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The irrational voter

By Ad astra

Those who think logically, who base their opinions on facts, figures and reason, are astonished at the decisions that some people make, decisions that seem to run contrary to evidence and logic. And it doesn’t matter if they are interested, intelligent, and in possession of the facts. Where the application of rational thought would be expected, out of left field they reach decisions that surprise because they are irrational. How often are voters irrational?

This piece is based on a thoughtful article from an unlikely source, Scott Adams, creator of the ‘Dilbert’ cartoon series. Writing in The Canberra Times in an article titled: Donald Trump will win in a landslide, says Dilbert creator Scott Adams, which was taken from an article in The Washington Post, Michael Cavna explains how Adams arrived at this surprising conclusion.

It might seem odd to Australians that the bizarre, oft-ridiculed Trump could be cited as one who could teach us anything useful about political thinking. But read what one analyst believes is his deliberate strategy, and make up your own mind about the political validity of his approach.

Scott Adams believes that Trump has turned the US presidential campaign around. “On the stump, the real estate mogul is not running on the knowledge of his numbers or the dissection of the data. He is running on our emotions…and sly appeals to our own human irrationality.”

Adams does not support Trump, nor does he think he would be a good president. He is simply saying that there is ‘careful art’ behind Trump’s rhetoric and campaigning techniques and that he will win because he’s “a master persuader”. He tags him as a “master linguistic strategist”, and argues that “Psychology is the only necessary skill for running for president; Trump knows psychology”.

What Adams contends is consistent with what George Lakoff, linguist and cognitive scientist with long experience in American politics, has to say about political discourse. Lakoff stresses the importance of framing the debate, especially during campaigning, which of course is what Trump is doing so effectively, if one can judge from the results he has accrued to date. We have written about framing extensively in Framing the political debate – the key to winning , More on framing the political debate – the key to winning and Still more on framing the political debate – the key to winning. Lakoff insists that a crucial element in framing is to appeal to the emotions if one is to win the hearts and minds of voters.

Adams asserts that for Trump to win hearts and minds some basic principles apply:

Trump knows people are basically irrational

“If you see voters as rational you’ll be a terrible politician…people are not wired to be rational. Our brains simply evolved to keep us alive. Brains did not evolve to give us truth. Brains merely give us movies in our minds that keep us sane and motivated. But none of it is rational or true, except maybe sometimes by coincidence.”

Next Adams says:
Knowing that people are irrational, Trump aims to appeal on an emotional level

“The evidence is that Trump completely ignores reality and rational thinking in favour of emotional appeal…Sure, much of what Trump says makes sense to his supporters, but…that is coincidence. Trump says whatever gets him the result he wants. He understands humans as 90 per cent irrational and acts accordingly…people vote based on emotion. Period.”

It follows that:
By running on emotion, facts don’t matter

“While his opponents are losing sleep trying to memorise the names of foreign leaders – in case someone asks – Trump knows that is a waste of time …There are plenty of important facts Trump does not know. But the reason he doesn’t know those facts is – in part – because he knows facts don’t matter. They never have and they never will. So he ignores them.” And stating numbers that might not quite be facts nevertheless can anchor those numbers, and facts, in your mind.”

Logically then:
If facts don’t matter, you can’t really be ‘wrong’
Adams observes:

“Trump “doesn’t apologise or correct himself. If you are not trained in persuasion, Trump looks stupid, evil, and maybe crazy…if you understand persuasion, Trump is pitch-perfect most of the time. He ignores unnecessary rational thought and objective data and incessantly hammers on what matters (emotions).”

“Did Trump’s involvement in the birther thing confuse you?…Were you wondering how Trump could believe Obama was not a citizen? The answer is that Trump never believed anything about Obama’s place of birth. The facts were irrelevant, so he ignored them while finding a place in the hearts of conservatives for later. This is later. He plans ahead.”

It follows then that:
With fewer facts in play, it’s easier to bend reality
Adams quotes Steve Jobs who:

“…aimed to create ‘reality distortion fields’ to meet his needs and achieve his ends. Trump employs similar techniques, and apparently can be similarly thin-skinned when his ‘reality’ is challenged. “The Master Persuader will warp reality until he gets what he wants…Trump is ‘halfway done’ already”.

“Among the persuasive techniques that Trump uses to help bend reality…are repetition of phrases; ‘thinking past the sale’ so the initial part of his premise is stated as a given; and knowing the appeal of the simplest answer, which relates to the concept of Occam’s razor” [which states: “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.”]

In other words: “Keep it simple, stupid’! We experienced such persuasive techniques throughout Abbott’s campaign strategy in opposition and at election time. I don’t need to remind you of his three-word slogans; they are permanently imprinted in our brain.

