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Hobbes, Spinoza and Trump

For a while now, I’ve been highlighting Scott Adams’ analysis of the rise of Donald Trump. He argues that Trump influences his followers by stimulating their faculties for emotions, not so much reason. Therefore, attempting to dissuade his followers by highlighting Trump’s factual errors is folly. Further, Adams argues that humans in general are emotional decision makers, not rational ones. I have at times suggested, half-jokingly, that the fact that people are so susceptible to emotional bias means that democracy is a flawed system. If the masses can be prodded towards un-rational decisions, they shouldn’t be granted the duty of decision-making.

I’ve been reading the book “Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind” and it points out how this debate goes back hundreds of years. Specifically to opposing views presented by two famous philosophers…

Hobbes considered the passions wild and uncontrollable and therefore rationalized the need for absolute monarchy. Since Spinoza believed reason could control inner urges and freedom of thought ensured morality, he insisted that the most sound political structure was a democratic republic.

Decartes’ Error and Donald Trump

I continue my mental exploration of the idea that Donald Trump is a master persuader who is using brilliant tactics to convince a needed segment of the population to grant him the Republican nomination (and eventually the presidency.) I’ve mentioned that Scott Adams has been talking a lot about this idea but so have many people interested in the science of persuasion.

It strikes me that this ties in with a book I often talk about: “Descartes’ Error” by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. I’ll quote a description of one relevant point of the book:

A few years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a groundbreaking discovery. He studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they seemed normal, except that they were not able to feel emotions. But they all had something peculiar in common: they couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should be doing in logical terms, yet they found it very difficult to make even simple decisions, such as what to eat. Many decisions have pros and cons on both sides—shall I have the chicken or the turkey? With no rational way to decide, these test subjects were unable to arrive at a decision.

The article continues…

This finding has enormous implications for negotiation professionals. People who believe they can build a case for their side using reason are doomed to be poor negotiators, because they don’t understand the real factors that are driving the other party to come to a decision. Those who base their negotiation strategy on logic end up relying on assumptions, guesses, and opinions. If my side of the argument is logical, they figure, then the other side can’t argue with it and is bound to come around to my way of thinking. The problem is, you can’t assume that the other party will see things your way.

This describes some people’s frustrations with followers of Donald Trump, doesn’t it? Detractors of Trump don’t get how he can blatantly lie and exaggerate and still have fans. But, if you allow that people are not rational decision makers, but rather emotional ones, then the facts (or un-facts) Trump uses are not the relevant factor. Rather it’s the emotions he generates in his audiences.

As I’ve said before, if this is really true—that people are not swayed by facts—than democracy itself is a joke or at least can be manipulated to rather unpleasant outcomes. I return again to the idea that we should nominate a philosopher king to make society’s decisions. I humbly offer myself.


Years ago I was looking at the library of my dad’s wife and I noticed a book on rhetoric. I found myself asking, what, exactly, is rhetoric? I associated it with talking and writing but couldn’t say much beyond that.

Anyway, here’s a dictionary definition:

the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.

Once I figured out what rhetoric is, I realized it’s something I do all the time. In my acid logic writings and at this blog I’m often writing opinions which I have some vague interest of convincing other people of.

But lately, I find myself wondering if it’s all bullshit, whether rhetoric is really a way of glossing over the fundamental lack of meaning to most things.

For example, I’m finishing up a piece for the next acid logic where I argue that the soundtracks of 1980s horror and sci-fi movies represented a certain dichotomy: they both embraced technology by using computer based tools and feared it as the sounds you get from synthesizers always have a certain coldness to them. I argue, with a few rhetorical flourishes, that this dichotomy was part of the spirit of times.

But is such a statement really true in any meaningful way? How would it be true? I guess if people of the era really sat around and took notice of this idea and used it to form other ideas it might be true, sort of. But something about these rhetorical arguments seems lacking. It feels like you could make any point about anything with the right rhetorical tools.

It seems like a lot of observation about the past, especially past culture, are made after the moment. They become true because the observation is made. But are they really true? Did they really describe thoughts and behaviors people were consciously or unconsciously thinking at the time? And who really cares?

