One of the interesting uncertainties in the current presidential election campaign in the US is not whether Donald Trump is dangerous or not – that much is clear. No, what keeps me up at night is how smart is he really?
Because one of the few consistent traits of his campaign is his display AND utilization of cognitive biases. He personally shows clear signs of disconnect with reality, inconsistent policies and biases towards different groups – but he also uses the same biases inherent in all people to gain popularity such as displaying overconfidence, playing on our fear of loss and telling stories, that sound plausible to most people. And while display signals irrationality, then utilization signals manipulation – both dangerous, but one is smarter than the other.
On the one hand you tend to give him the benefit of doubt given heritage – on the other hand regression to the mean will probably mean that his own intellect is somewhere between his parents and the average. He has also managed to start up lots of businesses, but on the other hand his personal fortune has declined in real terms since his inheritance.
As an interesting test we have mapped his personal display and utilization of cognitive biases to see, whether he is more irrational than manipulative:
|Cognitive bias group||Display (irrationality)||Utilize (manipulation)|
|Overconfidence – the tendency to believe in your own or groups ability beyond reason||Trump never minces words, but he also steps out of bounds repeatedly and unapologetically||A primary pillar of the Trump campaign is to show confidence and no fear|
|Bounded awareness – the tendency to be unaware and uninterested in the full picture||Trump comments about forcing Apple to manufacture in US, taking Middle Eastern Oil or building a wall towards Mexico, show complete lack of understanding for how business, international relations and the US economy works||Trumps focus on protectionism – ill-advised as it is globally and for an economy that has benefitted – rings true with many voters, as globalization is a difficult subject to grasp as the mother of all megatrends|
|Emotional bias – the tendency to decide based on your emotions at the time||Retweeting unflattering pictures of the wife of a rival or moving from pro-choice to pro-life calling for punishment for women getting an abortion – then apologizing – and then changing his mind again||Another pillar in the Trump campaign is stirring up people’s emotions at this rallies as opposed to facts and realistic plans|
|Bounded ethicality – the tendency to be self-serving and spiraling down the ethics scale over time||Trump complains that everything is produced in China, but his own clothing lines are of course produced the same place. He is focused on traditional marriages, but he married three times.||Trump is making racist comments against for example African Americans, Mexicans and Muslims|
|Risk aversion – the tendency to fear losses more than you appreciate gains||N/A||Another primary pillar in the Trump campaign is to focus on the fear – particularly of job losses.|
|Confirmation bias – the tendency to look for confirming evidence only and disregard disconfirming evidence||Trump typically grasps for the tiniest of straws, when he gets into trouble, looking clearly for any evidence that will fit his statements||Giving voice to the worst fears and suspicions of many voters, will more than anything confirm them in their beliefs|
The map shows a somewhat even distribution between irrationality and manipulation. You would think that either way, Trump would be nowhere near a presidential candidacy. But knowingly or not, he is benefiting from our own irrationality: That we as humans when confronted with two equally poor options – one certain and the other risky – will tend to go with the riskier one, when we are using our automatic system 1.
Now, maybe it is time to bring online our more thoughtful system 2.
Sources: New York Times, Time Magazine, Fortune, Wall Street, Rolling Stones