Finally Adams contended:
To bend reality, Trump is a master of identity politics – and identity is the strongest persuader

“Do you think it is a coincidence that Trump called Megyn Kelly [Fox News journalist and TV Broadcaster] a bimbo and then she got a non-bimbo haircut that is … well, Trumpian?…It doesn’t look like a coincidence to this trained persuader.

“One way to achieve this is by deploying ‘linguistic kill shots’ that land true, and alter perception through two ways:
The best Trump linguistic kill shots…have the following qualities:
1. Fresh words that are not generally used in politics;
2. Relates to the physicality of the subject (so you are always reminded).”

“Identity is always the strongest level of persuasion. The only way to beat it is with dirty tricks or a stronger identity play … and Trump is well on his way to owning the identities of American, Alpha Males, and Women Who Like Alpha Males. Clinton is well on her way to owning the identities of angry women, beta males, immigrants, and disenfranchised minorities.

“If this were poker, which hand looks stronger to you for a national election?”

In his highly-regarded piece May your god go with you, 2353NM describes vividly the influence of one interest group, the Australian Christian Lobby on many LNP politicians. They pander to the ACL ‘identity’, which purports to represent the views of Christians when it actually represents only those who share its narrow views. LNP politicians have allowed the ACL to influence their views on marriage equality and the Safe Schools program. They illustrate the down side of identity politics.

In a few words, Trump is seen as:
Ignoring rationality;
Appealing to the emotions;
Using emotions to discount the facts;
Ignoring facts ‘because they don’t matter’;
Bending reality to suit his purpose;
Using identity politics that focuses on key interest groups.

We had our own Trump here; he went under the name of Tony Abbott.

As the election campaign gathers momentum, let’s see who uses these well-tried techniques most effectively.

Malcolm Turnbull’s rhetoric embodies some of them.

Cartoon by Leunig

Cartoon by Leunig

His assertion that abolishing the ABCC is vital for our economy because its absence is dragging our economy down, is not based on verifiable facts. The facts say otherwise. Consciously or otherwise, he is indicating that ‘facts don’t matter’. What in his mind does matter is laying the blame for the state of our economy on those dreadful unions; an emotional appeal to those who are ready to blame them, and keen to impose a strong policeman to control their ‘counterproductive behaviour’.

Turnbull’s insistence that Labor’s suggested changes to negative gearing would plunge the home building industry into disarray is not in accord with the facts. Turnbull is using an emotional appeal to those already using or anticipating using this strategy, evoking emotion to discount the facts. Bill Shorten needs to counter not with contrary facts, but with an emotional appeal to younger people (and their parents) desperately trying to get into the housing market, to get their first home against the competition of avaricious investors going for their fifth, or tenth dwelling!

Turnbull is using identity politics when he panders to the interest group, the Australian Christian Lobby, (as well as the hard right conservatives in his party) by ordering an investigation into the Safe Schools program and ‘modifying’ it to remove ‘contentious elements’. Likewise he panders to the ACL when he adopts Abbott’s delaying tactics of a post-election plebiscite on marriage equality.

All the time in the background the global ‘Prime Minister at Large’, the omnipresent Tony Abbott, is using all of Trump’s techniques, as he has always done. He ignores the facts; appeals to the emotions; uses emotions to discount the facts; bends reality to suit his purpose; and is heavily into identity politics. These techniques won him government, but sadly for us all, they didn’t help him govern.

As we move inexorably into the election campaign, let’s analyse the strategies of the main players, and ask:
– Are they appealing to reason, or treating us as irrational?
– Or are they appealing to our emotions?
– Do they ignore or discount the acknowledged facts as if they don’t matter?
– Do they bend the facts to suit their purpose?
– Do they use identity politics by pandering to the narrow interest groups whose support they need?



This article was originally published on The Political Sword

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  1. David Bruce

    Depending on your Personality type, your preferred method of learning, decision making style and daily routine will be predictable. Alan Pease recognised this in Body Language, and Florence Littauer, in Personality Plus! More than 50% of populations are Sanguines or Phlegmatics, and are Sensing, Feeling types! Go figure?

  2. Bob Rafto

    Could this be the era of the shock jock politician?

  3. Kaye Lee

    This is so alien to me. Truth is all I want. I need to see facts and figures. When politicians make statements like productivity increased by 20% when the ABCC was operational I immediately go check.

  4. gee

    the more i look at the people and the world around me, the more i am convinced that the only rational course of action is to contract cancer and die.

    At least then i wouldn’t have to put up with the sea of “stupid” that we are all drowning in, nor have to sit by and watch the world die before me.

  5. jimhaz

    Hitler was the same.

