An Unflattering Picture Develops?

The Development of the Trump Voter

Much of what follows is influenced by a recent book: “The Broken Ladder”  by Keith Payne.

Payne, Keith, (2017) Broken Ladder – How Inequality Affects the Way We   Think, Live, and Die.  New York, New York 10014.  Viking Press

President Trump opened his campaign with a speech containing a blistering attack of Mexican immigrants.  His savage attack of a particular group of people was characterized as  bigoted and xenophobic.  Why would Trump open his campaign attacking immigrant Mexicans?

The attacks didn’t end.  Trump, throughout his campaign, continued what many characterized as bigoted rhetoric against not only Mexicans but Muslims and sundry other minorities.  Years earlier he championed the birther movement claiming that president Barak Obama was born in Africa and was Muslim.  Without a shred of supporting evidence many enthusiastically backed Trump’s conspiracy.  While Trump viciously went after everyone he believed an opponent, women with particular vitriol, his most disturbing attacks seemed blatantly racist and xenophobic.

Years earlier in 1968 presidential candidate George Wallace, former segregationist governor of Alabama , displayed open bigotry.   His avid supporters were a fringe minority  unrepresentative of  the feelings and beliefs of most Americans. But Trump won a majority of votes  and is now president of the United States!  This despite the crude bigotry of his campaign.  Why did this happen?  Surely, his supporters don’t accept or want to be a part of bigotry, yet, they voted him into office.  Why do they ignore this bigotry?

When questioned, Trump voters strongly deny any bigotry.  Rather they point to other reasons for their strong support: the  incompetence and indifference of Congress ; the deteriorating economic future for the (white) non-college educated, exacerbated by unfavorable trade deals and competition from immigrants; the fears generated by terrorism; the dissolution of social mores aided and abetted by the ruling elite liberals; and finally the extreme negative feelings toward Hillary Clinton.

If the above were the true reasons for backing Trump then their support required complete denial of the reality of his bigotry.  The majority of Trump supporters report getting most of their political information from news sources favorable to Trump,  but the hateful words are there for all to hear and be accepted or denied.

The Emerging Discontented Voter

Pythagoras reviewed the scientific evidence in a previous blog that human  judgments are determined  relative to the context in which they are made.  What is heavy, bright, or valuable is determined by context.  A candle looks far brighter in a dark as compared to a lighted room.  We value a raise of $500 depending  on our previous salary.  An increase of $500 is huge if we made $1200 a month, not so much for $5000.  Moreover, value is assessed differently for gains vs. losses.  Within limits we fear loss more than we appreciate gain.  If two individuals hold the same winning lottery number, they must split the prize of $1000.  This is less desirable than if one individual holds the winning number and wins $500.  The former experiences a loss the latter does not.  This is captured in a choice scenario: choose either a) a 50% chance of winning $1000 or b) 100% chance of winning $500.  In both cases the mathematically expected value is $500 but in case a) there is potential catastrophic loss and most people choose b) the sure gain absent any possibility of a loss.

We have known since the 1950’s from the work of Olds and Milner that there are “reward centers” in the brain located at the hypothalamus.  Neurons of the hypothalamus in rats increase their firing in close association with “reward’ events such as receiving food for pressing a lever.   The hypothalamus “lights up” for other rewards such as sex, money, or drugs.  Olds and Milner directly “stimulated” these neurons with mild current and the animals soon came to respond solely for this outside hypothalamus stimulation.  Events that “light up” the hypothalamus can be referred to as motivators of behavior.

Olds J. & Milner P. (1954).  Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions of rat brain.  Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 47 419-27

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that people judge the success of their lives based on comparisons to others.  We often refer to this sort of social comparison as “status.”  High status puts us as richer and more well off than others.  While a low status places us below most others in terms of wealth and power.   The researcher Klaus Fliessbach had pairs of volunteers play a simple game to win points.  As the players accumulated points their brain activity was monitored by fMRI scans.  As in the Olds and Milner studies, Fliessbach found that as players accumulated points neurons associated with the hypothalamus increased firing rates.  But the interesting part was that this reward firing increased even more in a player if they were accumulating more points than their peer pair regardless of the absolute number of points. People  “crave” status as they would sex, money, or drugs.  Status can serve to motivate behavior.

