The Brain Science of Political Deception and the 2016 Election

Gleb Tsipursky

How did Donald J. Trump win the U.S. presidency despite his many misleading statements and outright deceptions? Couldn’t people see through them? As an expert in brain science, I want to share why his followers fell for his lies and what can be done to address this phenomenon in the future.

First, let’s get our facts straight. On November 9, the day after the election, Politifact.com, a well-known non-partisan website, rated only about 4 percent of candidate Trump’s statements as fully “True” but over 50 percent as either completely “False” or “Pants on Fire”—ridicu­lously false. The rest fell in the middle. By comparison, 25 percent of Hillary Clinton’s statements were rated as fully “True” and only 12 percent as either “False” or “Pants on Fire.”

The Washington Post, one of the most reputable newspapers in the country, wrote that “There’s never been a presidential candidate like Donald Trump—someone so cavalier about the facts and so unwilling to ever admit error, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.” In their rulings on statements made by Trump, this paper’s editors gave 64 percent of them “Four Pinocchios,” their worst rating. By contrast, statements by other politicians tend to get that worst of all ratings 10 to 20 percent of the time.

These findings are similar to those of other prominent news media and fact-check outlets, yet according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, most voters on the eve of the election perceived Trump as more trustworthy than Clinton. This false perception came because the Trump campaign built on previous Republican criticism of Clinton, much of it misleading but some of it accurate, that successfully manipulated many voters into believing that Clinton was less honest than Trump, in spite of evidence to the contrary. The Trump campaign did so through the illusory truth effect, a thinking error that occurs when false statements are repeated many times and we begin to see them as true. In other words, just because something is stated several times, we perceive it as more accurate.

You may have noticed the last two sentences in the previous paragraph had the same meaning. The second sentence didn’t provide any new information, but it did cause you to believe my claim more than you did when you read the first sentence.

The Biology of Truth vs. Comfort

Why should the human brain be structured so that mere repetition, without any added evidence, causes us to believe a claim more strongly? The more often we are exposed to a statement, the more comfortable we are with it. The fundamental error most people make is mistaking statements that make them feel comfortable for true statements.

Our brains cause us to believe something is true because we feel it is true, regardless of the evidence—a phenomenon known as “emotional reasoning.” This strange phenomenon can be easily explained if we understand some basic biology behind how our brains work.

When we hear a statement, what first fires in the brain, in a few milliseconds, is our autopilot system of thinking. It is composed of our emotions and intuitions. Also known as “System 1,” the autopilot system is what the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Daniel Kahneman identified as one of two systems of thinking in his 2011 Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is the more ancient system of our brain. It protected us in the ancestral environment against dangerous threats such as saber-toothed tigers by making us feel badly about them and drew us toward what we needed to survive (food and shelter) by making us feel good about them. The humans who survived learned to heed the autopilot system’s guidance, and we are the children of these humans.

Unfortunately, the autopilot system is not well-calibrated for the modern environment. When we hear statements that go against our current beliefs, our autopilot system perceives them as threats and causes us to feel badly about them. By contrast, statements that align with our existing beliefs cause us to feel good, and we want to believe them. So if we just go with our gut reactions, we will always choose statements that align with our current beliefs.

The Role of Changing News Sources

Until recently, people got all their news from mainstream media, which meant they were often exposed to information that they didn’t like because it did not fit their beliefs. Newsroom budget cuts and the consolidation of media ownership over the last decade have resulted in mainstream media becoming increasingly less diverse. Moreover, according to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, many people are increasingly getting their news mainly or only from their own personalized social media sources; this tends to exclude information that differs from their own beliefs. This reinforces their beliefs and makes it seem that everyone shares the same beliefs as their own.

This trend is occurring because of the traditional strong trust in friends as reliable sources of recommendations, according to the 2015 Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising Report. Our brains tend to spread the trust that we associate with friends to other sources of information that we see on social media. This thinking error is known as the “halo effect”: our assessment of one element of a larger whole as positive transfers to other elements. We can see this in research showing that people’s trust in social-media influencers has grown over time nearly to the level of trust in their friends, as shown by a 2016 joint study by Twitter and the analytics firm Annalect.

Even more concerning, a 2016 study from Stanford University demonstrated that over 80 percent of students, who are generally experienced social-media users, could not distinguish a news story shared by a friend from a sponsored advertisement. In a particularly scary finding, many of the study’s participants thought a news story was true based on irrelevant factors such as the size of the photo, as opposed to rational factors such as the credibility of the news source outlet.

