December 13, 2017

Why Trump Won the Election, and Hillary Didn’t

why trump won the election

Trump: What the pundits missed

Jeffrey Pfeffer
J. Pfeffer

by Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor at Graduate School of Business, Stanford University

editor note: Reposted from my Linked-In page, very interesting

CALIFORNIA, U.S.A. — Why trump won the election. While people slice and dice survey data and exit polls to see who voted for Trump and why, missing from the discussion and analysis both during the run-up to the election and in the aftermath is attention to social psychological theory and evidence that can provide insight into Trump’s (and other leaders’) behavior and success. What follows is a partial overview on the social psychology of the “Trump” phenomenon.

But first, a word of caution about all of the analyses about “why” people voted for Trump or Clinton. As social psychologists Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson argued now almost 40 years ago in a widely cited paper, people have limited and often inaccurate introspective access to their own (let alone others’) mental processes. This means that people are often unaware of the existence of the stimulus that caused a response and frequently even unaware of the response. Instead, people use widely available and plausible causal theories to infer the causes of their own behavior. The implication: when stimuli are either not salient or are not plausible causes of the response those stimuli produce, people will be quite inaccurate in their reporting about why they behaved as they did.

Therefore, take all the analyses of the survey data with a big grain of salt, as people are, to paraphrase the title of this classic paper, “telling us more than they can know.”

Why trump won the electionTrump’s Faults Aren’t

It is almost unquestioned that Trump is a narcissist, is frequently untruthful and inaccurate in his statements, and pays little attention to facts and data. What many observers somehow fail to appreciate is that these three qualities are actually typical of leaders in many sectors and, moreover, are not so much faults as fundamental bases for becoming a powerful leader.

Research consistently shows that narcissism and related traits such as unwarranted self-confidence, self-promotion, and self-aggrandizement predict leader emergence — in experiments, in field data, even in the U.S. military. The evidence for the effects of narcissism on group or organizational performance is more equivocal, although one overlooked study of U.S. presidents found that a related trait, fearless dominance, did predict some dimensions of presidential performance such as crisis management, Congressional relations, and persuasiveness The U.S. presidency is obviously a leadership position. Why, given the extensive research literature showing the connection between narcissism and being selected into a leadership role, should anyone be surprised that narcissism, rather than being a problem, is actually useful?

There is also an extensive research literature on lying. As I pointed out in the book Leadership BS, both anecdotal and systematic evidence suggests that lying may be one of the most useful and important traits of leaders. People lie all the time, with few to no consequences. That includes the tobacco industry executives who testified that they didn’t know about the studies their own companies conducted demonstrating the adverse health effects of smoking, the numerous financial industry executives who maintained that their balance sheets were sound as they headed into bankruptcy or had to raise capital at distressed prices during the 2008 financial crisis, and even the famous Steve Jobs about whom the phrase, “reality distortion field” was coined.

And as for facts and data, when Dennis Tourish was still teaching in Scotland before moving to the University of London, he told me he was conducting a survey to see what, if anything, Scottish business people read. The implication: they did not read much. When my colleague Bob Sutton and I wrote a book on evidence-based management, we did so because so few business decisions were — and are — seemingly based on the facts and evidence. Consider as just one example the case of mergers. Even though both academic and consulting studies consistently find that mergers don’t positively affect and instead frequently reduce shareholder wealth, the evidence on the success — or lack thereof — of mergers doesn’t seem to have changed the ongoing, ever-increasing acquisition binge. So if Trump doesn’t worry about the evidence, he is not that much different from many other senior leaders.

Why trump won the election, Clinton’s Burden: Women and Leadership

Although women have made progress in achieving senior positions, they remain woefully underrepresented in senior roles in domains ranging from law firms to academia to corporations. There are many reasons why, but here is one relevant to understanding the obstacle Clinton faced because of her gender: there is an incongruity between the traits and expectations ascribed to women and the traits and expectations for leaders. As one social scientist noted, “the exercise of power and authority has always been seen as a man’s prerogative. Evidence shows that people are biased against female leaders and managers, and the “devaluation of women was greater when leaders occupied male-dominated roles and when the evaluators were men.” There have been no women presidents so one might reasonably argue that the role of a president is male-dominated, and Clinton, in general, did worse among male voters.

Why trump won the election, Two Other Useful Ideas

I conclude with two other ideas useful for understanding Trump’s success. The late social psychologist Robert Zajonc almost 50 years ago published a paper describing the “mere exposure effect,” a phenomenon repeatedly demonstrated in consumer psychology over the years. The hypothesis is simple: “mere repeated exposure of the individual to a stimulus object enhances his attitude toward it [the object].” Trump’s omnipresence in the media — and even in Clinton’s campaign commercials — gave him enormous exposure. More exposure=more positive affect (liking).

Chapter four in Robert Cialdini’s latest book, Pre-suasion, is entitled, “What is Focal is Causal.” Salience matters. What we see, what is focal, what is salient, comes to seem causal for explaining the world. Trump’s salience, the fact that he was (and is) focal on the debate stages, in the news, in discussions and commentary (whether critical or not), elevated his presumed causality in being able to affect outcomes in the world. Simply put, salience created the appearance of potency — and potency is precisely the quality sought in leaders, particularly leaders in times of economic stress and change.

Understanding Trump — indeed understanding the emergence and behavior of leaders in most organizations most of the time — requires attention to the social psychology of behavior. There is a vast literature available to help in this effort. Pundits, and everyone seeking to chart a more successful paths, would do well to give that research literature much more attention.


Jeffrey Pfeffer
Jeffrey Pfeffer – Professor at Graduate School of Business, Stanford University

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