WHY TRUMP? Social Science Research and Voter Behavior?

 WHY TRUMP: Social Science Research and Voter Behavior

Does social science, especially psychology, help explain the surprise victory of Donald Trump?    Public opinion polls and anecdotal data point to various conclusions.   But these, and the endless opinions from “experts” on TV panels, do not provide any scientific models from which to form reliable conclusions.

The combined work of scientists studying human decision making, from Daniel Bernoulli and Gustav Fechner to Prospect Theory of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, provide clues for a reasonable picture of the 2017 presidential election.

Though maligned seemingly by everyone, pollsters and the news media portrayed an electorate radically divided.  The big picture revealed a seismic divide between those satisfied with the status quo and those adamantly seeking to change it.  The two candidates  represented these two views  perfectly: Hillary Clinton personified the status quo and Donald Trump that of change.

What follows is a quick review leading up to Prospect Theory and  how this theory considers the prospects of the two defined voter groups.  These prospects provide a rationale for why the voters voted as they did.  In future blogs Pythagoras will analyze additional research and what has happened since the fateful election.   Why are divisions wider and opinions even more firmly held?

Some of the earliest scientific work  describing human judgment was  that of two men: the physicist Gustav Fechner (1801-18871) and  the MD Ernst Heinrich Weber (1795-1878).

You sit at a table are are asked to  lift little cylinders each heavier by one gram and report whenever one feels just noticeably heavier.  The first one that feels just noticeably heavier or different (JND) is at 8 grams.  Subsequently,  ones at 16, 32, and 64 grams also feel just noticeably different.

Your experience  demonstrates two things: 1)  our psychological experience of heaviness does not mirror the physical weights, and 2) weights that seem just noticeably different (JND) are in a constant ratio.  In your case the ratio is one-half: 8/16, 16/32, 32/64, etc.  Unless the weights get either too light or too heavy, each new JND occurs whenever the physical weights are at a constant ratio

Fechner formulated the Weber-Fechner law, intended to mathematically relate the physical world with our experience of it:”psychophysics.”  Our  experience of the magnitude of a physical event, measured in just noticeable differences (JNDs), is equal to a constant times the logarithm of the physical measurement.   The law is illustrated below with subjective experience plotted against the  log of the measurable physical property; the x-axis is left unspecified to include all measurable physical events.

The dashed lines cordon off each JND; that point at which a weight feels just noticeably different.  Each JND is psychologically equal as seen by the spacing on the vertical y-axis.  But the increases in weight necessary to produce them get progressively greater, i.e., a logarithmic progression on the horizontal x-axis: the delta I.  The heavier the previously lifted weights the heavier a weight must be to feel “just noticeably different.”

Earlier, the Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli understood the significance of the Weber-Fechner Law.  If you only had 1000 ducats and got a bonus of 500 ducats you’d be very happy since this increases your account by 50%.  But if you already had 10,000 ducats and you received 500 more you would be less happy since this amounts to only a 5% increase.  The value of the 500 ducats is relative to your present wealth, its context.

Now, to the 20th century and the psychologist Allen Parducci.  Growing up in the Great Depression of the 1930’s he envied  children who possessed a bicycle that he didn’t have.  His father told him not to be envious;

“the more one has, the more it takes to be satisfied.  No matter what you have or what happens to you, your pleasures and pains must balance each other out.  In the long run, no one is happier than anyone else.”

   Parducci’s research sought the rules for a happy life.  His answer mirrors the work of Fechner and earlier Bernoulli; happiness depends on context – a comparison of the frequency of pleasant to unpleasant events in life.  More happy experiences relative to unhappy ones lead to a better average assessment of life and to your overall level of happiness.  This conclusion contradicts Allen’s father.   Good and bad events in life don’t balance out equally for everyone at some common average value.

The point so far: science tells us that humans make only relative judgments about the world around them.  Judgments of weight, value, and happiness depend upon what they are compared against.    Our psychological experience of the world is determined by context and as such is not  absolute.  How we feel about ourselves depends on context.   Whether we feel rich or poor, in charge of our lives or helplessly taken advantage of depends completely upon how we perceive ourselves compared to others.

Let’s now turn to the work of  Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman who developed Prospect Theory. Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in 2002. Their work led to the development of Behavioral Economics which is based on Prospect Theory  The following choice about wealth and value is based on one byTversky and Kahneman .

  • See “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Kahneman

Anthony currently has $1 million and Betty  $4 million.  They must make the following choice:

a)  50% chance of owning  1 million or a 50% chance of owning 4 million


b) 100% chance of owning 2 million dollars.

Anthony and Betty have the same expected value outcomes for either choice a) or b):  a)  0.5 x 1 million + 0.5 x 4 million = 2.5 million,  or b)  2 million for sure.  The resulting expected amount of money, its utility, will be the same either way for Anthony and Betty.   Bernoulli and later economists therefore, predicted the option chosen should not different for Anthony and Betty.  But does this really make sense?