The Trump team knew that many people have difficulty distinguishing sponsored stories from real news stories, and that’s why they were at the forefront of targeting voters with sponsored advertorials on social media. In some cases, they used this tactic to motivate their own supporters; in others, they used it as a voter-suppression tactic against Clinton supporters. The Trump campaign’s Republican allies created fake news stories that got millions of shares on social media. The Russian propaganda machine has also used social media to manufacture fake news stories favorable to Trump and critical of Clinton, according to reports by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Additionally, Trump’s attacks on mainstream media and fact-checkers before the election—and even after the election—undercut the credibility of news-source outlets. As a result, trust in the media among Republicans dropped to an all-time low of 14 percent in a September 2016 Gallup poll, a drop of over 200 percent from 2015. Fact-checking is even less credible among Republicans, with 88 percent expressing distrust in a September 2016 Rasmussen Reports poll.

All this combined to create unprecedented reliance on and sharing of fake news by Trump’s supporters on social media. A new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) at George Mason University used Politifact to find that Republicans have tended to make many more false statements than Democrats since the rise of the Tea Party. Lacking trust in the mainstream media and relying on social media instead, a large segment of Trump’s base indiscriminately shared whatever made them feel good, regardless of whether it was true. Indeed, one fake-news writer, in an interview with the Washington Post, said of Trump supporters: “His followers don’t fact-check anything—they’ll post everything, believe anything.” No wonder Trump’s supporters mostly believe his statements, according to polling. By contrast, another creator of fake news, in an interview with National Public Radio, described how he “tried to write fake news for liberals—but they just never take the bait” due to their practicing fact-checking and debunking.

The Remedy

This fact-checking and debunking illustrates that the situation, while dismal, is not hopeless. Such truth-oriented behaviors rely on our other thinking system, the “intentional system” or “System 2,” as shown by Chip and Dan Heath in their 2013’s Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. The intentional system is deliberate and reflective. It takes effort to use, but it can catch and override the thinking errors committed by System 1 so that we do not adopt the belief that something is true because we feel it is true, regardless of the evidence.

Many liberals associate positive emotions with empirical facts and reason, which is why their intentional system is triggered into fact-checking news stories. Trump voters mostly did not have such positive emotions regarding finding the truth and believed in Trump’s authenticity on a gut level regardless of the facts. This difference is not well recognized by the mainstream media, who treat their audience as rational thinkers and present information in a language that during the election communicated well to liberals but not to Trump voters.

To get more conservatives to activate their intentional systems when evaluating political discourse, we need to speak to emotions and intuitions—the autopilot system, in other words. We have to get folks to associate positive emotions with seeking the truth first and foremost, before anything else.

To do so, we should understand where people are coming from and what they care about, validate their emotions and concerns, and only then show, using emotional language, the harm that people suffer when they believe in lies. For instance, for those who care about safety and security, we can highlight how it’s important for them to defend themselves against being swindled into taking actions that make the world more dangerous. Those concerned with liberty and independence would be moved by emotional language targeted toward protecting themselves against being used and manipulated. For those focused on family values, we may speak about trust being abused.

These are strong terms that have deep emotional resonance. Many may be uncomfortable with using such tactics of emotional appeals. We have to remember the end goal of helping people orient toward the truth. This is a case where ends do justify the means. We need to be emotional to help people become more rational—to make sure that while truth lost the battle, it will win the war.

Further Reading

  • Cabane, Olivia F. The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2012.
  • Cialdini, Robert B. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: HarperCollins, 1984.
  • Goleman, Daniel. Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006.
  • Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. New York: Random House, 2013.
  • Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
  • Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
  • LeDoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York: Touchstone, 1996.
  • Rosenberg, Marshall B. Nonviolent Communication. A Language of Life. 3rd ed. Encinitas, Calif.: PuddleDancer Press, 2015.
  • Tsipursky, Gleb. From Post-Truth to Post-Lies: The Psychology of Political Persuasion. Forthcoming.
  • Watts, Duncan J. Everything Is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer. New York: Crown Business, 2011.

Gleb Tsipursky

Gleb Tsipursky runs the Rational Politics project at Intentional Insights, a nonprofit devoted to promoting rational thinking and wise decision-making in politics and other areas of life. He researches decision-making and emotional and social intelligence in business and politics as a professor at Ohio State. He is also a speaker, consultant, and the author of the forthcoming book Pro-Truth Politics, Fighting Post-Truth Politics and Alternative Facts with Behavioral Science.


“Many people are increasingly getting their news mainly or only from their own personalized social media sources; this tends to exclude information that differs from their own beliefs.”

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