it’s hate. Because hate, as Maslow predicted, trumps love. It calls for a revision of FDR’s famous idiom. It turns out, the only thing we have to fear is the fearful themselves.