Confabulators for Trump

The more we learn about the brain, the more we learn that our decision-making process is far from conscious and is decidedly non-rational. Sure, when we are asked why we made a certain decision, we can usually come up with a serviceable explanation, but in most cases that explanation — that “reason why” — was formed after the decision was made. Not before.

This is certainly true in politics and is especially true in primary politics, when voters are choosing between a set of candidates that all track relatively close to their ideological positioning. Supporters of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump are all able to identify what they would describe as major differences between their preferred candidate and their respective opponents, but in many cases those differences were identified after they had been pushed in one direction or another at an affective, non-conscious level.

Once our brain has been pushed in one direction or another, we will attempt to justify that direction. This is most readily observed in split-brain patients. As Harvard psychologist Fiery Cushman explained:

Neuroscientists have devised clever experiments in which information is provided to the right hemisphere (for instance, pictures of naked people), causing a change in behavior (embarrassed giggling). Split-brain individuals are then asked to explain their behavior verbally, which relies on the left hemisphere. Realizing that their body is laughing, but unaware of the nude images, the left hemisphere will confabulate an excuse for the body’s behavior (“I keep laughing because you ask such funny questions, Doc!”).

Case in point:

Donald Trump, screenshot via 60 Minutes

Donald Trump, screenshot via 60 Minutes

No, the Trump voter in question hasn’t had brain surgery, but this is still some next-level confabulation. The same basic process is taking place. The voter has engaged in a behavior (supporting Trump) and now has to fish for a justification of their position (he has a secret plan to fight ISIS, perhaps). The reason they came up with is obviously bogus, as plenty of candidates have adopted Trump’s positions on issues ranging from the Great Wall of Texas to Syrian refugees and Trump has called them out for it — “We wouldn’t even be talking about immigration if it weren’t for me” — to his benefit. But that doesn’t matter. He’s their candidate, and they’re sticking to him.

In cognitive terms, this is less expensive. Confirming existing beliefs is easy; changing them is hard. That’s why people faced with disconfirming information regarding a political opinion will work to discredit or rationalize the information rather than incorporate it into a new opinion. That’s why when you show Trump supporters attacks on Trump, it makes them like him more, not less.

We all do this to a certain degree, but it’s especially interesting to watch Trump’s voters do it because he gives them so much latitude. Politicians are intentionally vague so as to avoid alienating specific voters who have specific concerns, but Trump is so vague — he will make us “win again” on trade (how?), he will build infrastructure (besides the wall?) and he will replace Obamacare with “something terrific;” and he’ll do it all with “good management” — that he gives voters tons of room to fill in the blanks for themselves.

Even when the blanks they have to fill are the blanks in Trump’s platform.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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