What are the reference points, what comparisons are they making to arrive at their choices?  Anthony’s reference is $1 million.  His options are both good: a) no loss or large gain, OR b) a gain.     Anthony will chose option b), the safe bet.  Betty’s reference is $4 million.   She faces a) a big loss or no gain OR b) a loss.  Betty will adopt the risky choice a) her only hope to avoid loss.   Anthony is risk averse while Betty takes risk to avoid loss.

Bernoulli left out a key element according to Prospect Theory: loss or gain determines value not the final amount of money.  It’s loss vs gain  that drives decisions.  This principle is nicely illustrated in the figure below.  The figure depicts value, y-axis, as it relates to gain or loss.  The reference point is where the y-axis of value intersect with the x-axis of outcome.  Run your finger over the S-curve from the reference point going right; value increases in the same manner as seen in the Weber-Fechner function pictured above.  Now, do the same thing going from the reference left.  Value decreases, but it decreases more rapidly – the slope of the line is greater.  This depicts loss and it decreases twice as fast as gain increases.  Look at the red dotted lines: C is twice as negative as B is positive for the same difference in outcome.

In developing Prospect Theory Kahneman and Tversky found that in certain cases, people overestimate the likelihood  of low probability events.  They term this the possibility effect;  the likelihood of winning the lottery is very low but it is possible for a big gain.   The minuscule chance of actually winning is overestimated and folks play the lottery.  But not everyone plays – see below.

Prospect Theory proposes what Kahneman and Tversky call the four-fold possibility shown in diagram form below.

There are two main features for the above diagram: High or Low possibility of outcome and resulting Gains or Losses.  The four interior cells show how these interact to determine behavior.

Who generally plays the lottery?  It costs  to play with a very low likelihood of paying off.  If you are poor or feel you are getting nowhere in life you are in the lower left quadrant in the diagram.  You could chose not to play and avoid any risk of losing money but with no chance of financial gain.  OR you can take a risk and pay to play with the chance of greatly improving your  financial situation.  You overestimate the likelihood of winning (“you’ll never win if you don’t play”, “someone has to win,” etc,) and regard as a gain your fee as a possible way out of a bad situation not as a foolish loss.

Who buys insurance?   You spend some money but avoid the risk of a catastrophic medical cost.  Buying insurance is considered  a gain; you avoid the worry of financial disaster.  You are in the lower right quadrant and are risk averse.

Now Let’s Look at Voting

Up to this point, Pythagoras has reviewed  some social science literature that leads to the  rationale for a Trump vote.   Voters were faced with the choice of Clinton or Trump.  The statistical evidence divided voters into two groups: those wanting change and  not wanting change.  Clinton represented  no change: she was a Democrat following 8 years of a previous Democrat in the White House.  Trump represented change – big change.

Those wanting to maintain the status quo were satisfied with life – polling supports this.  Pejoratively,  referred to as elites they were educated, had decent to excellent jobs, and were favorable to the social changes taking place such as gay marriage, liberal immigration, affirmative action, and government assistance to the poor and sick, to mention just a few.  Their lives relative to others was good.

Those seeking change were generally white, non-college educated, either without work or whose job seemed tenuous, low paying and regarded as threatened by minorities or foreigners.  They feared and detested the social changes they saw taking place that they felt marginalized white/traditional society.    They generally blamed a big government that unfairly favored minorities.  They were more traditionally religious, evangelical Christians, and felt society was discriminating against their religious freedom.  Unlike the “elites” they mostly got their news from conservative media.  The result was that these two groups got very different pictures of the world.

Oddly, polls indicated that neither  group  initially wildly favorable to either candidate.  So, we pose a choice framed  by the theories above.

  • Choice a) 100% Clinton representing  status quo; the risk averse choice of no change; b) Trump = 50% good change, 50% bad change.  Clearly, these last likelihoods are guesses and would  depend on the individual voter.  The point  is that Trump was the risk vote – he could turn out to be good or bad each with some likelihood.  But he was the only choice for possible change for the better.

Trump supporters generally detested Clinton;  similar to Betty, they saw a) the Clinton choice as a sure loss.  They perceived themselves floundering under the status quo and she represented more of the same.  A vote for Trump  b) was a risky choice, but Prospect Theory tells us that this risk would be considered minimal, i.e., the probability of a poor outcome as president would be perceived to be small.  A vote for Trump contained the possibility of making the overall prospects favorable: so, avoid Clinton vote Trump and achieve positive change with only a small chance of a negative outcome.  Recall the critical point from Prospect Theory: for the  Trump voter the loss experienced by a Clinton victory would be far worse than the gain experienced by the Clinton voter.  A feature that perhaps produced more enthusiastic Trump supporters.

Those voting for Clinton avoided risk.  Many may not have wildly favored her but she was the safer choice.  Trump was a risk to be avoided.  Remember, if in a good position as the elites were, you seek to avoid risk and Clinton was the risk-averse choice.  Her choice was looked upon as a gain even if couched as a way of avoiding loss.

In Pythagoras’ next blog look for more rationale for a Trump vote based on work from the social sciences.  The key is income inequality as the comparison.  Also in the net blog:  why are Trump supporters so adamant in their support in the face of what others believe are his serious shortcomings?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *