Get Donald Trump out of my brain: The neuroscience that explains why he's running away with the GOP

The reality TV star and first-rate attention getter knows how to manipulate the media -- and our emotions

Published September 12, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Nancy Wiechec)
(Reuters/Nancy Wiechec)

Donald Trump will be the Republican presidential nominee -- at least, if all the media attention paid to his candidacy has anything to do with primacy and caucus results. A recent analysis found that he has received over 50 percent of the summer media coverage of Campaign 2016.

Yet Trump’s position in the polls for the Republican nomination is far lower than the 50 percent mark, in the 20-30 percent range. The Republican establishment is set against him. As a result, the large majority of political analysts suggest that there is a low probability of Trump being nominated.

Of course, there are many who blame the media itself for its supposedly excessive coverage of Trump, whether media analysts or Republican presidential candidates such as Rand Paul.

But here is the dirty little secret: Trump, as an expert entertainer and performer, knows what viewers want and he gives it to us. We should blame ourselves, and specifically the emotional part of our brains, for Trump's rise. This emotional part of our brain can lead us to make systematic and costly bad decisions that we would be wise to avoid.

What do I mean by the emotional part of our brain? Intuitively we feel our mind to be a cohesive whole, and perceive ourselves as intentional and rational thinkers. Yet cognitive science shows that in reality, the intentional part of our mind is like a little rider on top of a huge elephant of emotions and intuitions. This is why researchers frequently divide our mental processes into two different systems of dealing with information, the autopilot system and the intentional system, also called System 1 and System 2.

The autopilot system corresponds to our emotions and intuitions. This system guides our daily habits, helps us make snap decisions, and reacts instantly to dangerous life-and-death situations with a fight-or-flight response. However, while the snap judgments resulting from intuitions and emotions usually feel “true” because they are fast and powerful, they sometimes lead us wrong, in systematic and predictable ways.

The intentional system reflects our rational thinking, and helps us handle more complex mental activities. While the automatic system requires no conscious effort to function, the intentional system takes deliberate effort to turn on and is mentally tiring. However, the good news is that we can use the intentional system to address situations where the autopilot system is prone to make errors, especially costly ones.

Trump knows how to play to the way our brains are wired through provocative, emotion-inducing statements. As a result, his statements are very well tuned to trigger our autopilot system, and get our attention. For instance, he accused undocumented migrants of bringing drugs and rape to the United States. These statements were not based on facts, but were well-designed to appeal to emotions, namely the kind of fears that lead to a fight-or-flight response. In another well-known incident, Trump publicized Lindsey Graham’s personal cell phone number. This appealed to our emotional brain’s curiosity and surprise.

The media understood that Trump’s emotionally oriented actions would trigger our emotional brains, and therefore gave them extensive coverage. The media know that the viewers want emotionally oriented stories, and are much more likely to read newspapers and watch shows with emotionally appealing content. Coverage of Trump’s provocations sell much better than more serious and weighty matters such as policy statements made by other candidates. The phenomenon of us paying excessive attention to emotionally dominant information is called attentional bias, and is one of the autopilot system’s predictable errors.

Here is how it matters for you. Answer quickly: Are you more afraid of an airplane crash or a car crash? Most people are much more afraid of an airplane crash. However, according to the National Safety Council, the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident are 1 in 98 for a lifetime, and air travel accident 1 in 7,178 for a lifetime. However, our emotional system is much more triggered by the tragic airplane disasters we learn about rather than car crashes. We should be much more afraid of driving than air travel, just as we should be much more skeptical of the extent of media coverage providing an accurate estimate of Trump being the Republican presidential nominee. Yet that is not how our brains are wired.

So how do we fight against this pull of emotional appeal to know the truth about what actually matters and is most likely to happen, as opposed to falling for attention bias? First, remember that your brain is wired for emotional appeal, resulting in the strong focus on people like Trump, and situations like airplane crashes. Try to notice how information gets to you, and ask yourself whether this information might have resulted from emotional appeal. A good sign is whether you have an emotional response to the situation. Then, try to evaluate the probabilities involved to have the clearest understanding about the reality of the situation and likelihood of future events.

For example, every time you read an article about an airplane crash, you might have a twinge in your gut, which is a sign of an emotional response. You might be tempted to avoid flying for your next trip when you can either fly or drive. So then turn to the numbers. For example, for a 400-mile trip for two people, the risk of dying is nearly 8 to 9 times more likely for a car trip. You will be much less likely to die if you do not follow your emotional brain’s pull into attentional bias!

Did you feel a bit of a twinge when you read the last sentence? Yes, it was overly dramatic and specifically meant to illustrate the strength of our emotional system’s pull. That sentence illustrates how people like Trump who know how our brains are wired can take advantage of our feeling and thinking patterns for their own purposes.

By Gleb Tsipursky

Gleb Tsipursky is a scholar of history, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience as a professor at Ohio State, and a president of the nonprofit Intentional Insights. He is CEO of the future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, and authored the best-seller "Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage."

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