The pundits and analysts and just about everyone else and in between believe that Donald Trump is a huge risk, well except for your drunk uncle. He LUVS Trump and thinks he will lead us all over a rainbow bridge riding unicorns holding hands eating heart-shaped cupcakes and singing Kumbaya. Your drunk uncle doesn’t care that the “policies” Trump has have scant details for are contradictory and conflict with a long history and tradition of the US. Your drunk uncle doesn’t care that we don’t know what Trump will do. Your drunk uncle doesn’t care that Trump changes his mind sometimes, literally, several times in one day.
Your drunk uncle isn’t evaluating the risk of a Trump presidency effectively. Your drunk uncle is undervaluing the risk, and he supports Trump. You and I and everyone else in the world believe we are evaluating the risk correctly, and we are against Trump.
Judgment of Risk
Daniel Kahneman is the grandfather of risk assessment and in his seminal work, Thinking, Fast & Slow, he summarizes what we know about risk assessment in their assessments in their judgments and decisions.
First, consider patterns in the purchase of insurance. In spite of what libertarians and Illuminati-conspiracy theorists would have you believe, most people buy insurance AFTER a disaster or a near miss. Purchases of earthquake insurance in California spike after an earthquake in California. People replenish their home emergency kits AFTER the earthquake. WTF? Can science explain it? Why yes, yes it can.
We create a model of our world in our minds. It is based on our experiences either direct experience or that experienced through media. Our reliance on direct and indirect experience to build this model of our world in our mind is very inaccurate. So, we all really are crazy, right? Well, no. While we do not experience the world as it is, we experience it to the degree we need to in order to survive… as hunter-gatherers! We just might be crazy then.
Use of this model requires us to remember specific aspects of it when we have a judgment or decision to make. Well, that explains a lot of your drunk uncle, don’t it? Memories form based on emotional intensity and our attention or focus on whatever. What gets our attention? SURPRISE! The out-of-the-ordinary, novelty. Ask any guy what sex is like the first time with a new partner, and he’ll tell you it was GREAT. Ask the partner, and she’ll tell you he came too soon (I’m assuming that new same sex partners have more similar reaction times. Maybe I’m wrong). Why? The novelty of the experience causes the man to be over aroused and unable to control his orgasm. Every guy, except me, of course. That goes without saying. I use my insights into psychology to please my sex partners. Honest, I do.
The Availability Heuristic
The media focuses on events that are out of the ordinary. We don’t hear about all of the thousands of people a day who die of heart disease — 610,000 a year according the CDC — instead the media focuses on terrorist attacks, plane crashes, child abductions, hippo attacks and other strange and peculiar ways that our lives get cut short or otherwise disrupted. Of course they do. Human beings crave novelty, and we shun the mundane. Our perception of the frequency of an event is distorted from reality just like our model of the world is! At least we are consistent in our distortions and deviations from reality.
Our perception of the frequency of events is affected by our memory of it (availability heuristic). See, our distortions of the world is based on memory! Frightening thoughts and images occur with ease because of their emotional intensity. They become vivid and are tinged with danger and, therefore, are easier to recall than the mundane which tends to bleed together into one blob of blandness.
Let’s face it, when evaluating presidencies, W’s was a California earthquake and Obama was the calm even placidity of mundane life. When do we buy our insurance? After the earthquake. When do we allow our earthquake insurance policies to lapse and our emergency kits to lie dusty, depleted, and buried deep in the closet, after a prolonged period free of earthquakes and tremors.
In spite of acknowledged Republican obstructionism and Republican sponsored government shut downs and threatened defaults on our debt, the Obama presidency has been one of accomplishment and improvement. Because Obama governed effectively and managed the Congress, domestic affairs, and foreign policy so well, we are now ready to undervalue the risk that Trump poses. Thanks Obama!
The Affect Heuristic
People are emotional decision makers. Slovic posited the affect heuristic in which people make decisions and judgments based wholly on their emotional reactions. Our opinions and choices are made after consulting our emotional disposition. It is only after they are formed that we engage intellectually to rationalize our position. Trump is almost wholly emotional. He makes no reasoned rational argument for why he should be president. He offers no detailed policies or positions. He says what he thinks, which, by definition, is emotional. His appeal is strictly emotional. No matter how many lies he tells, how many flip-flops he makes, how many insults he spews, if you like Trump, you’ll rationalize your support for him.
Trump’s appeal is strictly emotional. Look at his campaign slogans and other catch phrases:
Make America great again
We are always losing. I’ll make us win again!
No one respects us any more; no one fears us any more. I’ll make them respect us.
They walk all over us; they take advantage of us. I’m the best negotiator, they won’t take advantage of us any more.
