The Psychology of Trump—The 5 Step Process from Neutral to Radical

How did we get to this? 

I thought as violence erupted in my home town of Chicago.

Donald Trump was hosting a rally on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago and protestors were willing to do whatever they could to shut it down.

Before the business icon could even take the stage, the event was canceled by police who were unable to contain the violence that was brewing between the passionate protestors and the equally passionate supporters.

As I looked at the anger on the faces of both groups, I wondered…what led us to this moment?

What is it about the future Presidential nominee that ignites such radical thoughts and behavior? 

But rather than stereotype either side, I wanted to learn the psychological steps that anyone, including myself, can take to believe every word out of Trump's mouth—or do anything they can to silence him.

This isn’t meant to be a political article. I simply want to bring a rational, scientific voice to a heated, emotional topic. I firmly believe that people—supporters and protestors alike—are mostly good and they want to make the world a better place.

So, here are the science-backed steps I might take to go from neutral to radical with any belief:

Neutral spectrum.jpg

1. FEAR THAT THINGS ARE GETTING WORSE

First, I have a fear that things are getting worse. 

I believe that America has lost our former glory, that our economy is terrible, that violent crime is increasing, and the future is dark and scary.

This isn’t because I'm ignorant necessarily. In this article on fear, I highlight all of the reasons why it’s natural for even the smartest among us to believe that the future is bleak—even though we are the healthiest, wealthiest, and safest society that has ever lived.

Because I'm in fear, a primitive part of my brain known as the limbic system takes over.

This primitive brain is our survival instinct, and it developed to act fast. We didn't have time to think rationally and plan if we saw a snake nearby. We had to make a quick getaway! So when I'm afraid I don't think rationally, I think emotionally.

My fear of things getting worse leads me to think emotionally about possible ways to make things better. [1]

My state of mind: 

1. Thinking emotionally, not rationally

 

2. SIMPLE SOLUTIONS TO COMPLEX PROBLEMS

Now that I'm thinking emotionally, I'm prone to believe in simple solutions to complex problems. 

Immigration problem? Build a wall!

Rather than looking deeper to find that far more illegal immigrants fly into the country for legal visits, then stay after their visas have expired. [2]

Bad economy? Stop immigrants from taking our jobs! Make products in America!

Rather than looking deeper to find that free trade is one of the many factors that have led to the fact that we’re the healthiest, wealthiest society that has ever lived. [3]

These are all natural human reactions. The greater my fear, the more likely I'm going to be willing to emotionally attach myself to these views. And if I don’t take a moment to pause and look deeper into the situation, there is little hope of bringing me back to rationality. [1]

My state of mind:

  1. Thinking emotionally, not rationally

  2. Forming my views based on simple solutions to complex problems

3. CONFIRMATION BIAS

Now it is time for me to start embracing any information that supports my view, while also ignoring, rejecting, or attacking any information that goes against it.

This is called the “confirmation bias” and it is one of the most destructive aspects of politics.

During the 2004 election, researchers ran an MRI scan on a group of Republicans and Democrats while they watched George Bush and John Kerry say contradictory statements. i.e. “I’ve always been in favor of more school funding” followed by, “we cannot afford more school funding.”

Unsurprisingly, Republicans tried to justify Bush, but called Kerry a liar. Meanwhile, Democrats tried to justify Kerry and called Bush a liar.

But the incredible finding was when each group heard their candidate saying contradictory information, a different area of their brain lit up than their normal information-processing center. In other words, they were hardwired to ignore it. [6]

So, as time passes, I begin to find more reasons why these simple solutions will solve my complex problems. And because these solutions are rooted in fear, I get more emotional and less rational.

Meanwhile, I ignore anything bad that's said about Trump and, knowingly or unknowingly, try to justify him when he says anything contradictory like, "there are two Donald Trumps." followed soon by, "I don't think there are two Donald Trumps."

My state of mind:

  1. Thinking emotionally, not rationally

  2. Forming my views based on simple solutions to complex problems

  3. Embracing any information that supports my views, while ignoring anything else

4. GROUP POLARIZATION

Now that I'm a firm believer in Trump’s views, it is time for me to find other people who are also big Trump supporters! 

