A neuroscientist explains why Trump is winning
Like many Americans, I was glued to the TV for over an hour as Donald Trump gave his speech at the Republican Convention. Even the pain from a full bladder couldn’t pull me away in those final minutes. Nature was calling but it would just have to wait until the prime time action was over.
It wasn’t very logical. There I was, captivated by the words of a man who routinely says things that drive me up a wall. A man who has proven that he will say anything, no matter how extreme or offensive, to get votes from a certain easily manipulated demographic. A man who tweets unflattering pictures of his opponent’s wife, and frequently resorts to playground bully-type insults. A man who could be serious but who intentionally chooses to act like a clown.
But clowns are entertaining. Clowns amuse us and surprise us. Donald Trump is more than a clown. He’s a showman of many talents. He is theatrical and dramatic. He knows how to paint a lucid picture of a world that faces imminent existential threat. The man deserves real credit for his ability to keep us all on the edge of our seats. These are the qualities that made him an uber-successful reality show host and producer, and they just might make him the president of the most powerful nation in the world.
Let’s face it; Americans love their reality television. And now they love social media because it has become a gossip generator and a 24-hour microphone for celebrities and public figures. Viral tweets from politicians like Trump are becoming almost as popular as tweets from megastars like Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian.
Part of the appeal of Trump is that he constantly keeps us guessing. What outrageous thing is he going to say next? Who is he going to offend? And how will the media and our friends on social media respond?
What may be most disturbing about our preoccupation with Donald Trump is that it may be beyond our control. A recent brain study using EEG, which measures brain activity via scalp electrodes, has shown that we experience greater emotional arousal when watching Trump compared to other candidates—like Hillary Clinton and even Bernie Sanders. Brain waves show that we are captivated by his words, irrespective of our political leanings and whether or not we agree or disagree with any particular statement.
The study was one of many that are being carried out by a startup called Spark Experience located in Bethesda, Maryland, which seeks to understand the effects of presidential candidates on the brain. Their study used 30 test subjects, about half democrat and half republican, and was diverse in terms of age, gender, and race. Each participant was shown 45 minutes of political ads and debates.
The data from both parties showed that on average, Trump garnered 25% more cognitive attention during the debates compared to Clinton. While Trump spoke, attention steadily remained high, but when Cruz, Sanders, and Clinton spoke, attention would go through a series of peaks and dips. Interestingly, Bernie Sanders was the most likeable, but that did not equate to being the most engaging.
Despite the fact that the brain measures showed that democrats had extremely negative reactions to Trump’s facial expressions, he still received more attention than Clinton. Even those who didn’t like hearing about his mission to “build a wall” were intensely focused on him talking about it.
According to Ryan McGarry, a lead researcher at Spark Experience, Trump “gets a pass” for making fun of candidates while others do not. And it is all due to the fact that he is entertaining. We are engaged, and not turned off, when we hear him refer to Marco Rubio as the “little guy”. We probably love it for the same reasons we enjoy comedy roasts, and there is no doubt that Trump is a masterful roaster.
The results of Spark’s study are clear. No matter whether our reaction to Trump is positive or negative, we are highly entertained. On the other hand, Clinton has trouble holding the attention of viewers, even among her supporters. Trump’s simple messages strongly resonate.
Those of us who do not want to see a narcissistic nationalist in the oval office should be concerned. It appears that at a subconscious level, we are all becoming addicted to the brash billionaire with the hot foreign wife, the blond babe daughter, and the douchebag sons who are lame enough, but not handsome enough, to be on The Bachelor. Trump is sort of like a car crash in motion. We know we shouldn’t want to watch it, but it’s hard to look away. Daily, with almost no fail, he gives us something to talk, tweet, or blog about.
Although we may not be able to suppress our attention, we can still control the way we vote. America must resist the temptation to create a reality show around the most powerful position in the world. We must fight the urge to vote for four years of nonstop entertainment and buffoonery. We can breakout the popcorn for the looming presidential debates, but we have to put the snacks down in November. We have to do what is good for the nation and future generations.
And if we are successful in stopping him from becoming Commander-in-Chief, Donald Trump may be forced to return to reality TV, where he belongs, and where he can entertain us safely and without ruining our relationship with the rest of the world.