“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).

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Both Trump and Hillary don’t have any personal credibility as of now. What are left are the issues that each candidate stands for. Let’s stop wondering or asking who is the more righteous candidate because either one has enough negative baggage to dump. So if you’re voting, vote for the issues they represent.

  2. It is so simple why he has followers even educated ones like myself. Look at the two faced lyre he is running against and her ultra liberal agenda. Number 2: He is the only one ever that will not accept the career politician and their philosophy of self interest and job security over our great country’s interest. It is nont complicated at all. It’s CONSERVATIVE vs LIBERAL agenda over all else.

  3. Apparently some of you have never lived under a socialist/communist regime. That’s the
    Reason I escaped to this country.
    WAKE UP AMERICA or you will regret it
    GO TRUMP!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. It is pretty amazing how so many upstanding Americans can stand up for a blatant bigot like Trump and still consider themselves open minded, fair people. Women especially shock me when they try to defend Trump’s disgusting disrespectful comments about women. Have you ever stopped to think what he thinks of you? How can you face your daughters?

    Maybe I would be more inclined to be open minded about some of the policies he talks about if he would ever articulate some.

    What I see in this man is exactly what someone else sees in him, his resemblance to another maniacal leader who led his nation down the path to total destruction, while they submitted to his will like mindless drones caught up in the mob mentality, which they were. Remember Hitler? Be careful America, World War III may be closer than you think. Don’t make an irrational choice because you are sick of what you have. Things could, in fact, become a lot worse.

  5. Impeach Obama and throw Hilary in prison ! Wake up America . How much longer
    will we sit on our hands and watch this country go down the tubes ? What a price we have paid for our freedom ! Countless lives paid for our freedom . We soon will lose our freedom and a whole lot more . Everything won’t be alright . Dark days for America are on the horizon. WAKE UP !

  6. All these ridiculous theories!
    The simple truth for a lot of patriotic, God fearing Americans ( the people who built this country ) is we are completely sick of the establishment, elitist politicians who could care less about the people they are supposed to represent! We want them gone!! We would rather give someone who is not ‘the same old thing’ a shot, than continue the status quo for one more miserable second! HC is everything we are against…lying, decieving, criminal, power hungry, alt left, career politicians.
    My vote is AGAINST her and her ilk! All I care about is that the one running against her resembles her in no way whatsoever.
    Don’t like that? I could care less!

  7. In my opinion, Hillary is one of the biggest liars in the history of the USA. Yet her deceived disciples will follow her no matter what – but not to her rightly deserved jail cell. The situation in America would be deplorable to our forefathers. And yet Hillary is stating that nearly one quarter of the American people are deplorable! Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, please spend the next few days looking in the mirror and let America know who is truly deplorable.

  8. I have no questions about the political leanings of the good Professor. This appears to be just another being (?) calling all Trump supporters DEPLORABLES. The same basic fault in forming the argument is plainly observed in this rant as the fault in Hillary’s DEPLORABLES comment to begin with. They BOTH need to attend a debate class..

  9. Jews like Dov are getting spooked now that we have a candidate who’s obviously more dedicated to the US than Israel as compared to so many presidential candidates in the past.
    This is why they’re writing this sort of garbage trying to malign Trump and his supporters.
    Go Trump!
    Screw Israel and its dual citizen traitors!

  10. Great article Dr. Michaeli! Obviously, the Drumpfkins came out to complain about your article, because they know nothing better, but to whine about everything just like their orange man-baby leader.

  11. Politics aside, the article paints a scientifically accurate picture of the human thought-process as it is related to decision making. Regardless of stance – whether it be right wing, left wing, or straddling the spine – one should consider the lizard-like nature of our subconscious thought-processes prior to advocating any leader….. Or making any decision, really.