Let’s say love and hate of Trump is a spectrum between 1—10. 1 being hate, 10 being love. At this point I'm at about 7. It would seem reasonable to assume that if I join a group of people who are all 7s, we would all high-five and be happy to stay at 7.

But when a like-minded group gets together, the view of the group becomes more extreme than the view of the individuals. This is because I get social confirmation that my biases are correct, and I get to meet people who are also “correct" like me!

This is called "group polarization" and it has the potential to turn me from someone who has simply chosen to vote for Trump, into someone who is willing to compromise my own principles for him. [7]

Even if I thought his idea of wiping out the families of terrorists was immoral, if I hear justification for it from the “correct” people in my group, I’ll believe them. Then I will feel even better about a Trump Presidency! So me and my group of 7s begins to morph into a group of 9s or 10s.

We're more passionate, dedicated, and extreme in our views than ever before. And it is time to show our support at a Trump rally!

My state of mind:

1. Thinking emotionally, not rationally

2. Forming my views based on simple solutions to complex problems

3. Embracing any information that supports my views, while ignoring anything else

4. Taking my views to the extreme by joining a group of like-minded people

5. MORAL JUSTIFICATION

Now I am emotional, absolutely convinced that my extreme views are correct, and I'm surrounded by thousands of people who are just as passionate as me. 

Then I see protestors from an opposing group at the other end of the spectrum. And if my group’s views are absolutely correct, then their group’s views are absolutely wrong. They are the "bad guys" and we are the "good guys."

This same phenomenon was seen through something called the "Stanford Prison Experiment."

Normal, innocent people were made either guards or prisoners. As soon as they put on the uniform, the guards became the "good guys" and they saw the prisoners as the "bad guys" (even though the guards knew intellectually the prisoners were innocent). 

They immediately started treating the prisoners horribly. And the experiment got so violent and intense that they needed to shut it down prematurely. [8]

So just like the guards, if I'm in a group against the bad guys, I may do some radical things. Because I'm still the "good guy" and I justify doing it for good reasons. 

After all, I am fighting for the noble purpose to Make America Great Again!

My state of mind:

1. Thinking emotionally, not rationally

2. Forming my views based on simple solutions to complex problems

3. Embracing any information that supports my views, while ignoring anything else

4. Taking my views to the extreme by joining a group of like-minded people

5. Belief that my cause is virtuous, so the ends justify the means

APPLICATION TO ANY BELIEF

This process, of course, does not just apply to Trump supporters. If I was a protestor, I'd have gone through the same steps on the opposite end.

1. Thinking emotionally, not rationally out of fear of a Trump presidency

2. Forming my views based on a simple solution like shutting the rally down

3. Embracing any information that supports my fears of a Trump presidency

4. Taking my views to the extreme by joining a group of like-minded people

5. Belief that my cause of stopping Trump is virtuous, and supporters are bad guys

The result is two groups who both believe that they are doing what's right and are willing to go to extremes to reach their ends. Thus we have anger, violence, and good people becoming radical in their views all because of an initial fear that isn't justified—from a man who is happy to provide it. 

This process can happen with any view you may have—political, spiritual, anything. 

If I see a documentary about the meat processing industry, that's going to stir up my emotions. It may lead me down this path to become a vegan, then dismissive of any positive information about meat, and then judge anyone associated with meat as a "bad guy."

If I see a news report about the dangers of a drug, I'll fear that drug's impact. That may lead me down the path to believe we need to "crack down hard," then ignore any medical benefits I may hear about it, and then judge anyone who uses it a "bad guy."

Once you allow your emotions to form your point of view, it is a slippery slope. 

CONCLUSION

When I saw the violence at the Trump rally in Chicago, I was afraid. I quickly blamed Trump and cast prejudice on all of his supporters. But at that moment, I paused. I remembered how the media always make things seem worse than they really are, and my emotional reactions were flawed.

If nothing else, I hope this article is a reminder that people are more complicated than we see at first glance. Even a good person can go through these steps and become hateful, racist, or violent. Not because they've always been this way, but because they were afraid. 

At their core, I firmly believe most people are good. And to be fair, most people haven't gone through every step. But as you can see it, it is a slippery slope to radical feelings on either end. So if you have strong feelings, take a moment to pause and reflect—before going down this path.

*Sources

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