    I do think you/Adams have oversold Trumps intelligence. What he does he does automatically from his vast experiences of being a predator, so such things become automatic. Mostly he has borrowed from the Republican playbook, just as Abbott did. Cruz and the other republican candidates all do the same.

  6. roddy666

    And the emotions that these clowns and charlatans calling themselves politicians and leaders play on are all negative emotions, anger and hatred, don’t forget that. They tell their docile followers who to fear, who to hate, what to think and what to believe, and like the lemmings they are, duly and dutifully do…

  7. Wayne Turner

    That this country elevated a Prime Moron in Tony Abbott.Says it all about irrational voters.

    Hence,it’s one of the many reasons democracy does NOT work.Just because the majority think something does NOT mean they are correct.The masses can and are irrational,easily manipulated,ignorant and WRONG.

  8. Michael

    Agree, Trump is working his success formula – learned from childhood – as described – as is Abbott and Turnbull and acolytes – all of them serve a purpose, hopefully to teach us before it is too late.

    Our destiny lies in the hands of our fellow voters.

    What I do not get is that it seems people do not counter being lied to, taken advantage of, treated as robots, manipulated, being robbed of their most powerful tool in a democracy – their 1 vote, 1 value to change the system which institutionally (political parties and their pre-chosen candidates) gathers those votes for the use of the king bee.

    I wonder if the system is exposed, that is, with WHAT has/is happening leading to HOW it works (all on one page) – many more may “awaken”.

  9. Sir ScotchMistery

    If Trump wins, I will headbutt every f*cking yank I meet. Hard.

    I will then suggest we secede from the United States where our brain fart politicians have put us.

    Scum wins every election because we only have scum to vote for.

  10. astra5

    I share your frustration. All most voters want is the truth, honesty, transparency, and politicians who can say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Yet what we mostly get is dishonesty, obfuscation, deliberate lies, meaningless slogans, thought bubbles, and poorly thought through ‘policies’, such as today’s pathetic effort to sell income tax raising to the states.

    The sheer incompetence, the blatant dishonesty, and the ridiculous game-playing, is unworthy of our elected and well-paid representatives.

    We might think Trump is appalling, but take look at our own so-called leaders!

  11. mark

    bad parenting,I reckon.mark

  12. Lee

    Marketing has been using this strategy for years. Tap into people’s fears and emotions to sell them stuff they don’t really need.

  13. Rezblah

    Ha, well all this brought to you by the voters that brought us George w bush – TWICE?!!! (Albeit illegally the 2nd time but that’s par for the course these days) at the end of the day the US presidential election is a meaningless side show to distract everyone from the machinations of the rumsfelds and cheyneys that really pull the strings so how much harm can he really do compared to such as those?

    We live in the “Information Age” which has been hijacked by governments and media to become the “misinformation, blither and bullshit age”. A 24 hour deluge of crap that overwhelms the population to the point they give up and switch off – all part of the plan no doubt

    There needs to be a huge fact check and truth oversight committee set up in this country that fact checks everything a politician says To counter this. If what they say is declared false, the entire parliament should be banned from repeating it and anyone who does should be sacked on the spot and hit with a massive fine or jail term – seriously, they need to be MADE to do the right thing, otherwise as has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, they won’t, and they get off with it Scott free. The current complete and utter lack of accountability is an absolute disgrace and needs to end

  14. lawrencesroberts

    Politics is show-business for ugly people.
    Not my quote but unfortunately becoming true.

  15. Miriam English

    Politics has always been bullshit and appeals to emotion. People like Trump and Abbott have walked the stage of world’s most powerful people for centuries. The only real difference is that today, with the internet and the wide horizon of easily accessible knowledge we can see it. They are unmasked. We are now able to understand they are manipulative, opportunistic morons, exploiting people’s emotions. Abbott and Trump are not smart people. Abbott has been a failure at everything he’s done. Trump started with a massive fortune left him by his father and lost much of it in stupid investments — he’d be richer if he’d simply left it in the bank. They are basically idiots, but they have one great ability: they can tap into people’s fear and hate — not everybody’s, but enough to get a taste of power.

    We can see politics is mostly degenerate crap. But not so very long ago people spent their lives entirely deluded, and eagerly died for politicians and kings who were complete imbeciles. Don’t despair. This is a good thing. It is like having a spell lifted from our eyes so that we can see we’re living in a rubbish dump. Are you angry that the spell has been lifted? Or do you realise that now you can see your true circumstances you can do something about it?

    And please don’t blame the majority for being manipulated. There is a vast, well-oiled machine doing the manipulating. It is like blaming the woman for getting raped. Take away the propaganda machine and democracy works really well. That’s what we need to focus our efforts on. AIMN is a good start. We need to tell everyone who will listen how incredibly biased and manipulative the mainstream media have become. Murdoch is already losing money hand over foot. We need to accelerate that.