Fliessbach, K. (2012).  Neural responses to advantageous and disadvantageous inequuity.  Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6 1-9.

Research has also shown that we are quite adept at sizing up relative status in terms of what might be termed “social class.”  For example, a study by Michael Kraus and Dacher Keltner had 53 pairs of college students rate the relative status of their peers in terms of social class.  Thirteen randomly selected pairs were video recorded talking to each other.  The other  students were asked to rate each conversation on a “status ladder.”  The status ladder has 10 rungs.  The top rung represents the “best off”, i.e. with the most money, best education, and the highest paying jobs.  The lowest rung represents the “worst off” i.e., with the least money, lowest levels of education and the most menial jobs.  Results showed that these ratings reliably matched objectively determined criteria such as actual family income, etc., for placement on the status ladder.

Kraus, M. W. & Keltner, D. (2009).  Signs of socioeconomic status: A thin slicing approach.  Psychological Science, 20 99-106

But there is a complicated dynamic involved.  Evidence points to a “Lake Wobegon” effect; we all think we are “above average.”  Studies of drivers at fault in automobile accidents none-the-less report that they are above average drivers.  Interviews of inmates in Federal Prisons report being “successful” and more capable than most people.  Interviews of students having taken the SAT college entrance exam all feel they are above average students.  Clearly, this Lake Wobegon effect can’t be universally true; it is impossible that everyone is above average.

Alicke, M. D. & Govorun, O. (2005).  “The Better Than Average Effect,” in The Self in Social Judgment, M. D. Alicke, D. A. Dunning and J. I Kreuger (eds) Neew Yordk: Psychology Press 2005.

It becomes painfully evident that the Lake Wobegon effect runs smack into the reality of “inequality.”  Nowhere is this more evident than in financial worth.  Particularly in the United States, income inequality is huge.

The figure above is extremely informative.  It is from the US Census Bureau showing the average annual income for each income quintile from the lowest 20% to the highest 20% for each year since 1967.  The wealthiest one-fifth of the US population accounts for 84% of the nation’s wealth.  The top 2 quintiles continue to rise sharply each year while the bottom three remain essentially stagnant.  The psychological effect of this  is the sense that your income is decreasing.  This effect is compounded by annual inflation.  The inequality looks far worse when you include the top 1% into the picture.

The old saying that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer seems to be true.  The figure directly above shows the proportion of households in the US in 2014 at each income level.  Note how fewer and fewer households get included as income increases above $100,000.   It is an inescapable fact that there is an enormous economic inequality gap in the United States.  Studies have shown that where people place themselves on the status ladder is not necessarily correlated with their absolute wealth but how they believe they compare with others.  The economists Andrew Clark and Andrew Oswald discovered in their research that how happy workers were with their jobs depended not on their absolute annual salaries but whether or not they made more or less than their peers in similar jobs.

Surprisingly, where people place themselves on the status ladder is strongly correlated with future well-being in terms of psychological and physical health and even life span.  Examine the following figures that correlate a measure of income inequality called Gini with several indices of health and well being.

The Gini coefficient is a measure of income inequality.  The lower the coefficient the less inequality. Notice the negative correlation in the figure above.  The countries with high income inequality show shorter life expectancy.  Note the US with its high Gini coefficient and a life expectancy surprisingly low as compared to other countries.

Happiness is also negatively correlated with the size of income inequality as expressed by the income share of the top 1%.  The higher the inequality the lower is the reported happiness.  Again, note the relative place of the US.

Finally, there is even a negative correlation between the size of Gini and life expectancy for each state of the Union.  You live longer if you live in a state with less income inequality (Gini) such as Vermont or Minnesota.  The state of New York is a striking exception.

