Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Friday, November 11, 2016

How Trump Won

It is not an exaggeration to say that the shock experienced by half of the world on November the 9th was unprecedented. I do not think I’ve ever seen so many “wtf” fly across my newsfeed, hear so many people declare that they are fleeing the country, or smelt the scent of mass confusion so sharply. If you still have not figured out what I’m talking about, I am referring to Donald Trump’s election for president. I tried again and again to comprehend the results but to no avail. Yet, there I was faced with the numbers 228 versus 279.[1] What? How? Why?  Is there any level on which this presidential campaign could make sense? Any at all? Turns out there is.
Trump might not be the most diplomatic character, but he sure knows his persuasion methods. The ones that I am going to look at are: his use of emotional appeal, repetition, fear, social proof and authority.

The first task of any leader to win and unite his audience with a single compelling idea. While many of us would argue that Trump’s ideology is based on shifting sands, his slogan clearly stated otherwise: “Let’s Make America Great Again!” Wow! Really?
It serves trump in several ways. First of all, as an idea to unite the audience. However, what makes it such a skilful tool for persuasion is its emotional appeal. It is no secret that emotion influences decision making (Loewenstein & Lerner, 2003). There are two types of affective influences: expected emotions and immediate emotions. Expected emotions are predictions about how a person would feel when he makes a particular decision. Immediate emotions are direct and indirect. Immediate direct emotions are how a person feels in the particular moment, whereas indirect ones influence the route of processing one undertakes when experiencing a particular emotion.

What do I mean by route of processing? I am referring to the central and peripheral route in the elaboration likelihood model (Petty and Cacioppo, 1986) or System 1 and System 2 if you prefer Tversky and Kahneman. The central route or system 2 is associated with focused attention and the subjective experience of agency choice and concentration. It is the one that we use to think logically stated simply. The peripheral route or system 2 if often automatic and quick, using little effort and often relying on heuristics and schemas (Kahneman, 2011).

How is that related to Trump?  There is quite of a bit of research to suggest that happiness and positive affect is associated with more heuristic processing (Bodenhausen, Kramer & Susser, 1994; Forgas, 1998). In other words, when people are emotionally aroused and positively excited at the thought of America being great again they are more likely to put less thought into who they are voting for! Furthermore, other research suggests that when people tend to predict how they might feel they often project current feeling into the future. (Loewenstein et al., 2000). E.g. “If I am that excited about America now, I surely will be if Trump becomes president! “

Another simple yet effective tool that Trump uses is that of repetition. Cacioppo and Petty (1978) have found that “moderate repetition of persuasive message lead to increased agreement with both the pro- and counter attitudinal advocacies” Trump uses his words carefully so that they are simple with strong positive connotations and repeats them over and over and over again. In this video for example, he repeats the word “win” 20 times in a single sentence-

In his new book Pre-suasion, Cialdini emphasizes to never underestimate the power of a single word. The simpler the words the better because “when people can process something with cognitive ease, they experience increased neuronal activity in the muscles of their face that produce a smile”. The sound of the words also tends to be quite important as all mental activity arises associations through complex neural networks (Cialdini, 2016). Attempts to persuade will be hence more effective if they put people in a positive, “feel good about themselves” frame of mind.

It’s not all about positive emotions though. Another weapon of persuasion that Trump uses is fear. - “You’re gonna have more World Trade Centres. It’s going to get worse and worse, folks.”
Fear is a powerful tool for influence when used effectively. Janis and Feshback (1953) have conducted experiments investigating the effects of arousing fear or anxiety by depicting potential dangers to which the audience might be exposed. They found that “when emotional tension is aroused, the audience will become more highly motivated to accept the reassuring beliefs or recommendations advocated by the communicator.” Arousing moderate levels of fear does indeed lead to greater behavioural conformity.
Upon hearing Trump talk about a potential danger, people experience authentic fear which makes them more likely to comply with whatever he proposes as the solution to prevent it. In this unfortunate case – to elect him as president.
Furthermore, a way that people respond to fear is often by converting it to aggression (Janis & Feshback). Especially when it is to statements like “China is taking our jobs, they are taking our money”. What is important about aggression and anger is that it sets us in the peripheral and heuristic type of processing yet again (Bodenhausen, Sheppard & Krammer, 1994). Putting us into that state where we think less about who we elect for president!

The last but not least persuasion tool used by Trump is a combination of social proof and authority. He often refers to authority figures in his statements who seemingly very much approve of his plans and ideas. Statements such as “Larry Kudlow likes my tax plan”. In that way he demonstrates social proof, not just by anyone but by prominent authority figures who are experts in the field of economics such as Larry Kudlow. We, humans are species who adhere to authority whatever the instruction as famous demonstrated by Miligram’s experiments when participants were asked to give electric shocks to participants for seemingly stupid reason such as using incorrect words (Miligram, 1974).

I could probably include several more methods that Trump used but I am going to stop here. I wish it was his persuasion methods that will make him a good president in the next four years but it won’t be. I think his election goes to show the ugly, inconvenient, sad truth- that such big portion of the population would still vote for someone who’s campaign is based on hatred, judgement and a sick ego. I know this is no longer related with Trump’s influential methods, but if there is one thing I could try and influence you with it would be to peace harder, be kinder, love harder. It’s on us.


12 Psychological Tactics Donald Trump Uses to Manipulate the Masses." High Existence Site Wide Activity RSS. N.p., 18 Mar. 2016. Web. 11 Nov. 2016

Bodenhausen, G. V., Sheppard, L. A., & Kramer, G. P. (1994). Negative affect and social judgment: The differential impact of anger and sadness. European Journal of social psychology, 24(1), 45-62

Cacioppo, J. T., & Petty, R. E. (1979). Effects of message repetition and position on cognitive response, recall, and persuasion. Journal of personality and Social Psychology, 37(1), 97

Cacioppo, J. T., & Petty, R. E. (1979). Effects of message repetition and position on cognitive response, recall, and persuasion. Journal of personality and Social Psychology, 37(1), 97.

Cialdini, R. (2016). Pre-Suasion. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Forgas, J. P. (1998). On being happy and mistaken: mood effects on the fundamental attribution error. Journal of personality and social psychology, 75(2), 318

Frankish, K., & Evans, J. St. B. T. (2009). The duality of mind: an historical perspective. In J. St. B. T. Evans & K. Frankish (Eds.), In two minds: Dual processes and beyond (pp. 1-29). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Janis, I. L., & Feshbach, S. (1953). Effects of fear-arousing communications. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 48(1), 78

Kirk, Ashley. "US Election Results." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 11 Nov. 2016. Web. 11 Nov. 2016.

Loewenstein, G., & Lerner, J. S. (2003). The role of affect in decision making. Handbook of affective science, 619(642), 3

Loewenstein, G., O'Donoghue, T., & Rabin, M. (2000). Projection bias in predicting future utility.
Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. In Communication and persuasion (pp. 1-24). Springer New York

Smith, Kyle. "The Persuasion Tactics Trump and Clinton Are Using to Manipulate Voters." New York Post. N.p., 10 Sept. 2016. Web. 11 Nov. 2016.

[1] Kirk, Ashley. "US Election Results." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 11 Nov. 2016. Web. 11 Nov. 2016.

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