Donald Trump, Human Bias, and the Art of the Deal
Tomorrow morning, I teach a seminar on “Perception, Cognition, and Biases” as part of our introductory Think, Decide, and Communicate course. Just in time, Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert and author of several related books, has written two interesting blog posts on how the Donald Trump campaign is brilliantly manipulating bias and other weaknesses in how humans evaluate information.
In “Clown Genius,” he illustrates the power of anchoring bias:
As I said in my How to Fail book, if you are not familiar with the dozens of methods of persuasion that are science-tested, there’s a good chance someone is using those techniques against you.
For example, when Trump says he is worth $10 billion, which causes his critics to say he is worth far less (but still billions) he is making all of us “think past the sale.” The sale he wants to make is “Remember that Donald Trump is a successful business person managing a vast empire mostly of his own making.” The exact amount of his wealth is irrelevant.
When a car salesperson trained in persuasion asks if you prefer the red Honda Civic or the Blue one, that is a trick called making you “think past the sale” and the idea is to make you engage on the question of color as if you have already decided to buy the car. That is Persuasion 101 and I have seen no one in the media point it out when Trump does it.
The $10 billion estimate Trump uses for his own net worth is also an “anchor” in your mind. That’s another classic negotiation/persuasion method. I remember the $10 billion estimate because it is big and round and a bit outrageous. And he keeps repeating it because repetition is persuasion too.
I don’t remember the smaller estimates of Trump’s wealth that critics provided. But I certainly remember the $10 billion estimate from Trump himself. Thanks to this disparity in my memory, my mind automatically floats toward Trump’s anchor of $10 billion being my reality. That is classic persuasion. And I would be amazed if any of this is an accident. Remember, Trump literally wrote the book on this stuff.
You might be concerned that exaggerating ones net worth is like lying, and the public will not like a liar. But keep in mind that Trump’s value proposition is that he will “Make America Great.” In other words, he wants to bring the same sort of persuasion to the question of America’s reputation in the world. That concept sounds appealing to me. The nation needs good brand management, whether you think Trump is the right person or not. (Obviously we need good execution as well, not just brand illusion. But a strong brand gives you better leverage for getting what you want. It is all connected.)
And what did you think of Trump’s famous “Rosie O’Donnell” quip at the first debate when asked about his comments on women? The interviewer’s questions were intended to paint Trump forever as a sexist pig. But Trump quickly and cleverly set the “anchor” as Rosie O’Donnell, a name he could be sure was not popular with his core Republican crowd. And then he casually admitted, without hesitation, that he was sure he had said other bad things about other people as well.
Now do you see how the anchor works? If the idea of “Trump insults women” had been allowed to pair in your mind with the nice women you know and love, you would hate Trump. That jerk is insulting my sister, my mother, and my wife! But Trump never let that happen. At the first moment (and you have to admit he thinks fast) he inserted the Rosie O’Donnell anchor and owned the conversation from that point on. Now he’s not the sexist who sometimes insults women; he’s the straight-talker who won’t hesitate to insult someone who has it coming (in his view).
In a follow-up, “Can We Call a Trump Puppet a Trumpet?” he observes,
Trump wants to “Make America Great.” All three of those words are winning words. That choice of words is no clown accident. Trump is making people associate his brand with America, greatness, and even “making” stuff, which is generally good. Every time you hear his slogan, or read it, the association is strengthened.
Compare Trump’s slogan to some dumb-ass intellectual slogan such as “I will make government smaller!” The words government and smaller are total loser words. The quality of that person’s argument will be lost on most voters. All they will know is that Trump wants to make them great while the other candidate wants to make something smaller.
My main point is that intellectual arguments lose to visual arguments and to powerful associations such as “America” and “great.” You think Trump is spouting calorie-free non-policies because he’s an idiot who hasn’t done his homework. The reality (as far as I can tell) is that he’s playing three-dimensional chess with two-dimensional opponents.
Here I’ll remind you that I don’t support any of the candidates at this point. My main interest in Trump is his persuasion skills.
The full posts are worth your attention but the excerpts above give you the general idea. The point here isn’t a commentary on the Trump candidacy so much as the weaknesses of the Rational Actor Model (Allison’s Model I), which is the central simplifying assumption of most social science. It makes the world much easier to understand if we pretend that human beings are fundamentally rational creatures, weighing costs and benefits with no emotions or psychological barriers (what economists refer to as “homo economicus”). We’ll take this shortcut repeatedly over the course of the Command and Staff College curriculum to help constrain the discussion of complex topics into something understandable (and frequently point out that we’re doing so). But that’s not who we are.