We have to talk about Donald Trump

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight, Research First

It seems too easy here in New Zealand to watch the American Republican Party primary election unfold in disbelief. Only in America, you might think, could Donald Trump’s inanity and witlessness be the qualities that determine their party’s presidential candidate. If you’re old enough to remember Hunter S Thompson before the Johnny Depp caricature, you may even think that it’s time to revive the ‘fear and loathing on the campaign trail’ theme.

But, as one of my old psychology professors used to warn me, ‘everything looks simple from the distance of ignorance’. Rather than representing something unique about the Republican Party (or even about the state of the USA in 2016), the popularity of Trump could illustrate two useful social science insights (and in the process reveal a great deal about us and the world we live in).

The first insight is that we are just not very good at judging other people.

The second is that political campaigns provide very poor information to shape those judgements.

The first insight comes from psychology, and shows that we form judgements about people from how they look and behave long before we hear what they have to say. No matter how unfair it seems, better-looking people tend to be judged more favourably than the rest of us; make more money; and are treated more leniently by others when they get into trouble. It starts early too, with teachers favouring their more attractive students and judging them as smarter.

As if this ‘beauty bias’ wasn’t bad enough, there is also a ‘height premium’. This describes how taller people, on average, earn more money than shorter people; are more likely to be considered intelligent; and are more likely to be picked as leaders. John Adams was probably only half-joking when he said that George Washington became president because he was ‘always the tallest man in the room’.

Finally, the research into how we judge others is clear that we see those who speak-up first, or loudest, or most often, as being more charismatic than those that don’t. This is a key part of what we mean when we say someone ‘makes a great leader’. And here is the really important part, they are considered better leaders regardless of what they actually have to say.

Google ‘how to be more charismatic’ and what you will find are endless lists about how to talk, dress, and impress but very little about the quality of your message. If you get the impression that ‘being charismatic’ is largely an act, you’re close to understanding the appeal of Donald Trump.

And this is where the second insight helps us. Playing into these psychological biases is the changing sociology of political campaigns. As hard as it is to believe today, in 1858 Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas took part in a series of debates that involved one candidate opening with a 60 minute speech, followed by a 90 minute response from the other. They did this seven times, with no moderator present.

By 1968 the average length of a soundbite from a US presidential candidate was down to 42 seconds; then 10 seconds in 1988; and around seven seconds today. For some context, if you talk faster than normal, you might get through 25 words in seven seconds.

Even before we consider how carefully scripted those soundbites are, there is very little real meaning you can convey in so little time. Add in the fact that those soundbites are designed to compress the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought (as Churchill once said about something else), and what hope do any of us have? The cult of celebrity really does trivialise everything it touches.

To be clear, none of this should be taken as a vindication of Donald Trump. If anything, it should help explain why there is less to his candidacy than meets the eye.

But it is one thing to notice that the sideshow has somehow taken over the main tent, and quite another to resist the draw of a skilled carnival barker.

Research First is the research partner for PRINZ. Visit them at www.researchfirst.co.nz.

Image credit: iStock