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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Donald Trump King of Persuasion, why TV image did not matter - part 2

Although the hype and disbelief surrounding the US presidential election appears to be dying down; there is still one question that I am deeply interested in…. How did Donald Trump actually win the elections? I am not going to pretend to be in any way an expert in politics especially American politics because I’m not. In my last blog post, I discussed how people tend to rely on the peripheral route when choosing who to vote for and a big influence is a good personal TV image. This is because people use heuristics to make value judgements based on appearance of the candidates. Generally when you see Trump on TV it’s because he’s said or done something ridiculous; prime examples are depicted above which for me show quite the opposite of competence and good leadership. However, despite consistent bad media coverage, Trump won the election so he must have done something right. Clearly there is no way I could comment on all the factors or persuasive techniques that lead to Trump winning the election so I will focus on one: Trumps use of the availability heuristic.

Trump’s TV image prior to the Elections
Since 2003 Trump has been the host of the US version of ‘The Apprentice’. For over 10 years on this TV show Trump is portrayed as successful businessman, able to make successful decisions and being able to fire and hire people which all give the impression of a good leader. This has worked well for Trump as it taps into the availability heuristic as described by Tversky and Kahneman (1973); there are lots of instances of where Trump appears to be a good leader and therefore the more people are likely to infer/judge him as one.

Make America Great Again’
For his campaign, Trump copied Ronald Reagan’s promise to ‘make America great again’ and repeated this simple message constantly. In comparison to this, Hillary Clinton’s campaign used a number of slogans (‘Stronger Together’, ‘I’m with Her’ and ‘Fighting for Us’ to name a few). This links very well to ideas from Adolf Hitler who famously said: “the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly. It must confine itself to a few points, and repeat them over and over.” Although there is no evidence that America needs to be great again (click here), this slogan appeals to the emotions of voters and leads to associations between what they think America has lost and that Trump is the leader to get it back for them. Coupled with insulting nearly every minority in America, Trump makes this a very powerful use of the availability heuristic. The more Trump highlights minorities as problems (regardless of whether true or not), the more people are actually going to start thinking they are because it becomes more available to them. In the same way, the more Trump repeats his simple and effective slogan, the more he is going to be associated with being the leader who can solve the problems.  

I think something that Trump understands very well is the use of fear to persuade. It is well documented that increasing fear is associated with increased persuasion (Petty, DeSteno, & Rucker, 2001; Brader, 2005). The media also has a big part to play in this, a quick search in google and you can find a host of normal things (i.e. vehicular crashes, heart attacks, cancer and so on) and even some strange things like being crushed by furniture are more likely to kill you than terrorist attacks. However this things are very rarely reported as big news, terrorist attacks are. Because of the availability heuristic, terrorist attacks are seen as more threatening and worrying because they are a regular occurrence in the media but in actual fact we should be more worried about every time we drive to university or to work. This unfortunately may be one of the contributing factors in the rise of Islamophobia. I think Trump has used this to his advantage effectively, Petty, DeSteno, & Rucker, (2001) point out that fear itself is most effective for persuasion when it highlights severe and likely consequences if a recommended actions is not taken. In this case Trump has highlighted the consequence: terrorism (because of the availability heuristic) and has suggested simply to vote for him because he can tackle this problem (ban on Muslims entering the US – totally not ridiculous).

To summarise, although it very easy to find many faults with Donald Trump, he knows how to persuade and has done so very well throughout the election campaign. Particularly Trump appears to understand heuristic processing (specifically the availability heuristic) and has used this to his advantage to beat Clinton in the elections and debates. Clearly, Trump used a number of persuasive techniques and mechanisms, and these should not be discounted when it came to winning the election. However, these persuasive techniques will not make him a good president, and hopefully we will not see same Donald Trump we saw during the election but a better, less racist, less misogynistic, less narcissistic and generally a less hate inciting Donald Trump as president. But I’m not going to hold my breath.


Brader, T. (2005). Striking a responsive chord: How political ads motivate and persuade voters by appealing to emotions. American Journal of Political Science49(2), 38

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan

Petty, R. E., DeSteno, D., & Rucker, D. D. (2001). The role of affect in attitude change. Handbook of affect and social cognition, 212-233.

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