  12. Is anyone not at all concerned about the embarrassment that Trump will bring to the U.S.A.? I hear him talk and he sounds like a buffoon. He spends more time insulting and making rude remarks about the opposition than what he has to offer and his plans as president. Talking about plans, his big one is about building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. borders, all on the American’s dime. I hear him talk and watch his mannerisms, I imagine how he’d act in the presence of foreign dignitaries and I cringe what might come out of his mouth and his acts of “faux pas”. He’s gone bankrupt several times and that should instill confidence that he has business savvy? He will cause so much kaoss with his mouth and his hot head antics that it’s the Americans that will pay dearly, I’m so afraid for them and the world should Trump becomes president!!! He claims to be a Christian holding the bible and yet that bible looked like it had never been opened, it’s spine had not a crease! I bet if you were to ask him to recite the Lord’s Prayer, he couldn’t. What was all this talk that he was accusing President Obama wasn’t born in the United States and demanding a birth certificate? Really?? If he knew the law, he’d have to know that before presenting yourself as a candidate, there had to be proof of his American status! Then there is his backtracking about abortion. He’s for it and then he’s against it, whatever he feels that will give him more support. I don’t trust that he’s the right man for the job and God help the American people should he be voted as president!!!!

    • Talk about an embarrassment.
      The president of The Philippines ( one of our strongest allies) calls obama the son of a whore!
      The Chinese make obama exit from the belly of Air Force One. He’s the only dignitary that was’nt provided a red carpet. They must of thought he brought his crayons and could draw his own red carpet!
      The Iranians take our commander in chiefs sailors and make them cry!
      The Iranians’ navy taunt our naval vessels and make us look weak!
      The Russians taunt our military aircraft
      and make us look weak!
      Turkey, another one of our strong allies, is having conversations with Russia.
      We also have other allies that are leaning toward China.
      obama gives Putin a dirty look like he’s tough! Verbally or physically, Putin would make obama look like a whimp!

      We are losing respect everywhere in the world under obama and clinton wants to carry on his work?
      How do you think the world will treat us if she’s elected!
      Trump will get back the respect the democrats have lost from the world just as Regan did after Carter.

      • BTW, Obama restored our standing \after George W Bush made us the laughing stock of the world for starting the unfounded Iraq war and almost destroying the global economy. Here is what 13 international newspapers are saying about Trump: http://bit.ly/2c1QA4c

        And, “The Chinese make Obama exit from the belly of Air Force One” It was the US decision to have him exit via the stairs instead of the red carpeted roll up stairs they wanted to use. http://bit.ly/2c1R2zC

        If I were you I would be more worried about Trump’s infatuation with Putin than any of the items you listed.

    • So, would you rather be “offended” by Trump, or have Clinton put the final nails in the USA’s coffin? These are the choices we have, and I, like MILLIONS of other rational people, will take the former choice, to prevent the latter choice!

  13. Thank you, Steve! It’s obvious that Dov is far left – Professor – San Francisco – one-sided thinking. If trying to embarrass Trump supporters into dropping their support is his goal, it wont work anymore than all the Megan Kelly type pundants negativity has. We know Hillary, and that’s what matters. Ellie

  14. I would be curious to know what the good doctor thinks about the rest of the candidates and their equally strange behavior over the years. From Hilary’s appalling enabling of her husband’s misogynistic behavior and attacking the women in her husband’s life …. to Bernie Sander’s acquiescing to his followers increasingly violent and intolerant behavior. Hold up the NYT as a beacon of factual reporting these days should require one’s brain to be examined, Dov.

    Speaking of boorish behavior … Dov should look to his own tendency to label people who don’t share his opinion much in the same way too many on the left do these days. I assume he earns more than most in this country, drives a better car than most and lives in a nice home – clearly his income should rightly redistributed among those less affluent. On top of that, he is a white male. That in itself probably would earn him jail time if he were a Republican.

    It’s time we lose the name calling, the absurd “group think” that is political correctness and the intellect elitism that Dov’s post smacks of. Intolerance…whether on the left or the right is wrong. People like Dov that live in glass houses (or in this case in enlightened California) shouldn’t throw stones. Can’t we all just “give peace a chance?”

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