More on Trump the persuader

I still find myself fascinated by Scott Adam’s arguments that Donald Trump, in his attempt to become President, is employing persuasion techniques used by master salespeople and politicians. To quote Adams

As far as I can tell, Trump’s “crazy talk” is always in the correct direction for a skilled persuader. When Trump sets an “anchor” in your mind, it is never random. And it seems to work every time.

(“Anchors” are a particular kind of persuasion technique. See a description here.)

I’m finding that Adams is not the only one making these claims. For instance, here is an article that goes into the subject of what are called triggers. These are essentially switches in the mind that activate specific emotional responses. Once the trigger has been switched, the theory goes, a person’s decision has been made. Any reasons provided for the decision are merely rationalizations to support the emotional decision.

Trump is activating what in neurological terms are referred to as emotional triggers, which the brain uses to avoid the energy and difficulty of analytical thinking. Whether consciously or by instinct, great persuaders tap into the functions of the emotional brain, where decisions are made with great speed and intensity.

One especially potent emotional trigger Donald Trump is clearly activating in the limbic brains of his most ardent supporters is the contrast trigger. Sales and marketing people know the contrast trigger well enough. They use it to varying degrees of success all the time. Differentiation is a well-worn corporate branding trope used to emphasize the importance of distinction — of being different from the other brand or product.

Do I buy this concept? Not entirely, I think the mind is messier and more complex. But I will say that the idea of triggers corresponds to a lot of what neuroscience and psychology have observed in the past 30 years (particularly in the work described in Antonio Damasio’s book “Descartes’ Error.”)

Also, keep in mind that these persuasion techniques doesn’t have to have 100% successful to be worth using. A persuasive car salesman doesn’t have to convince everyone who comes on the lot to buy a car, just many people. Trump doesn’t have to convince all voters that’s he’s the best choice, just slightly over 50%.

Another assertion from Adams is that when Trump makes outrageous statements, he is doing so intentionally to capture the public and media’s attention. I see here that even Mario Rubio is wising up to this.

“Look, this is a pattern. This is a game he plays. He says something that’s edgy and outrageous and then the media flocks and covers that and then no one else can get any coverage on anything else,” Rubio said.

Related to all this: here’s an article that argues that Trump is using extreme statements to cover up his liberal past.

The thought of a world in which Donald Trump is president feels more like an apocalyptic nightmare to most reasonable Americans. His bigoted statements regarding Mexican immigrants and Muslims, as well as his hotheaded temper, make him appear especially dangerous for international relations. But given certain evidence, one must wonder whether some of Trump’s behavior is part of a strange but strategic charade designed only to win him the Republican nomination.

I have some complaints about that article but it does correspond to my sense that Trump himself doesn’t believe some of his own touted opinions.

I will say, this argument—that we are not really rational in our own decisions—”feels” right to me and I find evidence in myself all the time. I’m finding myself analyzing everything from why I like the politicians that I do to why I buy a certain brand of beef jerky and I have a hard time coming up with really solid, logical reasons. What I experience is more in the vein of gut reactions that I then have to qualify. Adams blogs on this topic have really got me noticing this.

On a final note: I recognize that Adam’s has planted this idea in my head (an anchor) that Trump is a master persuader. Is that why I take notice whenever I see articles like the ones above that support this notion?

Will Donald Trump actually build a wall?

One of Trump’s most hyped statements has been the idea that he will build a wall across the southern border that separates the United Staes from Mexico. It sounds crazy and very difficult, both in the act of actually constructing it and getting funding from a likely unsympathetic congress. Why would Trump propose such a thing?

I’m going to take a page from Scott Adams’ argument that Trump has a master plan with such outrageous statements. I suspect Trump’s thinking goes along these lines. He knew, before he made this statement, that a certain percentage of Americans are unhappy with illegal immigrants and would like something to be done about it. Those potential voters were observing the solutions other politicians were proposing, all basically variations of “more enforcement with some amnesty.” Then Trump comes out with, “I’ll build a wall.” This is a loud, definitive statement in the opposite direction of the (far more do-able) amnesty proposals. Trump becomes “their guy.” He has branded himself as the anti-illegal immigrant candidate. And he gets a lot of attention from the media in the process. To people who only pay cursory attention to the news, Trump becomes a serious contender. After all, look at all the attention he’s getting.

