Opinion: The science behind Trump's popularity

Chris Graves, global chairman of Ogilvy PR, takes a look at what makes the outspoken Republican presidential candidate so confounding, and appealing.

Chris Graves
Chris Graves

Every day, political analysts and pundits claim to reveal the real reason behind the rise of Donald Trump in his campaign. But social scientists have the best evidence. There is not one reason: there are many.

If you ask Americans whether crime has been on the rise, two-thirds say "yes". But official stats show a 75-percent decline in violent crime over the past two decades. Why the disconnect?

The late professor George Gerbner would attribute it to the ‘mean world syndrome’. His overarching ‘cultivation theory’ found people overestimate the prevalence of things they see on TV.

You see a shark bite played over and over on the news, you assume the odds are good you’ll get bitten. Now imagine a whole generation raised on reality TV. The whole point is deception to win. There is no prize for ‘loser with integrity’.

Now imagine a presidential candidate who has already been the country’s boss (on TV) for 14 years.

For decades, the Global Social Survey has asked people, "Would you say most people can be trusted?" 40 years ago, the split was about even. Today, two-thirds say people cannot be trusted.

Sara Konrath, a professor who specialises in empathy and narcissism research, has found a steady rise in narcissism over the past 30 years. She found 75 percent of American students rate themselves as less empathetic than the average student 30 years ago.

When it comes to trying to defeat Trump through evidence of hypocrisy, psychology professor Bob Altemeyer said: "It’s as if each idea is stored in a file that can be called up and used when the authoritarian wishes, even though another of his ideas — stored in a different file — basically contradicts it.

"We all have inconsistencies in our thinking, but authoritarians can stupefy you with the inconsistency of their ideas."

Christopher Graves is global chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations, chair of the PR Council and a trustee of the Institute for PR. Follow or tweet him at @cgraves

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