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The Appeal of Donald Trump

How being risky can be a winning political strategy.

a katz /
Source: a katz /

Why is Donald Trump still leading the polls in the Republican presidential race? The pundits keep expecting him to crash and burn. But Trump continues to lead. And there are cognitive reasons to think he could become the Republican nominee.

A lot of explanations have been suggested for Trump’s success. People are angry. He’s saying what people are thinking. People want someone with business experience. I’ve seen some claims that this reflects the racism of the people who prefer Trump. But basic cognitive psychology offers another reason for his success — a reason that may result in Trump leading for a long time.

The appeal of Trump may have to do with how the political issues are being framed this year. Do you feel like we need to try something really different, something unusual, something risky? Are you willing to take a risk? Are you willing to gamble with your money, your health, and the future of your country? When does the risky choice become more attractive than the safe choice? What leads people to feel like taking a big risk?

Decisions about trying risky or safe alternatives are influenced by the decision frame — the way in which the problem is presented. Framing effects occur when you can bias judgments by how you present a problem. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky earned a Nobel Prize in economics for their work on heuristics, framing, and judgments. They noted that we often frame problems in terms of gains or losses. When a problem is framed in terms of gains or saving things, then people are risk averse — they will prefer the safe choice. When a problem is presented in terms of losses and threats, then people will make risky choices and be willing to take risky gambles. The interesting thing is that most problems can be framed either way. You can focus on what someone can save and gain on the one hand. Or you can emphasize threats and what someone can lose on the other hand.

The classic example comes from Kahneman and Tversky. They asked people to imagine that the United States is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual disease that is expected to kill 600 people. One set of respondents was given a choice of 2 options. Option A would save 200 people. Option B would have a one-third probability of saving all 600 people and a two-thirds probability of saving no people. A second group of people were also given 2 options. For these people, Option A results in 400 people dying and Option B has a one-third probability that no one will die and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die. The cool thing about the two different sets of options is that they are exactly the same. The only difference is in the framing. In the first pair, the options focus on saving people. In the second set, the options focus on people dying. The frame is either on gains/saving or losses/dying. When people are focused on saving people, they are strongly biased toward the safe option — the one in which 200 people are saved. When people are focused on people dying, they strongly prefer the risky gamble — that small chance that no one will die.

What does this have to do with politics and Donald Trump? Political climates and issues are always framed. Save our way of life and our values. We have lost our way of life and our values. We need to rebuild our economy for everyone. We have lost our middle class. The unemployment rate is low and most people have jobs. People can’t find good jobs because we have lost them all to other countries. We are addressing the problem of terrorism and the odds of an attack remain very low. We are under a terrorist threat and we could die in a terrorist attack at any moment. Any issue can be presented by focusing on saving and making gains. But the exact same issue can be presented in terms of threats and losses.

When people are focused on what they have lost, what they might lose, and the threats they face, they are biased toward selecting a risky candidate. Without making judgments about either political party, I think we can agree that the republicans have been focused on losses and threats for the last several years. Most of the candidates have emphasized threats, fear, and losses (surely some of this is happening on the democratic side as well). This is a situation that may lead people, even conservatives, to feel risky. If everything is lost and threatened, then choose the risky option.

And why shouldn’t people find the risky option attractive? If you believe and feel that you have already lost so much. If you believe and feel that so much of what you still have is threatened and could be lost. Why choose a safe option? You might save something with that safe option. But so much is already lost and you’ll still lose more even with the safe option. Take the big risk instead. Most likely you’ll lose. But you’ve been losing anyway. The odds are against you. But with the risky option, there’s a chance that you could win. Even if there is only a small chance, you might finally get lucky. You’ve already lost so much, what do you have left? Demagogues prosper in this type of environment.

And no candidate is riskier than Donald Trump. He isn’t the normal candidate. He isn’t making the standard speeches. He has no experience in government. He is proposing things that are quite radical. He is the riskiest candidate among a set of unusual options.

From a framing perspective, he should be leading the pack. The next several candidates in the polls are also unusual and risky options. These are not the establishment Republicans. Given the focus on threats and losses, I’m not surprised that the next several candidates are also outsiders. No wonder the standard Republican candidates are polling so poorly. They are the safe options. And the way the issues are being framed is not leading voters to safe options. Choose the risk when everything is at risk anyway.

Every time the media and candidates focus on threats and losses, people are driven to prefer high risk choices. Every time Trump says something crazy, he confirms his status as the riskiest candidate. The crazy statements don’t decrease his standing in the polls. When the election is focused on threats and losses, the crazy statements lead people to Trump.

I’ve regularly seen comments that Trump will drop at some point. The voters will eventually get serious and start really evaluating the candidates. At that moment they will turn toward the safe, standard options. There is some cognitive reason to suspect this could occur. People can either be guided by fast thinking or slow thinking. Fast thinking is guided by biases, heuristics, and frames. Slow thinking involves more rational decision making, but takes effort and is hard to do well. People aren’t engaged in serious evaluation now and thus they are guided by the framing effect. Perhaps later they’ll get serious. Perhaps the voters will engage in slow effortful thinking. Then they won’t be guided by the framing effect and Trump will drop in the polls.

But I’m not sure. Yes, people can engage in slow, effortful, and logical thinking. But frequently they don’t. For the risky options to be less attractive, the narrative and framing will have to change. The candidates, pundits, and conservative media need to focus on saving what we have. They have to focus on the positive aspects of our economy, our society, and the international situation. See the glass as half full. Then you can frame the debate about saving what you have and advancing. At that point people will be biased toward the safe options — the more traditional establishment Republicans. Given the last decade of Republican rhetoric focused on loss, threat and fear, I don’t see a change in narrative and framing happening.

The longer the election stays focused on threats and losses, the better for the riskiest option in the deck. There are a lot of things that may be contributing to Trump’s ability to stay at the top of the polls. And being risky when people are focused on threats and losses could be a winning strategy. Anyone feel like taking a gamble at the Trump casino?

February Update: My predictions based on decision science and framing effects are winning. Donald Trump has now won 3 of the 4 primaries and is in good shape to win several more next week on March 1st. The voters have not yet gotten serious and turned toward the safe options. Instead they are selecting risky options since the frame for republicans has emphasized loss and threat. I think psychological science is making a better prediction this year than political science (the party decides argument means there should be a consolidation behind a safe establishment candidate).