As political experts remain baffled by Donald Trump’s popularity, scientific studies from the field of psychology continue to shed light on the phenomenon. A new study published in the journal Translational Issues in Psychological Science has shown that Donald Trump stands out amongst other politicians, including fellow presidential candidates and past presidents, as being exceptionally low in analytic thinking. By using intelligent text analysis software to interpret language data from speeches, debates, and written documents, the researchers were able to determine the point where Trump falls on an analytic-narrative continuum.
The analytic-narrative continuum provides a way to objectively measure someone’s thinking style, whether it be analytic, which is characterized by careful deliberation based on logic and reason, or narrative, a style based more on ‘gut’ reactions grounded in intuition and personal experience. While it may seem obvious to some that an analytic thinking style is generally superior to a narrative style— since it’s evidence-driven and statistical rather than anecdotal and emotion-based — there is no doubt that the latter resonates with many people. While the analytically-minded see Donald Trump’s opinions and answers as superficial and uninformed, his supporters view them as straightforward and relatable. As absurd as it sounds, now ignorance can apparently be considered a strength for a presidential candidate, as long as they can present it as being folksy.
The computerized text analyses measured thinking styles by examining grammar. While analytic thinkers tend to use more nouns, articles, and prepositions, narrative thinkers tend to use more pronouns, auxiliary verbs, and adverbs. The results showed that not only was Trump’s analytic score far less than his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton (23.8 vs. 42.8), it was also much lower than his Republican candidate opponents — Ben Carson (39.1), Marco Rubio (48.7), John Kasich (48.9), and Ted Cruz (62.1). Moreover, Trump’s average analytic score was more than 3 standard deviations below that of the average Democrat or Republican from the last five election cycles, making him a clear outlier. While most presidential candidates tend to be analytic thinkers, or show a balance between analytic and intuitive thinking, Trump falls squarely on the intuitive side of the continuum.
Although Trump is clearly a low analytical thinker relative to past presidents, he does fit an overall general trend of presidents becoming progressively less analytical, at least in terms of how they speak, since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Interestingly, most presidents in the 18th and 19th century consistently scored high on analytic thinking. Whether this trend is a good or a bad thing remains to be seen. Perhaps presidents are just becoming better at simplifying complex information into direct, simple language. But the case of President Trump seems to tell a different story. It appears to indicate a thriving movement composed of individuals who are anti-intellectual and anti-science, and who want a president who is the same.
We should be concerned about this decline in analytic thinking among politicians as well as the people’s preference for it. Essentially, among Trump supporters, it’s just not cool to be smart. The consequences of this mentality becoming widespread could be disastrous. The dumbing down of America, both in politics and society, must be opposed by all those who value rational and logical thought. While this effort must occur at all levels, one clear way of resisting is to turn out to voting booths not only in 2020, but in all the local elections that occur until that time.
Bobby Azarian is a science writer with a PhD in neuroscience. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, BBC Future, Scientific American, and others. Follow him on twitter @BobbyAzarian.