    It is wrong to think that manipulative emotional bullshit can only be countered with even stronger manipulative emotional bullshit. That’s the absolute wrong direction to go. It hasn’t worked on you and me. Why would we think so little of our fellow Australians? Once people find out they’ve been lied to there is no way you can get their trust. It doesn’t make sense to lie more strongly to them. It’s like saying she just needs to be raped the right way.

    No. We need to help others break the spell. Then the facts will do their job of unmasking the bigots. It was how Abbott got the boot; everybody realised what a chronic liar he was and nobody trusted him anymore. I think this era may be coming to the end of political appeals to bigotry. The level of disgust in the wider community, I think, backs me up on this.

  16. Kaye Lee

    Miriam, you are a very wise woman.

    One definition of ‘politics’ is: “activities aimed at improving someone’s status or increasing power within an organization”

    This seems to be the only definition nowadays. The common good has been subjugated to the pursuit of power for personal gain. Business lobby groups buy the right to dictate economic policy. Religious extremists dictate the moral agenda. The IPA is increasingly inserted into the media and government. The media is bought up by those with vested interests.

    But they can’t keep US quiet. Miriam is right…don’t blame those who believe what they are told by politicians and media. They SHOULD be able to trust them. Many people work very hard to survive. They are too busy and too tired to spend time researching.

    The worm is turning. Inequality has been identified as one of the greatest threats to society, along with climate change. The facts are there. The lies will be shown up. But HELL it’s frustrating in the mean time. Sometimes I wish I knew less….it would be much easier.

  17. astra5

    Miriam English
    I did enjoy reading your comment. If only the average punter had the same insight, voters would be elect those whom they trust, because they are genuine, keep their word, are consistent, and above all place the common good ahead of their own ambitions and the aspirations of their party. Do such paragons exist in politics? Or are politicians all tainted in some way, all corrupt in some sense?

    It is satisfying that social media now give ordinary people like us a chance to have our say, and for others to support or oppose us. Keith Murdoch learned in his very early days the power of the media, and taught his son Rupert well. Now Rupert is seeing his influence diluted as his empire declines and as social media exerts the influence that once was his.

    Kaye Lee
    You are so right: the worm is turning and is addressing the inequities of our political system. Inequality and climate change are dangerous threats to our social and environmental equilibrium. Social media is shouting for change – soon the clamour will be deafening and impossible to ignore.

  18. totaram

    “It is wrong to think that manipulative emotional bullshit can only be countered with even stronger manipulative emotional bullshit. That’s the absolute wrong direction to go. It hasn’t worked on you and me. Why would we think so little of our fellow Australians? Once people find out they’ve been lied to there is no way you can get their trust.”

    I do so hope you are right! But I do despair that it may not be so, just like gee. Another few years to settle a few last things and I will be good to go.

  19. @mars.08

    “And please don’t blame the majority for being manipulated…

    A statement I simply cannot agree with.

    I will definitely blame those voters who consistently and intentionally reject proof that they are being fed lies. I definitely blame those voters who stubbornly ignore the facts that do not mesh with their fear and bigotry. We have seen some fine examples of such deluded individuals in this forum. Fools who are totally committed to sticking with their warped views, no matter how often and many facts are provided to them.

    I can accept a certain amount of naivety in my fellow adults, but I will not tolerate relentless, willful ignorance.

  20. Miriam English

    mars, I was talking about the majority. The doggedly bigoted ones you are talking about are a minority. I don’t blame them so much as feel repelled by, and sorry for them. Nobody wants to be a monster.

    The majority, as Kaye said, are too busy with their lives to have the time to sift through what politicians say, looking for supporting or contrary facts — that’s what the “experts” in the media are supposed to do. If you ask those majority, many of them assume that all politicians are liars. They are not naive. If anything they are too jaded.

  21. Michael

    Democracy consists of choosing your dictators after they have told you what you think it is you want to hear.- Alan Corenk

  22. Miriam English

    Want a quick peek into Australia’s future?
    The mean right wingers over there in USA are trying to do the same thing here. We need to stop them.

    An article about how the right wing scammed its voters and created Trump.

    Opinion: How the GOP scammed its voters … and created Trump

    By Nick Hanauer, the progressive, gay billionaire who thinks the rich need to be taxed more heavily and that lifting the middle class (and the poor) is what’s best for society and for business because it creates more customers and makes people more happy and peaceful.

  23. astra5

    Miriam English
    Thank for your informative link. It makes great reading, reinforcing much of what we are coming to believe about conservatives.

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