The moral is: to get noticed, make big, extreme statements, even if they are ridiculous.

But I suspect there’s another reason. I’ve been reading an interesting book, “You Are Not So Smart,” about the various foibles of the human mind. One chapter starts with the following imagined scenario.

You walk into a clothing store and see what is probably the most bad ass leather jacket you’ve ever seen.

You try it on, look in the mirror and decide you must have it. While wearing this item, you imagine onlookers will clutch their chests and gasp every time you walk into a room or cross a street. You lift the sleeve to check the price – $1,000.

Well, that’s that, you think. You start to head back to the hanger when a salesperson stops you.

“You like it?”

“I love it, but it’s just too much.”

“No, that jacket is on sale right now for $400.”

It’s expensive, and you don’t need it really, but $600 off the price seems like a great deal for a coat which will increase your cool by a factor of 11. You put it on the card, unaware you’ve been tricked by the oldest retail con in the business.

The chapter then recounts several studies observing “the anchoring effect” a tendency to value things based on an arbitrary number placed in your head. (Here’s a link to the chapter online.) The chapter closes with…

Remember this study if you are ever in a negotiation – make your initial request far too high.

You have to start somewhere, and your initial decision or calculation greatly influences all the choices which follow, cascading out, each tethered to the anchors set before.

You probably see where I’m going with this. Trump’s initial offer on the issue of what to do about illegal immigrants is way too high—let’s build a wall. People negotiating with him will realize this and will settle for terms they would have considered unseemly had they been negotiating with someone with a more reasonable initial offer. They will pay 400$ for a $300 jacket (originally marked at $1000) so to speak.

Of course, Trump will never get to make that offer if he doesn’t become President. But by proposing his wall he is saying to voters opposed to illegal immigrations, “I will drive a hard bargain on your behalf.” The details of his rather outrageous proposal are not important, the willingness to make it is.

It seems like there’s a lot that could go wrong with this tact. Are there enough voters opposed to illegal immigrants to create a voting bloc? Will such statements turn off a big segment of other voters? Perhaps. But I don’t think Trump, a guy who is not a career politician, had many other options to work his way into people’s minds as a serious contender. He had to think big, and so far it’s worked.

People vote with their guts

I find myself returning to Scott Adams’ discussions of Donald Trump. Adams alleges, as I’ve mentioned in the past, that Trump is using various persuasion techniques to make himself felt as a presence in the current presidential nomination process. Basically, when Trump says something crazy, it’s not an off-the-cuff remark but part of a developed strategy. To quote Adams

Part of Trump’s persuasion talent involves picking the right policies not only in terms of popularity but in terms of how he can influence that conversation. Trump looks for simple, visual anchors, such as his wall idea. He picked an idea that has legs, guarantees him all the available television time, and for which no one can flank him to his right. None of that is by accident.

So, it might seem that Trump is blithely proposing a crazy and offensive idea: let’s build a wall separating us from our southern neighbor. But this actually accomplishes a couple things. First, it sends the message that when you bargain with Trump, he will start with an extreme offer. He’s the guy who goes up to a guy who is selling a car for $3,000 and offers him 30$.

It also helps Trump stand out from the crowd. What are Ted Cruz’s policy proposals exactly? Well, I’m not sure really. But Trump? He’s the “wall guy,” he’s the “let’s deport all the Muslims guy.”

Will Trump actually be able to build a wall or deport all the Muslims? Probably not, but by then he’ll be President. (Could he win a second term after failing to do these things? That’s an interesting question.)

What Trump has effectively done, Adams argues (and I tend agree), is go from being a joke candidate written off by 90% of the media (both conservative and liberal) to a very serious contender. He’s done this by using words and imagery to speak to people’s subconscious. What Trump is doing is putting to bed the notion that voters rationally consider candidates’ positions and vote accordingly. Trump assumes that people respond to knee jerk, lizard brain biases built into their heads and vote with them.

Frankly, I’d say Bernie Sanders is a similar case. I’ve yet to have anyone explain to me how, exactly, he would provide free college and health care. I’m not saying it can’t be done; other countries have done it. But how, exactly, will Sander’s do it? It’s doesn’t matter—Sanders is talking the language of the guts. And notice that, as Adams would say, with these proposals in place, no one can flank Sanders from the left. He is well defined.

