For the last year, we’ve all been scratching our heads, trying to figure out how Donald Trump can run such a bigoted, mean-spirited campaign and still attract the kind of support and attention he was received. Trump has been a racist, a xenophobe, and a misogynist, along with the myriad of different ways he’s portrayed himself as an ignorant fear-monger. Plenty of other campaigns have been destroyed by less, but it seems like every time Donald Trump says something racist or allows parts of his crowds to assault others or spat with the family of a deceased American soldier, his popularity grows.
It’s been hard to watch because it defies all logic and reason, but neuroscience may at least be able to shed some light on what is happening.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
One possibility is that some of Trump’s supporters are caught in the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias in which a person who is relatively unskilled in something suffers from illusory superiority, meaning they think they are actually quite skilled at it, or in this case, informed. This is how we get the conservative who passes off fiction as fact.
In the case of Trump supporters, the Dunning-Kruger effect can be applied to how informed they are. To a lot of these people, Trump can tell them that President Obama is a Kenyan, Muslim, socialist dictator who wants to control the whole world and they would believe him unquestionably. Trump has the right information, and now so do they. The Dunning-Kruger effect explains this, for the problem isn’t that these people are just misinformed, but it’s that they are completely unaware that they are misinformed, thus creating a double burden.
Studies have shown that people who are unskilled at something or ignorant of something will develop a cognitive bias that prevents them from realizing they are unskilled or ignorant. In an op-ed for Politico, psychologist and professor David Dunning commented on this subject:
“The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgement.”
When it comes to the Dunning-Kruger effect, one is simply ignorant of their own ignorance, which leads to illusory superiority. They believe themselves to have superior knowledge, so why then would they defer to someone else’s judgement on the subject? This is what contributes to the wall that shuts down meaningful conversation about important topics.
What else can neuroscience tell us about Trump supporters?
Hypersensitivity To Threat
Another characteristic exhibited by Trump supports that neuroscience may be able to explain is a hypersensitivity to threat. From a familial standpoint, I know this one all too well.
The conservative brain has been shown to be different from the liberal brain, notably in that the conservative brain has an exaggerated fear response when presented with something considered threatening. This is why many conservatives can get behind mass deportation of immigrants and refer to Islam, as a religion, as the source of terrorism. This also explains why conservatism, as a philosophy that promotes the retention of traditional social institutions, even exists, for progress is scary. When this hypersensitivity to threat is compounded with the Dunning-Kruger effect, what manifests is the rabid, fire-and-brimstone, conservative who passes off fiction as fact without realizing it and stands in defiance of change.
Studies have shown that conservatives have a stronger physiological reaction to startling or scary stimuli. They act more viscerally to it. Studies have also shown that men and women who politically lean right have a larger amygdala than those who politically lean left, which is significant because the amygdala is electrically active during times of high stress, fear, and anxiety.
It’s all automatic; there is no rhyme or reason to the response. A lot of what Trump says invokes those fearful and anxious responses from his supporters, keeping them focused on safety. Trump isn’t just their candidate, he’s their protector, so when he engages them with rhetoric about wall-building or refers to Hillary Clinton as “crooked Hillary,” his supporters cheer his words because they prey on their existential fears and their resistances to change and viewpoints that challenge their own.
Terror Management Theory
Speaking of fears and anxieties, neuroscience also sheds some light on Trump supporters and how they manage said fears and anxieties. Terror management theory, a well-supported social psychology theory, is based on the fact that humans have a unique awareness of their own mortality. We know that one day we are going to die, but we are unsure of when or how our deaths will occur. This uncertainty creates existential terror that always hovers around us, even if we are not consciously thinking about it. In order to mange this hovering terror, humans have resorted to all sorts of cultural practices, such as the adoption of spiritual and religious ideas, the development of partisan political ideologies, and the establishment of national identities, all in the name of giving our lives meaning and value.
Terror management theory predicts that when someone is faced with the fact there are threats to their livelihood in the world, which is what fear-mongering does, that person will react to those threats in a tribal fashion. They will gravitate toward and more strongly defend those who share their ideas and values, while becoming hostile and combative toward those with opposing ideas and values. This explains why conservatives are so quick to blame liberals when things go south, and vice-versa. This explains the continued existence of prejudices toward race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation in an age when such prejudices are known to be explicitly irrational.
It’s the realization that death stalks us everyday that helps reinforce certain conservative attitudes that are at their extreme in a large swath of Trump supporters. Death fuels nationalistic tendencies and actually influences voting habits. But more disturbingly, increased awareness and discussion of mortality has shown increased support for extreme military interventions by American forces, which is interestingly an effect only present in conservatives studied.
By placing so much emphasis on existential threats, Donald Trump has conditioned his supporters to look at divisive, bigoted, and aggressive rheotic more favorably. Terror management theory explains it all.
Donald Trump’s popularity and success, despite the characteristics of his campaign, has been a source of confusion since last summer, but neuroscience may help explain why “the Trump effect” is happening at all. But then again, it may be difficult to explain neuroscience to those conservatives who find themselves in the thick of it and suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect while hypersensitive to threats that manifest fear they cannot adequately manage.
h/t Raw Story