President Trump?

How a cognitive heuristic could lead to Trump’s election.

Posted Sep 27, 2016

            Donald Trump is easily the most unusual and risky presidential candidate I’ve seen in my life. And that may be a winning strategy in this year’s election.

            Voters aren’t rational in selecting candidates. People do not delve into each candidate’s proposals and analyze how each would impact their lives or their community. Since people aren’t rational, we can contemplate the types of information that do influence voting behaviors. As a cognitive psychologist, I have thought a lot about framing effects in this year’s election.

            A framing effect is when how a decision is described (the decision frame) strongly influences the choice that people make. You can, for example, frame a beer glass as half empty or half full – but the amount of beer in the glass may be exactly the same.

Ira Hyman
Source: Ira Hyman

            When Kahneman and Tversky first introduced their arguments about heuristics and framing effects, they noted that when people make decisions they sometimes focus on gains and other times focus on losses. In their classic experiment, they described the potential outbreak of an epidemic that will kill 600 people. Kahneman and Tversky then gave respondents two options. In the gain version of the options, they described the possibilities of the options for saving people. Option 1 will save 200 people while option 2 has a 1/3 possibility of saving 600 people and a 2/3 probability of saving no one. In the loss version, they described the possibilities in terms of deaths. Option 1 results in 400 people dying whereas option 2 has a 1/3 probability of no one dying and a 2/3 probability of everyone dying. Of course, the actual outcomes are exactly the same in terms of people who are saved and people who will die. The issue is how the decision is framed – in terms of gains or losses. When respondents are focused on gains, the choose the safe option of saving at least 200 people. When people are focused on losses, they more often take the risky option; gambling with the low odds that maybe no one will die.

            In framing effects, a focus on losses and risks and calling for fear will lead people to choose a risky gamble. I think we can safely argue that Donald Trump is the risky option in this election. He has made several very unusual statements for someone running for president. It is hard to know exactly what type of policies he would pursue. He is not the normal politician. Hillary Clinton is the more safe choice, or at least the more well-known and traditional candidate for president (although it is interesting that the potential first woman president is presented as the more traditional candidate this year). She is the more experienced and professional politician.

            Last December, I predicted that Donald Trump stood a very good chance of becoming the republican nominee because of framing effects (in my post, The Appeal of Donald Trump). As I noted then, the Republicans had spent several years focusing on what had been lost and complaining about the risks of future losses. This frame would lead the republican primary voters to choose someone who was a high risk candidate (compared to the more traditional candidates they had to select from). Donald Trump was clearly the biggest gamble to change things.

            So how will this play out in the general election? I think the first debate provided clear evidence that the candidates are framing the state of our country in dramatically different ways. This is possible to do because one can always present a complex situation such as the United States economy and security by focusing on losses and risks or by presenting the gains and progress. Interestingly, the ways in which Trump and Clinton talked in the debate reflected framing effects. I used a transcript and some search tools to capture this phenomenon. I counted the number of times each focused on losses and gains. For losses, I found that Trump used words like loss, lost, losing, afraid, wrong, and worse 23 times while Clinton only used such words 3 times. For gains in the United States the opposite pattern emerged, with Trump only using such words 1 time and Clinton using these words 5 times (save, safety, safe, progress, gains). Clearly Trump and Clinton are framing the situation of the United States very differently. I only did a word count, but the people at 538 Blog looked at the content of how Trump and Clinton described the economy and the world. Ben Casselman argued that they seem to be describing completely different countries. You could also watch Trump’s and Clinton’s convention speeches from last month and see the same skewed perspectives.

            The choice is being framed very differently. Is the U.S. losing? Has the U.S. made gains since the economic downturn?

            In the Republican primary, I was confident that being the risky candidate could easily be a winning strategy. Many Republicans had been framing the current situation in terms of losses. Trump, as the riskiest candidate, stood to be the choice when people were guided by the framing heuristic.

            But I’m not sure how this will play in the general election. Clearly lots of people view things in terms of losses and fears about the current state of the world. Choosing someone very different, even someone clearly risky, may seem like the only chance voters have for a new and different outcome. For these voters, every time Trump does something unusual and different he may become more appealing. And he is constantly doing and saying unusual things.

            Not everyone thinks the world has been falling apart. Some people may be focused on the gains made in the last 8 years (during Obama’s presidency) and on saving the progress made. These people may be comfortable with the safer option; the more normal option; the person with experience. For these voters, every time Clinton behaves in the more typical fashion, she may rise in their evaluations.

            The real question is how are most people framing our current situation? How are you framing the state of the United States economy? How do you see the international situation? Have we made gains during the economic recovery? Have things continued to get worse?

            If more people see the world in terms of losses, then Trump could easily become president. If people become focused on preserving the progress made, then Clinton should be elected. Of course, the votes won’t be determined completely by framing effects. This is one factor contributing to a complex, but non-rational, decision process. Nonetheless, as a cognitive psychologist, I see this election as an interesting instance of framing effects.