Letter from New York: cognitive biases and the Trump presidency
We have written a fair amount for this publication, as well as others, about Donald Trump’s journey to the White House. And we made no bones about the fact that traditional polling got it wrong, and that our metric of Fame Feeling and Fluency came excruciatingly close to predicting the outcome for him. You can see that research at System1 Politics. Now that Candidate Trump is President Trump, I was asked by The Marketing Society to contribute a “Letter From a Marketer” perspective from the US and specifically the US on what the last few days mean for our outlook on the future.
Let me say from the outset that readers should know, like all “consumers”, I come to this question with an unapologetic cognitive bias: I did not support Mr. Trump and I am deeply worried about the agenda of his Presidency and that of his Republican partners in the House and the Senate. I participated in the NY Women’s March the day after the Inauguration as a non-violent means of joining my voice to millions who also oppose this Administration’s objectives.
It is deadly difficult to accurately estimate the size of a crowd when you are standing in the midst of a historic Rally and March like the one that was held in my home city (which by all counts was replicated in cities across the world). But I can bear witness that what I saw was unprecedented numbers of people, peacefully demonstrating, free of violence or any vandalism. I can vouch for the solidarity of women and many many men, across all segments of race, creed, nationality, sexual orientation, economic status, exercising one of the most cherished patriotic freedoms protected by the US Constitution: the right to peaceful dissent. One of the most telling and moving chants I heard throughout the day was the rallying cry: “This is what Democracy looks like!”
So yes, in writing this post, I definitely have a bias, and in my opinions here I speak to my own perspective, rather than that, necessarily, of BrainJuicer.
I can testify is that our research, tracking the trajectory of Mr. Trump’s Fame, Feeling and Fluency during the campaign, unequivocally revealed the path to his victory.
Fame, Feeling and Fluency, which we use to track to brands as well as our alternative to traditional polling, predicts behaviour, in this case accurately predicting the popular Vote. And it was Fame, Feeling and Fluency that were the key predictive indicators of the reasons for his rise to power in a tumultuous election.
Mr. Trump had lots of fame as a businessman featured on the TV via The Apprentice – and as a businessman very interested in the power of PR – and the media perhaps inadvertently helped him to boost his Fame during the Presidential campaign.
Our research demonstrated that Mr. Trump did generate an enormous amount of Feeling, somewhat equally divided, positive versus negative. His negative Feeling was counteracted by the disappointing low levels of positive Feeling around Hillary among a lot of swing voters. By very skilfully engendering similar levels of negative Feeling around Hillary, using the email server and other issues, he used these to undermine her reputation for honesty/integrity and provide a smokescreen for his.
He artfully exploited Fluency (as did the UK “Leavers” with Brexit) by having all the best memes on immigrants, jobs, the wall, etc. Then there was the highly generic, “one size fits all’, very nonspecific “Make America Great Again” slogan which continues to be his most fluent attribute. As a marketer, I have to say it was a brilliant argument against segmentation. Anyone with a personal grudge or fear, or even a minor beef with any political issue facing the country could theoretically get behind that, unless you realized that it was backed by such a highly divisive agenda.
But now comes the governing part, and the President’s inaugural address promised that he would represent all the people, more than 50% of those who voted, not supporting his platform.
Governing is hard, and balancing the needs of those who agree with you with those who don’t will make this a very challenging circumstance in which to lead. Presumably the new President’s decisions, with such grave consequences, need to be informed by a broad and balanced input of information, both from advisors and ordinary citizens, even if views are oppositional. Thoughtful citizens expect their leaders to look past their own cognitive biases to ensure that their actions in office protect all constituents, both here and abroad. This can be a messy, complicated process, ill served by memes and sound bites, or attacks against a Free Press.
It is not coincidental that recently Drake Baer of New York Magazine reported on an interview he conducted with Nobel Prize winning Behavioural Economist, Daniel Kahneman. It focused specifically on the dangers of cognitive biases becoming optical illusions that cause us to make false conclusions and act, predictably, irrationally. With a cautionary closing Baer warned that the more powerful an individual, such as a President, the more likely they are to believe their own cognitive biases.
The President’s supporters are suggesting that the same metrics that predicted the actual outcome of the election so horribly wrong are the methodologies that are now determining things like the New President’s approval ratings, which are historically low. In the opening days of his Administration, opposing views are being dismissed as the manipulation of biased media, whether they estimate attendees at the Inaugural Ceremonies versus those of previous Presidents, or how the citizenry really feels about new President’s more controversial promises, his Cabinet picks, and the agenda of the Republican dominated House and Senate.
Opinions are highly polarized and the contrasts of red and blue demonstrate confirmational biases that are as stark as black and white.
We can’t predict the consequences of the actions likely to be taken in coming months. My fervent hope is that as monumental decisions are played out in the new administration, those in power will avoid what behavioural science tells us are the optical illusions that can lead to irrational and negative outcomes. The truth is that we are about to learn whether Daniel Kahneman's approach (even when you know your biases you are condemned to suffer them) or Gerd Gigerenzer's (you can use heuristics to fabricate an excuse for the most pernicious effects of our biases) has most impact on the our US President and the country that he leads.
The writer is Susan Casserly Griffin, CMO for marketing and research consultancy BrainJuicer. Her opinions in this matter are her own and don’t necessarily reflect that of the company.