74 million problems. The emotional machinery of Trump’s success.

And what to do now. (It's NOT what you think).

74 million. Where have you heard this number before?

Oh, yes! The election we just went through.  74 million. It’s the number of people who voted for Donald Trump.

And if you know I am not in the Trump fan club, I am guessing what you’re thinking now: 74 million problems must be the 74 million people who voted for him. Hmmm… No. Not quite. It’s complicated.

“These people”

In the cauldron of chaos that were the past few years, where people were alternatingly horrified of the person, terrified of his impact, or just laughing at the whole country, there’s been a lot of opinionating to support the notion that “these people” are the problem. Still…

Michelle Obama once insightfully said: “Being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are”.

The brewing idea is that the same applies to the population: Trump did not make Americans in his image, he just revealed who they really are. College professor Jessica Wildfire puts it boldly in her brilliant article:

“Turns out, a lot of Americans were like Trump on the inside. They were selfish and arrogant. They were lazy and judgmental. They were racist and homophobic. They were loud and aggressive. They want what’s best for themselves, at everyone else’s expense.  They were waiting for someone to give them permission to show it….”.

Ouch. Maybe. But I have questions:

How could people believe that something decent can come out of someone so indecent? Why did so many people get behind someone so flawed, hateful, and self-centered? To me that should have been the killer issue:

Look at the character of the person you are voting for. First and foremost. Before policies, before experience, before credentials. Because character is destiny. And while no one is perfect, let alone a politician, there is definitely a scale of badness. And this man breaks the scale.

It’s time to go deeper than all this. There is always an answer, and I’ve boiled mine down to this equation of 3 things:

(Unresolved threats) + (manipulators) + (human brain)                 =              Social disaster

1. Unresolved threats

There is a common misconception that people act based on their personality and values. But that turns out not to be true! Really. What else drives behavior then? Circumstances.

It’s called the fundamental attribution error. We attribute the choices to their value systems and personalities, when it can just be circumstances. People who otherwise believe in decency, honesty, hard work, and a good god, can get behind someone who embodies the exact opposite of that. Why? Simply put, they feel their situation threatens one of their emotional needs. (Reminder: If something is not logical, it’s always emotional.)

What are the needs that take over from our values, and make us act paradoxically? As superbly laid out by Maslow in his hierarchy of basic human needs, it starts with safety and security, and moves up to belonging and love, self-esteem, self-actualization. Survival sits at the very base, it is the most basic need. If external circumstances threaten survival, all bets are off.  And that means one thing today:  Jobs. Jobs, Jobs.

When jobs are threatened by recessions caused by ‘elites’ – like bankers; or when industries disappear because of profit pressures -like manufacturing going overseas;  or because of new technologies – like fracking replacing coal with natural gas, the pain is real. It needs to be addressed. People need solutions. This is the “It’s the economy, stupid” answer that Bill Clinton embraced. If you want peace, you must take care of the economy. And if there are threats to the jobs environment and you don’t work relentlessly to provide actionable, believable solutions, expect trouble.

Then, if it’s not physical survival at risk, it’s the next level of needs: Belonging, and self-esteem.

New York Times opinion writer Thomas Friedman feels that tThe politicians have been humiliating this class of the population. (Cities vs rural. College vs. farm. The elites vs. the people). They will vote for anyone who will show them respect. He puts it like this:

“… Trump supporters are not attracted to his policies. They’re attracted to his attitude — his willingness and evident delight in skewering the people they hate and who they feel look down on them.”

Add to all this the other complex threats of our world today – climate, migrations, global geopolitics, and you can see the gloomy picture forming in the background. Into this picture, add the manipulators.

2. Enter the manipulators.

All politicians tell lies. But, again, there is a scale.  There are valid and well-known persuasion techniques, as old as Aristotle and Cicero. Then, there are small lies by someone who has basically or mostly good intentions. And then, there is massive scale manipulation for your own benefit. For power. For money. For glory. Often, there are also seriously psychologically disturbed people, sociopaths, and malignant narcissists.  There is Hitler. An entire nation fell under his spell and rolled the world into a bloodbath. For what exactly? For unresolved problems in the German economy out of the post-WWI recession, and a tale to blame-shift to the Jews. Absolutely astounding.

The worst manipulators are ones who also create crises of their own – out of whole cloth. It’s how immigrant threats, or conspiracy theories take hold. People need answers, and these characters will provide them.