This notion, that people vote with their guts and their heart and not their brains is hardly new, but it’s pretty frightening really. It really implies that democracy is a joke.

Many people don’t seem to get this. Gloria Steinem recently alleged that young, female supporters of Bernie were in it to meet guys. A lot of people have commented on how offensive that is on it’s face (alleging that these women are boy crazy nimrods.) But it’s also just lousy politics. I doubt there’s a single woman who thought, “Gee, Ms. Steinem thinks I’m just supporting my candidate to meet men. I really should sit down and think about my reasons for not supporting Mrs. Clinton.” But, I bet a lot of women torn between the two candidates leapt into the Bernie camp. Because that’s how people work—they get indignant. Steinem’s actions actually had the exact opposite effect than what was intended.

In some ways Obama would seem to be a refutation of all this. After all, he is a calm, reasonable guy who offers actual policy proposals as reasons to vote for him. But let’s look at Obama’s history. His opponent for the Democratic nomination was Clinton who, I think we can safely say at this point, isn’t the most capable campaigner in the world. And Obama’s Republican opponents—McCain and Romney—were pretty unspectacular. On top of that, I think Obama presented a nice combination of dreamy idealism (speaking to people’s guts and heart) and policies (speaking to their heads.)

Let’s beat up on the media

I’ve been reading an interesting pop psychology book called “You Are Not So Smart.” The book details various ways that our brains and minds can trick us into misreading reality.

In one chapter the author argues that in times of emergency, instead of freaking out like you might think, many people refuse to acknowledge the peril around them. They seek normalcy and discard any incoming information that interferes with that interpretation.

As the author points out, we can more easily convince ourselves that things aren’t as bad as they seem because the media often inflates dangers that turn out to be nothing.

Regular media overhyping and panic building over issues like Y2K, swine flu, SARS, and the like help fuel normalcy bias on a global scale. … With so much crying wolf, it can be difficult to determine in the frenzied information landscape when to be alarmed, when it is really not a drill.

I’d almost forgotten all the media hand-wringing over Y2K and the total non-event it turned out to be.

This comes around to a related thought I’ve been having. When Donald Trump announced his candidacy, the media treated as a joke. The same is basically true with Bernie Sanders. Frankly, I thought of these candidates as jokes. But we may be approaching a point where the final contest will be Trump versus Sanders. Whatever you might think about either of them, you have to give them credit for believing in themselves when “the establishment” did not.

Do we already have “free education”?

Welp, I’m back to linking to a Scott Adams post on Trump, but this time because it hits on an argument I’ve made myself: with the plethora of free information on the internet we should rethink education. Adams notes…

Trump could take “free college” off the table by saying college is overrated for most people. You can learn almost any skill over the Internet, so what we need is a way to accredit certain collections of skills.

I’ve spent the last couple weeks watching my girlfriend’s son use youtube to educate himself on techniques for filming and lighting movies. There’s tons of useful info out there. But, of course, all his learning is meaningless unless it is verified somehow. This would be the accreditation idea Adams speaks of. Will we see a rise of accreditation institutions that do not teach – that would be up to the student – but simply verify that a person knows what they are talking about? I’d love to see that.

I will say, I’m dubious Trump can make that argument stick for the current Presidential race; people are too wedded to the old ways. But the idea itself has merit and may take hold.

The other take on Trump

Lately, I’ve featured Scott Adams take on Donald Trump on this blog. Adam’s argues that Trump is a “master persuader” who wins arguments by signaling subtle cues that bypass actual argumentation. (Read pretty much any of Adam’s posts on Trump for examples.)

Adam’s posits that Trump is in complete control of his blustering persona. Adam’s has even stated he feels Trump uses ego as tool he can turn on an off e.g. Trump doesn’t feel actually insulted when people disrespect him.

At Vox, an author presents a different view. He argues that Trump has a need to dominate every social situation and this need is built into Trump’s core character.

Trump doesn’t make people feel that way. Indeed, he has constructed his entire professional life around him being the center of universe, the focus of any room he’s in. He doesn’t want to be liked, he wants to be respected and feared. He wants to be the top dog; he is obsessed with it.

