"I think the only difference between me and the other candidates is that I'm more honest and my women are more beautiful."
Donald Trump

Are you a rational thinker?

Imagine that you are in an office supply store about to buy a new pen for $25 when you learn that at a store 15 minutes away, the same pen is on sale for $18. Would you make the trip and save $7? Now imagine that you are buying a suit for $455 when you learn that the same suit is on sale 15 minutes away for $448. Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman found that most people would take the 15-minute trip to save the $7 when buying a $25 item but not when buying a $455 item. Why would that be? Is it worth 15 minutes to save $7 or isn’t it? Psychologist Dan Ariely argues we are “predictably irrational.”

How predictable is our irrationality? Take the stock market: you know that the way to make money is to buy low and sell high, but when are you most likely to feel comfortable entering the stock market? When the market is low (when it’s easier to “buy low”)? Or when the market is high? And when are you most likely to take your money out? As investors, we do exactly the opposite of what we know we’re supposed to do. When the stock market is low, we panic and sell. When the market rebounds and stock prices are high, we get into the market again. Carl Richards, in his book, The Behavior Gap, reports that in 2009, when the market had lost over 50% of its value, investors pulled out. Then in January, 2011, after the stock market had gained 100%, investors decided it was time to get back in—to the tune of $30 billion.

And then there’s politics. According to Anthony Fowler from the University of Chicago and Michele Margolis from M.I.T., when citizens become more informed, their partisan preferences change, so if the electorate were more informed, American public opinion and elections could dramatically change. Furthermore, economists Matt Gentzkow from Stanford University and Jesse Shapiro from Brown University claim there’s a link between news consumption and voter turnout—the more people consume political news, the more likely they are to vote.

So the rational thing to do as voters would be to follow more news so we could become more informed. But knowing that doesn’t necessarily motivate us to follow news. What does motivate us? University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, co-author of the Freakonomics books and frequent guest on the podcast of the same name, thinks one thing that might lead us to consume news is that we seem smart (and maybe even think we're smart) when we know about politics and current events. If the need to be an informed populace (the rational reason to consume news) is not compelling enough, the desire to seem smart might encourage us to learn more about what's happening in the news.

But there’s another motivator, too. University of Chicago Economists Emir Kamenica and Alex Frankel told Freakonomics co-author and podcast host Stephen J. Dubner they believe it’s possible that the entertainment component of political news drives people to pay attention to it—in many cases, people who would not otherwise make the effort to become politically informed. New York University professor of journalism Mitchell Stephens thinks we’re predisposed to pursue sensational news (even though he believes very little of the news today is of practical value).

Which brings us to The Donald.

© Riccardo Savi
Source: © Riccardo Savi

The constant barrage of sensational news about Donald Trump elicits objections from both the left and the right. Right-wing candidates like Mike Huckabee complained that Donald Trump received ten times more press than any other Republican in the race, and left-wing commentators like Rachel Maddow are practically apoplectic about Trump's outrageous comments about Mexicans, veterans, and women (among others), and his odd antics—like bringing supporters onstage to touch his hair. (Maddow is dumbfounded that Trump seems to think people merely believe he wears a toupé, as if that is the reason his unusual hairdo elicits unfavorable public comments.) After Trump belittled John McCain's military service, McCain declared that Trump had “fired up the crazies,” and after the nomination was secured, many Republicans refused to endorse him. This election cycle has been nothing if not entertaining. Pundits even refer to it as like a reality TV show.

Economist Jesse Shapiro believes we all benefit from the news being entertaining because people become more informed than they would if they didn’t find the news interesting. So it’s possible that the entertainment value Donald Trump provides to the political arena could create what economists call “positive externalities”—benefits that accrue to the voting population. In other words, as much as people complain, the consequences of the entertainment value of political news in general, and Donald Trump in particular, may be that more people vote and more people become more politically informed. And, the thinking goes, when we are better informed, we make better decisions.

Even if we didn’t tune into the news for anything other than the entertainment.

© Riccardo Savi
Source: © Riccardo Savi

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