The Psychology that Supports a Leader Like Donald Trump

American Dream this wayTrump celebrants keep saying, “Get over it,” as if followers should be passive, either cheerleaders or out of the way. But there’s a difference between expressing disappointment or joy, and asking good questions. And it’s the American way to expect leaders and followers on both sides of the aisle to be interested in questions about patterns of governance and the trends that are shaping leadership in our nation. So today, thanks to an interesting feature in the New Yorker, let’s look at a few hints from human psychology to answer the question, “Why Trump, why now?”

  1. Optimism Bias:In ongoing research, the psychologist Tali Sharot is investigating something known as “optimism bias”: we think the future is going to be better than the past. We tend to dismiss things we don’t particularly like, or that we find disturbing, as aberrations. Instead, we assume that the future will be far more promising than current signs might make it seem. We are, in a sense, hardwired for hope.” This explains, in some ways, Clinton supporters had hopes for electoral college upset, and Trump supporters who don’t back all his policies or advisors still say he’s all great, all the time. Leaders and followers should therefore probe beyond our optimistic visions with regular reality checks.
  2. Cultural Tightness: “In a series of recent papers in Science and PNAS, Michele Gelfand, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, demonstrated a concept that seems particularly relevant not only to Trump but to the seeming polarization of politics more globally: in surveys conducted throughout the United States, in one case, and in thirty-three countries, in another, combined with historical analyses and personality assessments, she found that when people perceive higher threat levels and are under stress, they flock to leaders who promise tighter rules, greater strength, a more authoritarian approach.” This explains, in some ways, why the idea that Mexico would pay for a wall between our countries got citizens fearful of immigration so enthused. Leaders and followers should look at the projected effects of tougher rules  and top-down leadership solutions to make sure these initially comforting steps will actually make things better, or are even workable solutions.
  3. Groups in Mind: The Coalitional Roots of War and Morality: “In 2010, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, scholars at the University of California, Santa Barbara, best known for their work in evolutionary psychology, published a paper on the use of outrage to help mobilize coalitions. Their main claim is that humans, like other animals, are predisposed to coalition-building: in order to best protect ourselves, we coöperate with those we see as within our coalition, and we fight those we see as outside it. One of the ways coalitions can be galvanized to action, the authors showed, is by uniting them against a perceived outrage—and this dynamic played out repeatedly in the Trump campaign, both with Trump supporters and the opposition.” Leaders and followers should create cross-position honeycombs to explore issues from many perspectives to avoid polarization thru attack dynamics.
  4. The Authoritarian Dynamic: “Research published a decade ago by Karen Stenner provides insight into a psychological trait known as authoritarianism: the desire for strong order and control. Most people aren’t authoritarian as such, Stenner finds. Instead, most of us are usually capable of fairly high tolerance. It’s only when we feel we are under threat—especially what Stenner calls “normative threat,” or a threat to the perceived integrity of the moral order—that we suddenly shut down our openness and begin to ask for greater force and authoritarian power. People want to protect their way of life, and when they think it’s in danger they start grasping for more extreme-seeming alternatives.” This tendency plays into the culture wars, which stubbornly divide us on issues like abortion, sexuality and racial identity. The more liberal the world becomes, the more threatened those resistant to the perceived immoral change become. Leaders and followers should look behind cultural hot buttons to core values that are SHARED between the different sides of the culture wars, like safety, family self-management, and access to healthcare.
  5. Cultural Cognition: “Over the last decade, Dan Kahan, a psychologist at Yale University, has been studying a phenomenon he calls “cultural cognition,” or how values shape perception of risk and policy beliefs. One of his insights is that people often engage in something called “identity-protective cognition.” They process information in a way that protects their idea of themselves. Incongruous information is discarded, and supporting information is eagerly retained. Our memory actually ends up skewed: we are better able to process and recall the facts that we are motivated to process and recall, while conveniently forgetting those that we would prefer weren’t true.” This explains resistance by both Democrats and Republicans to criticism of their candidates. Leaders and followers should regularly fact check in order to avoid one-sided Facebook frenzy.

Read more of this interesting article, relevant to everyone, regardless of our political party…

As Patrick Henry famously is supposed to have said, “Now is the time for all good men (and women) to come to the aid of our country.” We have a change in leadership that will challenge all of us, not just Democrats or liberals. Let’s be mindful about our less mindful tendencies as humans, and move forward together, as leaders and followers who want the best for our nation.

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