• Leadership

Love Trumps Hate and the Honest Liar

More lessons from neuroscience on the U.S. Presidential election

Friday 11 November 2016


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This is the third Brain Gain piece focused on the U.S. Presidential election. The previous two pieces argued the case from an applied neuroscientific point of view that Donald Trump would become President. While the result of the election and Trump’s victory has been a shock and shocking to many – it is satisfying to have predicted the outcome from some ten months ago, based upon a neuroscientific interpretation.

This piece muses on the extraordinary extremities of human behaviour that the world has been privileged to watch in the exercise of American democracy.

On 2nd November the on-line news summary from The Guardian ‘Minute by Minute’ reported:

The release Tuesday [01 November] of a major poll showing Trump up by a point on Clinton nationally, while an outlier, caused hand-wringing in Democratic circles and saw Clinton refocusing her message on Trump’s flaws.

So, one week before polling day the Democratic focus was on flaws. Paul Simon had a reprise: One woman’s feelings are another man’s flaws. [1] It would play equally well if the gender sequences were reversed.

One of the many observable paradoxes is that Trump does have the virtue of being an honest liar, while Hillary has an uneasy record of trying to cover up and deny – lying about lying. 

Recent brain scanning evidence suggests[2] lying is just a skill, like any other. For Trump it’s habitual. For Hillary lying is only brought into play when a serious cover-up is needed. There is an immediacy about Trump’s lying that establishes connection while there is an anxious skill about Hillary’s that deflects the capacity to establish relationship.

So for Trump lying is much better practised, and comes across as natural. People like natural. For Hillary it is, paradoxically, not practised enough. When attempted, too much hangs upon it so that fear gets in the way of skill. Trump is fearless in comparison. The skill Hillary most needed to win wasn’t rehearsed enough. That’s an ethical dilemma if ever there was one.

Since both candidates were perceived as being economical with the truth – hence the equal standing of high dislike in the polls – the signals that each sent out reflected quite different levels of confidence in what was being said. Which is one reason why people “hated to love” Hillary but “loved to hate” Trump.

There were clearly those determined to keep one or other of the candidates out at all costs. Their votes were conscious and predictable. Then there were also those who would never vote for the party for which they have never voted: not for any ‘reason’.  Their votes were also predictable. Those two groups were relatively easy for the pollsters to track.

But the dilemma for the opinion trackers was that dislike comes from perceptions triggered not by what is said but how it is said. Because perception, mostly non-conscious, predicates behaviour, it cannot, by definition, easily be brought into conscious responses to polling questions. So, accurate predictions of polling booth behaviour are very difficult to generate other than in the two groups defined above.

For what pollsters cannot get at are the secret thoughts and feelings that guide behaviour in the polling booth – the critical moment when the pen, or the punch that might only produce a hanging chad, is poised for the choice that determines outcome.

Our prediction, since before the primaries, was that Trump would win, though by a margin that will be narrower than first suggested eight months ago. This was emboldened by the fact that Hillary was not able to adopt the kind of strategy proposed last month. Going for Donald’s flaws only makes people reflect on her own. Pots and kettles come to mind.

What kind of a leader of the western world Trump will make is yet to be determined. Speculation about that is going to fill more column inches around the world than perhaps any other election ever has.  It may even be that Brain Gain contributes a few more of them.

[1] One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor is the original.1973 title.




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