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.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Trump's Politics of Fear

Figure 1. The proportion of Republicans
and Democrats reporting the election as a
significant source of stress
With the presidential debate right around the corner, the wellbeing of American citizens seems to resemble a downwards spiral. During its annual Stress in America  survey, the American Psychological Association included a brief questionnaire regarding the election. The results found that 52% of adults claimed the presidential election to be a very or somewhat significant source of stress. In addition to this, therapists nationwide are reporting significant spikes in patients suffering election anxiety. Such an impact on the nation has lead to an increased focus on one presidential candidate taking centre stage: Republican and businessman Donald Trump.
Figure 2. Republican candidate
Donald Trump

The polemic and radical views of Trump are flooding news screens and social media sites. He wants to prohibit Muslims visiting the United States, and build a wall around the Southern border to prevent Mexican citizens entering the country. He erroneously claimed President Barack Obama's birth certificate was a fraud. He even pigeonholed the majority of Mexican citizens as drug smuggling criminal "rapists." These widely outrageous accusations seem irresponsible and dangerous for a candidate hoping to obtain control of the nuclear red button. Yet political experts have estimated a staggering 40 million voters are likely to elect Trump for the 2016 presidential election. This encapsulates into one controversial question: Why? 

Political psychologists have been scrutinising the self- proclaimed billionaire since he became the Republican Party's presidential nominee in mid July 2016. Since then, a number of psychological tactics have been identified that Trump is using to propel himself to the top of the ballot. 

Trump's speeches, rallies and platforms have roused fear; and fear is infectious. By Trump's account, America stands as a nation where police deaths and homicide rates are rapidly increasing, immigrants are engulfing the borders and ISIS has the potential to take over if Clinton wins. Combine this with polls showing the majority of Americans are worried about being victims of crime and terror, and it's clear voters are pining for an authoritative leader. Trump manipulates his crowds to believe such terror is dangerously abundant in the US, even ending one convention with the reassurance "I alone can fix it." Whilst inflicting fear may be viewed as somewhat radical in a contemporary presidential campaign, it's certainly not novel territory. Otherwise known as fear- mongering, the psychological phenomenon has been demonstrated to actively change behaviour.

In a critical study, Janis and Feshbach (1953) gave three different dental hygiene lectures to a group of  students, each with altered levels of fear appeal. The strongest fear appeal group showed a net increase in conformity to dental hygiene of 8%, and whilst the medium fear appeal group reported a higher change in hygiene habits, it is evident such fear indicts a rapid emotional reaction and behaviour change. 

Figure 3. The mean differences in supporting presidential
candidates Bush and Kerry in pain and mortality conditions
Landau et al (2004) conducted an experiment amidst the US 2004 presidential campaign, with candidates George Bush, portrayed as direct and authoritative, and John Kerry, depicted throughout the election as a political "flip flopper." Volunteers in the study reminded of their own inevitable death showed significantly greater support for Bush compared to those who weren't reminded of their mortality. Whether subliminal or direct, Trump has used such fear- mongering to instil fear into the psyche of voters, admitting himself "people are scared." Arguably this psychological tactic has been copiously used by Trump to rally crowds of voters.

Blame shifting is a strategy society has deployed for centuries. Also referred to as psychological projection, it describes the act of defending oneself against certain qualities, whilst attributing them to others. Trump singlehandedly blamed the media for putting false meaning into his campaign. He blamed Clinton for beginning a wildly incorrect judgement regarding Obama's birther movement. It goes without saying that he also claims Clinton is "protected by a rigged system." Maestas et al (2008) conducted an experiment to compare such blame shifting between Republicans and Democrats. In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, media coverage in the United States centred around the failure of the government to respond, and emphasised the lack of government aid. 94% of respondents reported to be somewhat attentive to this media coverage, and resultantly 70% of individuals found the governments response too slow. Interestingly, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to shift blame towards the government, predominantly due to high exposure to media coverage. Overall, it seems that federalism provides citizens with a source of blame; and such blame can also be accentuated by the media. This is persistently mirrored in Trump's campaign. When asked whether he has paid any income taxes over an almost two- decade period, and when confronted with a leaked copy of his 1995 tax records; he blamed Hillary.

Figure 4. Trump and Clinton
Furthermore, Donald Trump has mastered a number of toxic psychological tactics to earn an overwhelming proportion of votes in the presidential campaign. Instilling fear into crowds of supporters, he has presented his audiences with an array of fresh scapegoats ranging from Muslims to Mexicans. Additionally, Trump's method of blame shifting has caused a political storm between himself and Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton, leading to one of the most controversial and documented electoral campaigns in history.


Janis, I., & Feshbach, S. (1953). Effect of fear arousing communications. J. abnormal soc. Psychol48, 78-92.

Landau, M. J., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Cohen, F., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., & Cook, A. (2004). Deliver us from evil: the effects of mortality salience and reminders of 9/11 on support for President George W. Bush. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(9), 1136-1150.

Maestas, C. D., Atkeson, L. R., Croom, T., & Bryant, L. A. (2008). Shifting the Blame: Federalism, Media, and Public Assignment of Blame following Hurricane Katrina. Publius, (4). 609.

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