It’s all emotion, all the time. So consider the implications of this study: Slovic surveyed his guinea pigs concerning the benefits and risks of a number of technologies like fluoridation, food preservatives, chemical plants, and cars. He reported a surprisingly strong negative correlation between the benefit and risk attributed to the technologies. A guinea pig that liked a technology saw it as beneficial with little risk and vice versa, a dislike of a technology also coincided with an opinion that the technology offered little benefit and had a high risk.
Interesting as those findings were, Slovic wasn’t done with his guinea pigs. He provided them with a brief reading focusing on the numerous benefits of or the low risk associated with the technology. The guinea pigs who read a statement highlighting the technology’s benefits gave it a lower risk ratings and the low risk readings resulted in a more beneficial rating! Isn’t science wonderful?
If we apply this finding to Trump, what do we see. When your drunk uncle masturbates to fantasies of a Trump presidency, he is rating Trump’s presidency as being beneficial and low risk. The rest of us who dislike Trump rate his presidency as being harmful and high risk. But, if those people who dislike Trump hallucinate the “benefits” of a Trump presidency, then they may come to like him better, believe that his presidency will be more beneficial, and estimate that it will have a lower risk. So, no hallucinogens during the campaign… if Trump wins, hallucinogenics all the time. And, all of this occurs in spite of what Trump has said in the primary or in years past.
Kahneman praises Slovic as the person who has the greatest understanding of how people judge risk. This is what Slovic thinks:
- People are guided by emotion and not by reason.
- People are influenced by trivial details.
- And, people are insensitive to differences between low and super low probabilities.
As irrational as it sounds, his lifetime of studies are getting to be pretty conclusive.
Your Drunk Uncle
Your drunk uncle’s lust for Trump is guided by his emotions. He has been swayed by trivial matters like he has a pretty wife, he is a winner, he beat Jeb! Lil’ Marco, and Lyin’ Ted. Don’t waste your time at next Thanksgiving dinner providing substantive criticisms of Trump. Your drunk uncle won’t be influenced by them. He is more influenced by the trivial and not by the substance.
That Trump has almost no path to victory in the fall is negated because your drunk uncle cannot distinguish between a low probability and a super duper low probability. And you thought it was only due to having pickled himself with cheap whiskey. Once Trump’s chances of victory dip below a certain threshold, it doesn’t matter how low they go, your drunk uncle can’t be bothered with it.
Measurements of Risk
Just like when guys measure their dicks, the method of measurement has a tremendous effect on it’s size. Metric versus imperial. Push the ruler as deeply into the flesh as possible in spite of the pain and blood that results. Take the measure from the top, side, or underside of the dick. Of course, the thing that matters most on making these choices, is which one will result in the greatest delusion of length.
This is true of all other measurements of risk, the biggest influence on the choice of measurement is the preferred outcome. The famous last words, Hey! Watch this! is a reflection of a failure to effectively evaluate risk. In large part it is the result of the end justifying the means.
How might we evaluate the risk of driving in a car? The number of traffic accidents per year? In a given city? In a given state? On a certain road? The number of traffic fatalities? per car? per capita? per mile driven? There are a lot of choices to make. We tend to (a) use the traffic issues that are easily recalled to mind (availability heuristic), (b) make the choice immediately based on our emotional disposition (affect heuristic), and (c) use the criteria that will get us the results we want. Not a great way to make a decision about risk.
Thanks Obama 2
Obama has set us up for Trump. W’s disaster of a presidency has long since faded from memory — except for those of us with PTSD that he caused. The Great Recession hasn’t faded, but for many of us, we have become numb to it, acclimated or habituated to it, in short, the conditions of the Great Recession have become normal. And, the Great Recession is not associated with W. The recession that cost HW his presidency due to Reaganomics have been completely erased from memory. The economic good times from Clinton’s presidency have long since faded from memory.
Obama’s success makes Trump a more tolerable risk. We have forgotten what Republican policies do. We are stable enough now to take a bigger risk on who is the next president. When Obama succeeded W, we were not in a position to take a risk with the Maverick, John McCain, and the Quitter, Sarah Palin.
Trump is an emotional feel-good candidate. He appeals to the basest emotions. He provokes fear and then provides a “solution.” The relief is appealing. He uses disparaging humor against women, specific people, and minorities, nationalities, and ethnicities. So, millions are making an emotional decision based on the satisfaction that oppressing others brings. It creates an us and a them and insulting them improves the self-esteem of the us.
Obama, by being black and Democratic, represents the demographic shift that America is experiencing… and that shift scares your drunk uncle and white men, especially. The scared white demographic has a preferred outcome of their risk assessment — give me my country back! So, the risk that such an uninformed, narcissistic, bombastic candidate represents becomes tolerable.