There is pretty clear evidence that income inequality contributes to significant negative outcomes.  And from the chain of logic developed above this is hypothesized to spring from the negative comparisons people make with others when they perceive themselves lower on the status ladder as a result of the wide inequality in income/status.

There are even more consequence to negative status comparisons.  People judging themselves low on the status ladder believe external factors have conspired against them.   They feel a loss of control.  They see the world as chaotic and seek anything that will help bring order.  Social mores and codes of conduct they grew up with that gave stability and meaning to their lives seem to be slipping away.

How Do Low Status People Attempt to Establish Order and Power?

Social science research  shows that wide income inequality contributes to negatively perceived status and  an increase in the belief of conspiracy theories and a greater reliance on a “just” and personal God to make the world “fair.”  Low perceived status increases feelings of being  powerless.  To establish  order and meaning such people turn to conspiracy theories and supernatural powers.

Psychologists Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky made participants in their study temporarily feel powerless by asking them to recall a situation in which they felt a complete lack of control.  You might not think this would work but try it yourself and see if you don’t begin to feel anxious.  Another group was told to recall a time when they felt in complete control.  They discovered two interesting differences in the two groups.  Shown pictures of “noise”, the fuzzy static of random black and white dots, the group made to feel powerless displayed “pareidolia.”  The tendency to “see” meaningful forms in the purely random visual presentations.  They also gave both groups paranoid, conspiracy-based explanations for certain world events.  Though fabricated the group made to feel powerless found these madeup conspiracies far more believable than the control group.

Whitson, J. A. & Galinsky, A. d. (2008).  Lacking control increases illusory pattern perception.  Science, 322 115-117

Another study by Mel Lerner, done earlier at a time when such studies were allowed, arranged a female confederate to simulate being shocked in what was called an experiment in “learning.”  Upon making an error in the  so called study, she was supposedly shocked and she cried out.  Participants in Lerner’s study viewed this scene through a one-way mirror.  Half of this group was told that there would be a 10-minute break after which the woman was to resume her “learning” process and continue being shocked for errors.  The other half were told that the study was over and the woman would be compensated with money for her participation and pain.

Lerner, M. J. & Simons, C. H. (1966).  Observer’s reaction to the innocent victum Compassion or rejection?  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 4 203-10

Both groups were then asked various questions and in passing to give their impression of the woman.  If the woman was to be reimbursed for her trouble this was “fair” and made the world seem a just place.  They were happy for her and felt the remuneration evened the score.  But for the group who thought the poor woman was going back to being painfully shocked, they denigrated her, believing her to be immature and unlikable!

Lerner explained these astonishing findings as follows: it was a way of making an unjust and unpredictable world just and reasonable.  The poor woman  “deserved” what she was getting, she was silly and a foolish victim.  We often try to make sense of the world even though the solution is purely fabricated “in our minds.”  Lerner again had participants watch two people compete in a puzzle-solving game.  The experimenter told the participants that  only one player would actually be paid by the luck of the draw, the other player would get nothing.

The participants were again asked to evaluate the players.  Even though they witnessed the “winner”  was drawn at random, they were described  as more creative and harder working than the “loser.”  They proposed a resolution that we “get what we deserve.”  Such a faux resolution makes the world seem fair and reasonable.  In a similar study by the economist Jeffery Butler participants competed a test of logical reasoning.  Half of the participants were randomly paid $4 and the other half $2.  Those paid $4 dollars did no better on the test but rated themselves as much better at logical reasoning than those paid $2.  Astonishingly, those paid the lower $2 rated themselves as less proficient!  In such a contorted way, we even construct imaginary reasons to account for an unreasonable world against ourselves.

The psychologist Aaron Kay found that when subject participants were made to feel powerless or when certain events in the world make it seem chaotic and unpredictable, they expressed stronger beliefs in a powerful deity who controls the universe than control subjects in the study.  When the Gini Index of income inequality is applied to the 50 states, there is a strong positive correlation between high income inequality and religious conviction; especially of the evangelical-conservative variety.  This is at first counter-intuitive; why would negative feelings about one’s self lead to stronger religious convictions?  Because, negative feelings of low status leads to feelings of powerlessness in a chaotic world that can only be resolved by faith in an all-powerful and just God.  Of course the perennial question arises as to why a “just” Deity would allow good people to suffer if the Deity indeed, had the power to make it cease.