I think people often misread that as a species of strength, but its true origin is fear — deep, pre-verbal fear, down in the brainstem.

Some scientists have looked into what makes conservatives conservative. One thing they’ve found is that conservatives are more sensitive to negative features of the environment — to threat, contamination, disorder. At the far right end of the spectrum is the authoritarian, who dreams of total control, freedom from all threat, “peace through strength.”

And that’s Trump (who, not coincidentally, refuses to shake hands for fear of germs). He must be in control, have all the leverage, in every situation. (If he doesn’t, he just declares bankruptcy and moves on.) He is hyper-attuned to disrespect or disloyalty, as the feud with Fox News this week showed. And a hair-trigger fight-or-flight reflex makes him prone to outbursts and personal attacks whenever he feels threatened, which is often.

It’s pathological. And the thing about pathologies is that they cannot be taken on and off like masks. They are pre-conscious; they order incoming experience.

I will say, as much as I find biological or psychological theories about behavior compelling I’m aware they are very difficult to prove. Is Trump’s lizard brain controlling his behavior or a “master persuader” cerebral cortex? Nobody can really claim to know for sure.

On a side note, one things bugs me about the Vox article. At one point the author states.

And here’s the bedrock obstacle to Trump’s success: there are simply not enough struggling, resentful, xenophobic white people in the US to constitute a national majority sufficient to win a presidential election.

And beneath that is a picture of Trump talking to fans. One smiling female fan is what looks to be Asian and beyond that a browned skinned women, possibly Indian or Hispanic. This is is a picture of about seven people total. It’s of course possible that this photo was somehow rigged by Trump to show his multicultural appeal but it’s an odd choice to use under a paragraph making the opposite case.

Signaling cues

I’ve been thinking a bit more about this signaling idea prompted by Scott Adams’ musings on the rise of Donald Trump. I find a lot of it ties in with things I’d already been thinking about.

Let’s consider this scenario. You bump into a friend and he says, “I’m going home to listen to my new collection of Bing Crosby CDs.” At first glance this might seem an innocuous, almost boring statement. But I would argue much is being said beyond the straight facts. For one, this person is saying they like Bing Crosby, which affirms a few things about their identity. It affirms that they don’t only listen to modern music, but have an affinity for the classics. And specific classics—Crosby represented the white establishment music of the time, a genre of music that is basically maligned by hipster musicians of the modern era (not entirely; this is a complex assertion but I think the gist holds true.) In a way, there’s something “politically incorrect” about liking Crosby as opposed to, say, a grittier black artist like Bessie Smith.

So, basically, that simple statement is loaded up with all sorts of subtle, cultural cues. This person isn’t just telling you about their evening plans, they are telling you about their identity. And depending on how you respond, you will tell them about your identity.

Adams’ assertion is that Trump is similarly loading his statements with these kinds of cues: subtle hidden meanings designed to appeal to a certain kind of voter.

One comment that Trump made that perplexed me at the time was Trump’s statement that illegal Mexican immigrants were hordes of rapists and murderers, though he did add, “some, I assume, are good people.” The “I assume” got me there. It’s like, “Geeze, Donald, you can’t even say that amidst the millions of Mexican immigrants there are, IN FACT, some good people?” He was actually leaving the possibility open that NONE of them were good people.

Let’s hold that thought. Consider another scenario. Let’s say you see a guy selling his car for $4000. You walk up to him and say, “I’ll give you $100.” Do you really expect to get the car for $100? Do you really think that’s a fair offer? Of course not; you’re saying ‘I drive a hard bargain.’ You will buy the car of the guy really wants to sell it, but you’re not going to be an easy mark.

My suspicion is that this was Trump’s real goal with the “good people” comment. He was saying, “I’m a tough negotiator. With me you don’t get to try and convince me that half of Mexican immigrants are good people, you try and convince me that a few of them are. I can lowball with the best of them because I hold the cards.” And people like tough negotiators for President; they like people who drive a hard bargain for “our” interests. I might even argue that this comment appeals especially to business people (small or large) who understand the intricacies of bargaining.

Of course it’s a dangerous statement since it could alienate so many people that it costs him the nomination. We will see of course, but he’s still in the lead.