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.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Trump Your Way To The Top!.

(…through persuasion of course)

I guess it’s safe to say this year has been full of many surprises (or shocks, horrors, crashes and burns), with Brexit and now Trump winning the elections; we’re either going mad or there’s something deeper happening. Much to my surprise, the definition of the verb ‘Trump’ is “to surpass (something) by saying or doing something better”, coincidence or not he really did find a way to say or do something better than his opponent, and much to my dismay this led to his victory! Unable to find evidence that the population is actually going crazy, I found theories that could explain different methods he has used to persuade the public.

So how did Trump’s triumph trump them all? Firstly, as much as we think we're in control of our decision making, a lot of the time we're influenced by the things that we're constantly exposed to without actually realising. 

We must look back and ask where Donald Trump even came from... how could someone who wasn't even a politician have a chance at becoming the President of the United States? Trump actually featured on 11 seasons of The Apprentice U.S.A for 11 years, with a total of around 64 million viewers in that time, which is about 20% of the population! So adding that to his constant appearance on the news and debates with his outrageous comments, he became someone at the forefront of everybody's minds. How?


The mere exposure theory (1968) explains that by simply being exposed to something consistently, it can actually make you like it more...which also why explains why constant exposure to advertisements makes them stay in your mind (even when you don't want them to)! In addition to this, our subconscious brain sometimes pushes certain ideas to the front of our minds purely because its more available than other ideas - the availability heuristic. For example a study by Schwartz (1991) asked people to write 12 or 6 examples of where they had been assertive. When writing 12 examples, as opposed to 6, people rated themselves as less assertive. This is because it was easier to recall 6 occasions rather than 12 therefore recalling 6 occasions made them feel more assertive, and struggling made them feel less so. So with Trump constantly in the headlines, it became easier to think about him and also made him the more favourable candidate.


One of his most commonly used and visible persuasive techniques was repetition of attractive phrases and words. One of his most common phrases was "Let's Make America Great Again" which actually became his slogan, and was very catchy. In the video however we see him repeat in a more subliminal message by using the word "Win" 11 times in 22 seconds! The Likelihood Elaboration Model (Cacioppo, Petty & John, 1986) explains that if we are attracted a positive cue as opposed to the content of the message we will use the Peripheral Route of processing, which is more automatic and based on almost illogical processing. The message he used says that we will start to win (a positive cue) at all the things we are losing in, but he doesn't provide how we could do it and instead just uses an irrelevant positive buzzword! As he repeats a positive word several times we associate his message with a positive outcome and believe that by voting for him we are actually going to start winning (...and who doesn't love winning!?).

I think this was one of his most POWERFUL persuasive techniques during his propaganda-filled debates... He seemed to always over-exaggerate the threat of minorities which ignited a lot of resentment as a result! In this video he talks about "large segments of the muslim population" hating American's and he talks about murder, beheadings and the world trade centre. All of these statements were untrue but he preyed on the American populations' fear of a repeated attack on the World Trade Centre's, and makes it more viable for things to get "worse and worse". A study by Asch (1951) showed that when the majority make a decision, the minority agrees even if they know that it is a wrong decision. This supports the idea of hating on minorities unrightfully, as he uses the normative influence by making everyone feel that hating is what the majority are doing, so we should all be doing it.


And then in response to his fear provoking, what he does is try and provide relief through voting for him. The "win" video was a great example of this as he made himself the solution to all of the problems we are losing at. Dolinski and Nawrat's (1998) study showed that a fear and then relief procedure actually increases compliance. They showed that when anxiety is provoked and then revoked by a positive solution, people are more likely to comply with several requests, which could explain why people trusted him and voted for Trump even though his claims were Bogus (excuse my language).

Knutson Disgust Anger Dominance
Knutson (1996) Disgust and Anger in Dominance
Last but not least, Trump had a great knack for making himself look like the better candidate regardless of the insults he was throwing around, he often created a setting of playground bullying. Trump quite often wound up his opponents during debates or quoted statistics of how he was better than they were, which from an outside perspective is very clearly a childish thing to do, but somehow it always made him look more dominant. In one of his debates with Jeb Bush we see that Trump looks at the audience but Jeb looks at Trump for most of the debate as if to say to seek reassurance through watching Trump's reactions. This is a very common reassurance seeking technique that anxious children use for self-affirmation (to feel like they're doing the right thing), therefore making trump look more powerful. Knutson (1996) also showed that participants actually rated people who present angry and disgusted facial expressions towards others as more dominant. In this video and throughout a lot of his debates, Trump tends to do to discount the argument of his opponent by using these types of facial expressions to ridicule his opponents and look more dominant (like a bully).

Trump vs Jeb
Jeb constantly looking to Trump

So in conclusion, though we may have thought Trump was a clown at times and highly inadequate, he seems to have done some things right to have won over the U.S population. Who knew people could be so easily influenced hey?

Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment. In H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, leadership and men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press

Dolinski D. and Nawrat R. (1998). Fear-then-relief procedure for producing compliance : Beware when the danger is over. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 34, 1, 27-50.

Knutson, B. (1996). Facial expressions of emotion influence interpersonal trait inferences. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior20(3), 165-182.

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. In Communication and persuasion (pp. 1-24). Springer New York.

Schwarz, N., Bless, H., Strack, F., Klumpp, G., Rittenauer-Schatka, H., & Simons, A. (1991). Ease of retrieval as information: Another look at the availability heuristic. Journal of Personality and Social psychology61(2), 195.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science (New Series), 185, 1124-1131.

Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology9(2, Pt.2), 1–27

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