3. The tricky human brain

Now we understand the threats to human needs, and we have manipulators ready to jump in. But  how do people that are not necessarily racist, misogynist haters,  end up believing someone who is?

It’s another psychological paradox. Here’s how it works: If you are going to support someone who is against your basic principles, you get cognitive dissonance. It’s that annoying voice in your head that tells you that something is off. You are off balance. And the brain does not like that. The human brain wants to bring balance back to your mental ecosystem. (Balance theory)

So it does this trick: It picks and chooses what behaviors of the person you will “see”, and which ones you will ignore. You will unconsciously “see” only what supports the thing you need to believe (your desired outcome). And you need to believe in the promises, because no one has addressed the core issues (Jobs. Respect).  Promises are all you got.

That is the mind trick. Fatally,  the more you do this, the more you are committed. It is called confirmation bias. If you let it, confirmation bias will take you down the dark alley of self-deception all the way to cult-like behavior – it makes you choose only the behaviors that confirm (and reinforce) what you already believe. The rest gets thrown to the garbage bin. This is the master trick of the brain.

Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate in Physics, understood that perfectly: You are the easiest to fool because of confirmation bias. We want to fool ourselves to get rid of any cognitive dissonance. It’s brain survival. (Again, it’s emotional, not logical.)

It does not have to make logical sense. It you sit down and analyze it, you will know it. But you can’t. Because it is emotions that always drive the decisions at the end of the day. Per Nobel-prize laureate Daniel Kahneman’s work, if System 1 and System 2 disagree, System 1 will win. The emotional, the immediate, the quick reaction – not the thoughtful, slow, intentional part of the brain. Because our brain is made for survival from threats that require us to run or fight, not to sit and deliberate.

And that is exactly how you become a victim of a skilled manipulator of emotions. That’s how mass delusions and cults happen: A susceptible, suffering brain, looking for answers, and a set of promises that are all the solutions you got. You throw that Molotov cocktail into society and it can blow up.

(Unresolved threats) + (manipulators) + (human brain)                 =             Social disaster

I am not into complaining, I am into solutions, so, what to do here?

We must address the two big parts of the problem: Resolve the threats, and consciously evolve our brains beyond emotional panic. That will take care of the manipulator problem too.

A. Address the threats

It seems to me the biggest problem is that no one has worked out any good, long-term solutions. The politicians are asleep at the wheel. The business leaders have their own incentives. Citizens are uninformed. The problems are too complex. So much change so quickly, and no one in leadership has faced up to it.

All of a sudden, we are all exposed naked to the whole world, technology is moving at a smoking pace, industries change overnight, people are moving, cultures are clashing, everything is spinning out of control. It’s a big transition. The human mind cannot adapt fast enough, and no one is managing the transition. And if you don’t manage an evolution there will be a revolution.

Don’t accept politicians’ stories. Look beneath for answers. For example, isolationism has been tried and failed, and it won’t work when capital, talent, and information are free-flowing goods; and, you can’t have all manufacturing jobs back because factories are run by robots these days. Ask for real answers, not pipe dreams. It’s time for our politicians to lead, not to follow.

B. Evolve our brains = resist the fears

Seriously. Our survival instincts are out of control. Everything triggers a violent response. We forget that we are no longer at threat of extinction because an industry changes. We can manage that – if we only think through it. People can get retained. New industries can move into town. Slow down and think it through. Our fear instincts are hijacking our brains just when we need them most. When things are the most complex ever, we are setting our brains on fire and running for cover.

Let’s stop reacting to ancient threats. Lets’ take some time to reflect, get to the root cause of problems, and come up with options. Let System 2 do its magic. It’s not that hard if we don’t just panic all the time. The tigers are not attacking.

So my hope is that we don’t have 74million problem people.

But we do have 74 million problems we all collectively failed to solve.

And we have 330 million brains that need to get to think better.

Or maybe it’s 7+ billion brains that need that.

Come on, humanity!!! We can do so much better. 

Marina K
  • Arvind Bhambri
    Posted at 17:58h, 13 December

    One of the most insightful commentaries I have read on today’s national, even global crisis of identity and loss of purpose

  • Sue Crossen
    Posted at 09:43h, 16 December

    Loved this article! It speaks truth. It’s time to stop reacting emotionally and respond thoughtfully to the real problems at hand.. It reminds us to seek truth and as I say: Love=God=Truth.