The New Yorker science writer Maria Konnikova reports on The Psychological Research that Helps Explain the Election.
At the end of most years, I’m typically asked to write about the best psychology papers of the past twelve months. This year, though, is not your typical year. And so, instead of the usual “best of,” I’ve decided to create a list of classic psychology papers and findings that can explain not just the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. but also the rising polarization and extremism that seem to have permeated the world. To do this, I solicited the opinion of many leading psychologists, asking them to nominate a paper or two, with a brief explanation for their choice. (Then I nominated some stories myself.) And so, as 2016 draws to a close, here’s a partial collection of the insights that psychology can bring to bear on what the year has brought about, arranged in chronological order.
I’ll try to give you a flavor of each one but you should read Konnikova’s essay to develop a deep appreciation for what psychological sciences has to say about Trump and polarization.
What you already know is dangerous to your thoughts - and the more you know …
… a paper that made sense of a common, and seemingly irrational, phenomenon: that the beliefs we hold already affect how we process and assimilate new information. In other words, we don’t learn rationally, taking in information and then making a studied judgment. Instead, the very way we learn is influenced from the onset by what we know and who we are. … This process, which is a form of what’s called confirmation bias, can help explain why Trump supporters remain supportive no matter what evidence one puts to them—and why Trump’s opponents are unlikely to be convinced of his worth even if he ends up doing something actually positive. The two groups simply process information differently. … [Moreover] the polarization effect was particularly powerful among strong partisans.
"political and intellectual tribalism”
Like seeks like, and like affirms like—and people gravitate to the intellectually similar others, even when all of their actions should rightly set off alarm bells.
Trump, [Harvard psychologist Stephen] Pinker said, won over pretty much the entire Republican Party, and all those who felt alienated from the left, by declaring himself to be opposed to the “establishment” and political correctness. And this all happened, Pinker wrote to me, “despite his obvious temperamental unsuitability for the responsibilities of the Presidency, his opposition to free trade and open borders (which should have, but did not, poison him with the libertarian right), his libertine and irreligious lifestyle (which should have, but did not, poison him with evangelicals), his sympathies with Putin’s Russia (which should have, but did not, poison him with patriots), and his hostility to American military and political alliances with democracies (which should have, but did not, poison him with neoconservatives).”
Authoritarianism comes to America
… authoritarianism: the desire for strong order and control. Most people aren’t authoritarian as such, Stenner finds. Instead, most of us are usually capable of fairly high tolerance. It’s only when we feel we are under threat—especially what Stenner calls “normative threat,” or a threat to the perceived integrity of the moral order—that we suddenly shut down our openness and begin to ask for greater force and authoritarian power. People want to protect their way of life, and when they think it’s in danger they start grasping for more extreme-seeming alternatives.
The outrage factor and coalition-building
… the use of outrage to help mobilize coalitions. Their main claim is that humans, like other animals, are predisposed to coalition-building: in order to best protect ourselves, we coöperate with those we see as within our coalition, and we fight those we see as outside it. One of the ways coalitions can be galvanized to action, the authors showed, is by uniting them against a perceived outrage—and this dynamic played out repeatedly in the Trump campaign, both with Trump supporters and the opposition. Play up the outrage factor and suddenly groups bond together like never before—and prepare to attack like never before.
… when people perceive higher threat levels and are under stress, they flock to leaders who promise tighter rules, greater strength, a more authoritarian approach. [Michele] Gelfand calls this “cultural tightness”: a desire for strong social norms and a low tolerance for any sort of deviant behavior. As threat perception increases, even looser cultures—those with high tolerance and lower norms—begin to tighten up.
Throughout the election, Trump himself stoked the feeling of threat and fear, so that he became a seemingly more and more fitting leader. In Europe, rhetoric about terrorism, immigration threats, and the like is doing much the same thing. The greater the perceived threat, the tighter the culture becomes. Indeed, Gelfand has found that the strongest supporters of Trump were also those who thought the U.S. was under the greatest threat.
So why didn’t anyone see this coming and try to reverse any of the trends? In ongoing research, the psychologist Tali Sharot is investigating something known as “optimism bias”: we think the future is going to be better than the past. We tend to dismiss things we don’t particularly like, or that we find disturbing, as aberrations. Instead, we assume that the future will be far more promising than current signs might make it seem. We are, in a sense, hardwired for hope. … many Trump opponents hold out hope that once he assumes office he will act differently than he has on the campaign trail. People keep hoping for the best, even in the face of great odds. And it’s a hope that helps us survive, even when those great odds defy us.
Scriber’s nomination for quote of the day: Amidst the almost totally bad news in this morning’s Daily Star, we read this headline: “Americans hopeful for a better 2017”.
We can hope for the best, but given “this coming” is happening every day, we’d better plan for the worst.