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The Emotional Coherence of Donald Trump

Why did millions of people vote for Trump?

Donald Trump confounded both pollsters and pundits by winning the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Why did more than 60 million people vote for him? Voting might be understood as a rational enterprise based on self-interested calculation of which candidate advances the accomplishment of personal goals. But people’s voting decisions are often emotional and ethical, when people vote for candidates whose values match their own. What were the values that Trump projected that many people found appealing?

Values are mental processes that are both cognitive and emotional. They combine cognitive representations such as concepts and beliefs with emotional attitudes that are favorable or unfavorable. In the brain, values are neural processes resulting from binding cognitive representations of concepts, goals, and beliefs together with emotions that combine perception of physiological states with appraisals of the relevance of current happenings to personal goals.

Values do not occur in isolation, but form systems of emotion-laden representations that can provide reactions, decisions, and actions with overall emotional coherence. The coherence of systems of values can be displayed using the method of cognitive-affective maps, which uses the following conventions. Positive values are represented by green ovals, and negative values by red hexagons. Concepts that emotionally support each other are linked by solid lines, while emotional incompatibility is shown by dotted lines. Here is a value map of Trump’s views based on his public statements.

Paul Thagard
Source: Paul Thagard

In this map, the Trump oval gains emotional support from many directions. It gets positive support because it is linked to positive values such as America and jobs, but also gains because it is incompatible with negative values such as terrorism and Obamacare. Value maps depict how emotional attitudes can lead to an ethical judgment resulting from a complex configurations of values. When people’s own values approximate to those in the map, their most coherent decision will be to vote for Trump.

In contrast, supporters of Hillary Clinton were attracted by a very different configuration of values. The Hillary oval gains from its links to other positive values such as women and jobs, and because it is incompatible with negative values such as Trump. An undecided voter might have sets of values and beliefs that involve a combination of the extreme positions shown in the two figures. The ultimate decision of which candidate to vote for depends on balancing competing values using emotional coherence.

Paul Thagard
Source: Paul Thagard


Thagard, P. (2006). Hot thought: Mechanisms and applications of emotional cognition. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Simon, D., Stenstrom, D. & Read, S. (2015). The coherence effect: Blending cold and hot cognitions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 109: 369-394