“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Thus, the Donald referring to Megyn Kelly, the Fox News anchor, who dared to ask him about his misogynistic remarks about women. I could almost write it off to a testosterone-addled brain of an adolescent suffering from arrested development. But going after Gail Collins, my favorite NYT columnist, who dared to doubt his claims to being a multi-billionaire, (she called him a “thousandaire” and he, in typical retaliation, accused her of having a dog’s face), I began to wonder, “How could women support this boor?”
Of course, there is a certain kind of woman who gravitates toward abusive men. But what about the highly educated women who troop before the TV cameras to support him and excuse his behavior as an irrelevancy? Most are highly paid “consultants” and “strategists” (probably, the second most ancient profession). But if you watch these independent, educated, assertive women closely, you can’t miss their discomfort with the subject. Cognitive dissonance in bold relief.
And, what about the rest of his adoring crowds? They were not sent by anybody to attend his rallies, nor were they paid to go in front of the TV cameras to defend the indefensible. Are they blind to facts in plain view? Can anybody drum some sense into their minds? For an answer, we turn to the workings of the mind. Stick with me to the end, and you will learn why Trump supporters will continue to support him despite recent revelations about his 40 years of bad behavior.
How do we make decisions?
When a lizard spots a raptor swooping down on him, he reacts with astonishing speed. If he didn’t, he would be lunch. What goes on in his brain is common to all animals. The eyes send a message to the amygdala, the alarm center in the brain, which in turn sends urgent messages to all the appropriate muscles: Run for your life! There’s no deep analysis of the raptor’s trajectory—no hesitation about the raptor’s intention—there simply is no time for that, nor is there any need. Over the eons of Natural Selection, the cost/benefit analysis has already been made, and the verdict is ‘Avoid risk at all cost!’
Enter modern Homo sapiens—about 200,000 years ago. Quite rapidly, we developed an additional layer of neurons on top of the evolutionarily ancient brain we inherited. This layer, the neocortex, includes neural centers that allow us to collect observations, analyze them, and make rational decisions.
Almost all the archaic centers, including the amygdala, or alarm center, were preserved over the millennia so that we ended up with two systems: the archaic one that is risk averse to the extreme and can respond super-fast to any perceived threat, and the other more modern cortex that is analytical and rational, but also more ponderous. A corollary to that is that once our brain forms a narrative that explains the world, it will resist change since change entails increased risk.
Now imagine our ancestors roaming the African Savannah. They most likely viewed the world as a pretty menacing place. There were predators and rival bands seeking to kill them, and it was full of awesome natural forces beyond their comprehension and control. Is there any wonder that the default mode, as dictated by natural selection, is to be suspicious, to resist change? Resistance to change is part of our “lizard era” heritage.
In the modern world, we learned to make use of our neocortex in developing rational thinking. But, analytical thinking is still slow and cumbersome. It is much easier to rely on gut reactions informed subconsciously by first impressions and stored memories.
All these factors combined conspire to make our brain “lazy”, defaulting to the easily accessible neural circuits that already store information to make snap decisions rather than resort to the analytical but slower and more demanding modality.
Is changing minds an exercise in futility?
Of course not. We all have “second thoughts”. An article in Scientific American Mind highlights the work of Michael Shadlen, a neurobiologist at Columbia University. He found that people often make decisions before they have fully processed information. But after their brains play catch-up, they occasionally do change their minds. The brain must make a trade-off between accuracy and speed.
Shadlen and a team of researchers reported this trade-off recently in eLife. The team asked participants to indicate the overall direction of dots that were actually moving randomly on a screen. They encouraged subjects to act quickly but not at the expense of accuracy.
They found that, occasionally, the participants changed their minds about how confident they were about a decision after they had made it. It was as if they had continued to think about it. This was despite the participants receiving no more information about the task or how well they had done once they had made their decision. Therefore, it appears that the brain processed additional information that had already been detected but did not have time to affect the initial choice. Shadlen said,
“The same principle would probably apply to more complicated decisions like politics, provided you keep your mind open.”
We have met the enemy, and it is us
Back to our original question, “How could Donald Trump say all these outrageous things and get away with it unscathed?” The answer probably lies in the brain’s initial resistance to change, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Once you fall in love with this reality TV personality who gave voice to your own suspicions, fears, and resentments that have shaped your narrative of the world, you are not going to easily change your mind about him. Doing that may mean changing your mind about yourself and your beliefs.
But as we know from life experience, and as Shadlen’s research demonstrates empirically, not all is lost. Who among us wasn’t infatuated with a jock, or a glamorous gal, and wake up one morning to realize that the guy/gal is an idiot? People do change their minds, it just takes time (and an open mind to begin with).