The triumph of irrationality

For many years, economists, philosophers and pundits thought that people would always act in their own best interests – in other words, rationally.

The thought was that, when making a decision, people would look at options and information available and then choose the result that gave them the best results, or at least the ones they favored. And then in the mid-70s, two Israeli psychologists – Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky – turned that idea on its head.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics. (Photo by Eirik Solheim, Creative Commons)

What the two men showed, through experiments that found their way into some of the most cited papers in the field of psychology AND economics, was that when faced with a decision in a period of uncertainty,  people often made irrational decisions. They did not necessary make the decision that was best for them, but would make a decision that was influenced by availability, confirmation bias, and what Kahneman and Tversky called “representativeness.” (As author Daniel Lewis described it in his recent book on the two men, The Undoing Project, “the similarity between whatever people were judging and some model they have in their mind of that thing.”)

Which brings us to the election of Donald Trump, and why celebrity and brand now matter more than substance.

On the surface, the choice between Democratic nominee Clinton and Trump was quite clear, particularly if you were a older white male making a ‘rational’ decision. Clinton had the experience, was strong on foreign policy, had the knowledge of how government works, and supported plans that largely were favorable to the group mentioned above- including the unemployed who had no healthcare without Obamacare. (Trade was the one main area that she could be attacked on rationally.)

But when compared to Trump in other areas – such as questionable ties to personal foundations, business conflicts of interest, ties to Wall Street – there was really little difference between the two candidates. Clinton had several other advantages, such as the possibility of becoming the first woman president and the support of the entire Democratic establishment after the end of the primaries.

So why did Trump win? Two reasons, one of them already well-known- the Wikileaks-Russian email leaks and the Russian fake news campaign designed to damage Clinton on on every level. It’s the second reason that I think tells us more about the future of where politics is headed in the US – the dawn of the celebrity presidency.

Now it might be argued that Ronald Reagan was the first celebrity president. But Reagan had been governor of a state larger than most countries in the world, the head of a union (the Screen Actors Guild), and active in Republican politics for many years. Trump had none of these attributes – he had only his celebrity. Period. True, he is wealthy but his history as a businessman is mixed with as many bankruptcies and product failures as successes.

Yet over the years, Trump had crafted the image of a winner, whether or not that was accurate. He had cultivated the media in New York with tales of his business and sexual prowess. And then the years as the host of a TV show that portrayed him as a dynamic business leader, not afraid to do what was needed, and to be heartless when it was called for, created a model in people’s minds that really wasn’t all that accurate, but that didn’t matter. The model was there.

Which is why people were so willing to overlook his racist, misogynist, bigoted (and perverted) comments made during the campaign. (This is truest of Christian evangelicals. In reality, Trump is the total opposite of what they said they wanted for years: he rarely if ever attended church, was married three times, had cheated on two wives and was not involved in promoting their agenda in any real concrete way. But in their desperation to defeat the Democrats, they created a model of Trump in their minds that represented all the things he was not.)

They wanted the model that seemed to them the closest to what they saw as a dynamic leader, not the one that was probably the rational choice for their very real problems. The question of who would be the best person to govern the country was not considered as a key factor. The Trump model was one they knew well, and when push came to shove, the one enough people voted for to let him win the electoral college.

As Lewis also put it in 2011 Vanity Fair article, “The human mind is so wedded to stereotypes and so distracted by vivid descriptions that it will seize upon them, even when they defy logic, rather than upon truly relevant facts.”

Stereotypes and vivid descriptions. And that, in a nutshell, is Donald Trump

The other day, a friend commented that Kim Kardashian could probably be elected president. It wasn’t funny. She’s already known by millions of people who follow her every whim and fancy. Her sex tape background only gives her more coin of the realm in a world dominated by Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat and Instagram. Working your way up through the party structure is no longer the way to succeed.

Get on TV and social media. Experience in government or international affairs is no longer needed. Instead, be outrageous. Be well-known. Start to create that model in people’s minds you want them to see. And who knows, people might irrationally vote for you one day too.

 

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