Donald Trump Is a Walking System 1 Error, and That’s Why He’s Winning

Donald Trump Is a Walking System 1 Error, and That’s Why He’s Winning March 14, 2016

Image by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Something clicked in my head today — probably not a unique or maybe even noteworthy contribution to the vast amount of words that have been penned regarding the rise of a certain rising Republican politician. But I think it’s worth sharing for further consideration and discussion, so here it is.

In the Washington Post today, Caitlyn Dewey writes about Donald Trump’s tweeting of an obviously fake video that portrays a protester as a supporter of ISIS. If you weren’t already depressed by the fact that this happened, Dewey has worse news (emphases mine):

To critical consumers of Internet content, the video immediately raises a whole bunch of red flags. But Trump is an infamously uncritical Internet consumer, and in an interview yesterday with Chuck Todd, he defended the tweet under that logic.

“All I know is what’s on the Internet,” he told Todd — which, if interpreted literally, may be the single most terrifying thing that any presidential candidate has ever said. In an environment where one can find “proof,” of a kind, for literally every conspiracy theory, wild allegation and fringe point of view, Trump has essentially admitted that he lacks either the fundamental literacy skills to sift fact from fiction, or a basic interest in distinguishing between the two.

In neither respect is he alone, unfortunately: Two decades of credibility research suggest that virtually no one vets the stuff they read or watch online.

Instead — as U.C. Santa Barbara’s Miriam Metzger and Andrew Flanagin have found over a series of more than a dozen studies — mainstream Internet users evaluating new information frequently rely on factors like what Web sites look like, whether their friends appear to trust them, and if it confirms what they think already. That isn’t just because people are biased or ignorant or lazy. It’s because evaluating information takes a lot of mental bandwidth, and frankly, no one has enough of it to fact-check everything.

Dewey gives some good tips for doing quick fact-checking on claims like this, which you should read, but I think there are some bigger implications here.

First, Trump either lacks the kind of information literacy that is necessary to properly evaluate online sources and information, or he doesn’t care to use that knowledge. I’m not sure it makes a lot of difference in this case, honestly.

Second, his supporters are in the same situation.

Third, so are the rest of us.

I don’t mean that in an equivocating sense; not everyone is equally negligent about fact-checking what they read. But anecdotally, I see even the most aware, skeptical people fall prey to very simple fact-checking errors, particularly when the information reinforces their pre-existing conclusions. I certainly do, and I kick myself every time I fall for a fake quote or a fake news article on a website ending in

But in one respect, Trump supporters seem to be worse about this than supporters of other candidates (of either major party). Political science professors Wendy Rahn and Eric Oliver found that Trump supporters rank far higher in their mistrust of experts, and that is a recipe for the uncritical spread of misinformation. (In fact, this distinguished Trump supporters more than their authoritarian tendencies.)

To that end, David Dunning (yes, that Dunning) notes that the Internet itself has caused us to think ourselves experts:

Another academic studying ignorance is David Dunning, from Cornell University. Dunning warns that the internet is helping propagate ignorance – it is a place where everyone has a chance to be their own expert, he says, which makes them prey for powerful interests wishing to deliberately spread ignorance.

“While some smart people will profit from all the information now just a click away, many will be misled into a false sense of expertise. My worry is not that we are losing the ability to make up our own minds, but that it’s becoming too easy to do so. We should consult with others much more than we imagine. Other people may be imperfect as well, but often their opinions go a long way toward correcting our own imperfections, as our own imperfect expertise helps to correct their errors,” warns Dunning.

You can actually see these two trends converging in the way that Trump embraces conspiracy theories about Obama’s birthplace or the cause of death of the late justice Antonin Scalia (and many, many, many more). And his supporters are, by and large, eating it up.

We already know that people are often disinclined to check the facts. There’s a reason that Stephen Colbert’s notion of truthiness has resonated so strongly: It describes a very real tendency not just to distrust those elitist experts but even to disdain facts in favor of your own gut feelings.

But I want to come back to something Dewey mentioned in her article: Fact-checking takes mental bandwidth. And that’s where Daniel Kahneman comes in.

Kahneman, if you’re not familiar, is a psychologist who managed to be awarded a Nobel Prize in economics for his work with prospect theory and decision-making. His book Thinking, Fast and Slow in particular spells out a dual-system model for cognition: System 1, which is automatic, emotional, and subconscious; and System 2, which is intentional, rational, and conscious.

We want to think that our decisions are made with System 2, that rational seat of our conscious mind, but the reality is that we primarily use System 1. The elephant controls the path.

Part of the reason for this is that System 2 thinking is resource-intensive, and we don’t often have — or care to use — the extra processing power that it takes. So System 1 does what it can to fill the gaps, and it actually does so surprisingly well much of the time.

Still, there can be issues in doing so, and the failures of System 1 can give way to a number of cognitive biases.

Ergo, the rise of Donald Trump.

That’s an oversimplification, of course, but I think there’s at least something to it: Trump, whether by accident or by design, has tapped into the essence of our System 1 thinking with its knee-jerk reactions to people who are different than us, its avoidance of more contemplative decision-making for more intuitive responses, and its gut-level emotional pull, and his supporters love him all the more for it.

And that, sadly, may be what makes him the perfect candidate.

Image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)


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