Donald Trump’s shocking win in this year’s presidential election has left many people scratching their heads about how he could have succeeded despite breaking almost every rule of modern politics.
Author Michael Lewis, who has just published a new book about cognitive psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky called The Undoing Project, has some ideas.
Lewis recently sat down with Business Insider to talk about how the theories developed by Kahneman and Tversky helped him to understand the Trump phenomenon, and he says that he is amazed at how skillfully Trump exploits people’s psychological vulnerabilities to attain power.
“Almost instinctively, he preys on exactly on the weaknesses of the human mind that they identified,” Lewis says. “The simple one is ‘anchoring.’ Amos and Danny did these studies where they’d give their lab subjects a ‘Wheel of Fortune’ with the numbers 1 to 100 on it, and have them spin the wheel. And then after they’ve spun the wheel and got a number, ask them what percentage of countries in the United Nations come from Africa? And a people who had spun a high number, like 90, would guess a higher number of percentage of countries from Africa in the United Nations.”
In other words, the study shows that people are can be prone to being misled by a simple cognitive association to believe something is much larger than it actually is.
As an example, consider the way Trump has convinced his followers that “voter fraud” is a massive problem simply by claiming that “millions” of people had voted illegally for Hillary Clinton. While there is no evidence of any widespread voter fraud in the U.S., Trump can make it seem like a gigantic problem simply through confident, unflinching assertion that it is.
Lewis also says that human brains are wired to desire certainty and stability — and he says that “any kind of prevarication” leads us to doubt someone’s truthfulness and strength.