What Neuropsychology Tells Us About Trump’s Appeal

What Neuropsychology Tells Us About Trump’s Appeal September 19, 2016

Cognitive neuroscientist Bobby Azarian has a column in Psychology Today that seeks to explain the seemingly unshakable appeal of Donald Trump for many on the right. Part of that explanation includes things I’ve talked about a lot in trying to explain it myself, but he adds a couple other elements I hadn’t thought about.


I’ve written a lot about Dunning-Kruger and the hypersensitivity of conservatives to perceived threats. Studies show that political conservatives are very prone to perceiving threats, and when they do they become highly tribalistic and highly focused on purifying the tribe — religiously, racially, etc. That explains a big part of his appeal. Azarian adds two more compounding factors. The first:

3. Terror Management Theory

A well-supported theory from social psychology, called Terror Management Theory, explains why Trump’s fear mongering is doubly effective…

Terror Management Theory predicts that when people are reminded of their own mortality, which happens with fear mongering, they will more strongly defend those who share their worldviews and national or ethnic identity, and act out more aggressively towards those who do not. Hundreds of studies have confirmed this hypothesis, and some have specifically shown that triggering thoughts of death tends to shift people towards the right.

Not only do death reminders increase nationalism, they influence actual voting habits in favor of more conservative presidential candidates. And more disturbingly, in a study with American students, scientists found that making mortality salient increased support for extreme military interventions by American forces that could kill thousands of civilians overseas. Interestingly, the effect was present only in conservatives, which can likely be attributed to their heightened fear response.

By constantly emphasizing existential threat, Trump creates a psychological condition that makes the brain respond positively rather than negatively to bigoted statements and divisive rhetoric.

And the fact that he is able to keep people’s attention for longer with his reality TV antics:

4. High Attentional Engagement

According to a recent study that monitored brain activity while participants watched 40 minutes of political ads and debate clips from the presidential candidates, Donald Trump is unique in his ability to keep the brain engaged. While Hillary Clinton could only hold attention for so long, Trump kept both attention and emotional arousal high throughout the viewing session. This pattern of activity was seen even when Trump made remarks that individuals didn’t necessarily agree with. His showmanship and simple messages clearly resonate at a visceral level.

Essentially, the loyalty of Trump supporters may in part be explained by America’s addiction with entertainment and reality TV. To some, it doesn’t matter what Trump actually says because he’s so amusing to watch. With Donald, you are always left wondering what outrageous thing he is going to say or do next. He keeps us on the edge of our seat, and for that reason, some Trump supporters will forgive anything he says. They are happy as long as they are kept entertained.

Psychology really does explain a great deal.

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