Kay, A. C., Gaucher, D., Napier J. L., Callan, M. J., & Laurin, K.  (2008).  God and government: Testing a compensatory control mechanism for the support of external systems. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95 18-35.

Are Trump Supporters Racists and Bigots?

 In the wake of  mostly white police officers shooting and killing black men, comes some thought provoking evidence.  Scientific research has shown beyond reasonable doubt that we all show implicit racial bias!

In making a legal decision of guilt or innocence in such cases  the follow general rubric is followed:  what would  a reasonable person do in such circumstances?  Psychologist Keith Payne decided to explore  the reasonable person test.  He designed a study that presented photos of either a black man or a white man.  Following the photos a picture of either a gun or a hand tool about the same size and color would be presented.  The subject in the study, upon seeing the object was given one-half second to press the key corresponding to “its a gun” or one corresponding “its a tool.”  The point of the study was that the response became one of split-second decision making.  Time after time white subjects pressed the “its a gun key” following a picture of a black man more than they did following that of a white man.  Even when verbally warned that this might happen, the same results persisted.   Payne himself who wrote the code for the study and designed the methodology displayed the same implicit bias.

Payne, K. B.  (2001).  Prejudice and perception: The role of automatic and controlled processes in misperceiving a weapon.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81: 181-92

These results have been replicated so often that science can say with certainty that  implicit racial bias is a part of our behavior as adults.  Our culture  has primed us to make the unfortunate association with black men and guns.  As an example of priming finish the first word that comes to mind after:

Dog   Scottish   Jack   Russell  Ter___________

Now do the same for

Mohammed   Mosque   Islamic   Ter_______________

In the first case you were “primed” to say “terrier” and in the second “terrorist.”  We live in a culture that links Islam with terrorism and unconsciously our brain makes that association.  We live in a society polarized into tribal identifies.  The various tribes are defined by external features – black vs white.  Or they are defined by belief systems such as religious  or political views. Another tribal identity is economic – the haves vs have nots.

Pythagoras has argued that the growing income inequality helps contribute to feelings of helplessness while the world seems to be devolving into chaos.  Does this dynamic affect the extent of racial bigotry or bias?  In a study by Amy Krosch and David Amodio, subjects were given ten dollars to play a game.  Some were told that they would only get $10 from a possible $100 while others were told that they received the maximum of $10.  The point was to make the first group feel disadvantaged.

Krosch, A. R. & Amodio, D. M.  (2014).  Economic scarcity alters the perception of race,  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 9079-84

Both groups were then shown pictures of biracial individuals and asked to describe and classify them as black or white.  The disadvantaged group saw more of the pictures as stereotypically black persons compared to the groups not made to feel disadvantaged.  Presumably feeling disadvantaged magnified the tribal differences of us “white” vs them “black.”

A study by political scientist Martin Gilens found a typical pattern of attitudes toward “welfare spending.”  Racial prejudice is correlated with a belief that welfare spending is too high (this includes the hotly contested issue of Medicaid as well) because it is unfair.  Especially, so for people who believe black Americans are lazy and undeserving.  It is the feeling of unfairness that is key.  Remember, all judgments are relative and feelings of unfairness are magnified for those who lack adequate status.  Gilens analyzed media depiction since 1960 of welfare recipients and discovered that “deserving” recipients were mostly white while those portrayed as lazy and dishonest were overwhelmingly black.  This association of welfare with lazy people in general and black people in particular makes discussion of welfare policy difficult.  As an aside, at the writing of this blog, the relief efforts for Porto Rico are being criticized as moving much slower and less well organized compared to that for Texas and Florida.  The population of Porto Rico is mostly Hispanic and the country is being criticized for its poor infrastructure and delinquent economic debt.  Might the citizens of Porto Rico be undeserving of aid?

Gilens, M.  (2009).  WhyAmericans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy. (Chicago University Press).

A disturbing set of results come again from a series of studies by Keith Payne.  Payne and his associates morphed together facial features from: a black man, a black woman, a white man, and a white woman.  Then they slightly blurred these.  From this large selection of morphed pictures, subjects were asked to select those they felt received welfare.  From these two sets of morphed pictures labeled welfare and non-welfare recipients, Payne then created two pictures morphed out of the two labeled groups.  Another group of subjects were then asked to describe the two pictures.  The  picture morphed from the group labeled as welfare recipients, was described as portraying a lazy, irresponsible, hostile, and unintelligent person.  Not so for the morphed picture of those previously labeled as non-welfare recipients.  Finally, another group of subjects were shown the two morphed pictures and asked which should be provided food stamps and financial assistance.  The morphed picture from previously labeled welfare recipients  was rejected for such assistance while that from the other group was not.  As Payne states: “The very qualities that people envision about welfare recipients are the qualities that lead them to oppose giving them benefits.”



So, in the context of widespread inequality with  feelings of lost status and power, and widespread unfairness, develops a cohort primed to receive the strident message of Donald Trump.  It is said metaphorically that “nature abhors a vacuum.”  To that can be added that humans cannot abide a world that is unfair and too complicated to understand.  The world must somehow make sense.   For some, lacking the means to directly change things, imagination intervenes.

Thus, conspiracies are believed and parts of reality denied.   A “just” and all-powerful creator must exist who controls the world and looks after me personally.  This feeling of powerless in an unjust world creates hostility and  fertile ground for media sources that foment hostility.  These agitators are not new but their influence is.  They offer no concrete solutions but that is not  their point.  They seek audience ratings; they are mostly entertainers.  But they are reaching an increasingly hostile audience.  The hate mongers of the media were united to engender hate for Hillary Clinton following eight years of hate toward the black president Barack Obama.The darker side of this is is the trolling  in the slime pits of sections of social media.

In addition to media sources that spew hate and hostility, there has now appeared even more sinister sources.  These sources for various reasons wish to divide our society for nefarious purposes.  These new outlets include Bightbart  a far-right media source headed by Steven Bannon, Trump’s  former White House advisor.  Within this circle may be added our old cold war adversary Russia who according to claims by US intelligence sources, has infiltrated social media to sow division within the US.  More in another blog about all of this.

Donald Trump is a brilliant manipulator and out-sized personality.  Those who’ve met him attest to his quality of mercurial charm and bombast.  He also has experience in television having starred in “The Apprentice” tailored to his style.  He addresses his audience in reality TV-speak: simple, direct, and lacking what he terms “political correctness.”  Such an authority figure, claiming to be able to change the disfunction in the federal government and “make America great again” was irresistible to what was to become his unwavering “base.”  This base, whose roots are developed above was there for the taking.  How much he actually anticipated them or was due to simple blind luck doesn’t matter – they were pre-made for him.  His seeming bigotry, sexism, disregard for civility, and simple message were not a barrier rather stepping stones to the ultimate presidential victory.

No matter what he does or if he actually succeeds as a president  matters not to his base.  To change now would shatter the world image they’ve so carefully crafted.  They rationalize incessantly about him and it becomes useless to find meaning in what they say.  Will this base ever change or get disillusioned?  Probably not for the most part, even when the economic miracle he promised for them never appears.  Trump seems to understand this and  continually appeases them.  How much Trump believes in the doctrine of populism, and all that it stands for,  as his goal is unclear.  Perhaps  simply being the ultimate TV reality star is sufficient.  Or believing he is running the worlds largest business.  Or just maybe he is truly a believer in the frightening cacophony of chaos coming from his former advisor Steven Bannon.  But his base does seem at some perhaps unconscious level to under stand that “make America great again” is truly the dog whistle for a white America and its accompanying bigotry.


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