If you've said anything positive about Donald Trump lately, I'm willing to bet it was something about his dedication to unfiltered honesty.
After all, no one really likes the idea of a true "politician," who utters every word with a sense of controlled calculation. And over the past few months, Trump has quickly been earning his stripes as the most candidly honest, "anti-PC" candidate in the 2016 US presidential race, after already having spent years opining very publicly on everything from the quality of Mexican immigrants and his relationship with "the blacks" to Senator John McCain's ordeal as a POW during the Vietnam War and what a "pretty picture" it would be to see a female Celebrity Apprentice contestant on her knees.
With Trump maintaining a lead in the polls, even after a Republican debate where some of his infamously "non-PC" comments about Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly earned him a fair amount of backlash in the media, many are left wondering what it is about the combed-over business magnate that has appealed to so many people. And that one response, so obvious in its simplicity, keeps echoing back: He's not politically correct.
Sure, you can easily find Trump supporters who are only fans of his because they're blatantly racist, nationalist, or sexist (or sometimes, if you're lucky, a winning combination of all three). For these supporters, it's likely just nice to have a candidate openly espousing the same distasteful feelings that they've always harbored. But for every one of these Trump fans, there are plenty of others who claim that even though they don't actually like the content of what Trump is saying, they appreciate the fact that he is openly saying it. In one supporter's words, Trump is "an a**hole, but at least he's honest, and isn't really into bullsh****ng people." Another claims to like Trump because he "isn't a pandering politician…[and] the rest of the field looks slimy and self-serving [in comparison]."
With all of this focus on how Trump is appealing because of his brutal honesty, it begs the question -- what exactly is it about "political correctness" that turns off so many potential voters? And why is Trump's brazen honesty appealing to so many?
This weekend, I'll be publishing a series of three posts, each one expanding on a specific psychological explanation for why Trump is having such a successful run by capitalizing on his reputation as "the anti-PC candidate."
Trump May Be Disagreeable—But To Some Voters, That's Better Than Being A Flip-Flopper
Think back to a time in your life when you and a bunch of other people you knew were on the precipice of a big life change -- maybe your senior year of high school or college, when you and many of your peers were all waiting to find out what jobs you would be entering or what universities you would be attending after graduation. Specifically, think back on those few months when you knew your life would be changing soon, but you didn't quite know yet what that change would specifically entail -- you didn't know which colleges would grant you acceptance, which jobs would offer you an interview, or what opportunities would eventually present themselves.
Did you have one friend who embraced that sense of uncertainty, viewing it with a sense of enthusiasm and thrill, excited about the prospect of embarking on an unknown adventure? Did you have another friend who hated every moment of not knowing what would come next, feeling anxious and uneasy until the minute that every single detail of his/her plan had fallen into a definite, guaranteed place?
Those two friends likely fell on opposite ends of the spectrum for a personality trait known as ambiguity (or uncertainty) intolerance, and research happens to show that people high in ambiguity intolerance -- those who feel uneasy or anxious in the presence of uncertainty -- are significantly more likely to be politically conservative. This correlation makes a lot of sense when you stop and think about the fact that political conservatism, at its ideological core, really just consists of an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality that values tradition and stability over societal upheaval and social change.
However, it makes even more sense once you read the seminal research on ambiguity intolerance and learn more about other personality tendencies that tend to go hand in hand with it. For example, according to early researcher Frenkel-Brunswik, ambiguity-intolerant people tend to "like dichotomous conceptions of the sex roles...and of interpersonal relationships in general...are less permissive, and lean toward rigid categorization of cultural norms" (1948). It is likely not surprising that people with predispositions towards strict social role categorization and wanting a sense of "certainty" would be drawn more to political conservatism than to liberalism, which often values things like fluid conceptualizations of gender roles and the challenging/questioning of traditional cultural norms -- the exact opposite of what would make someone high in ambiguity intolerance feel comfortable.
What may be surprising, however, is the research showing that people high in ambiguity intolerance feel so profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of uncertainty, they will often prefer a slightly negative yet certain outcome to a potentially-more-positive, uncertain one. In other words, people may find Donald Trump to be disagreeable, abrasive, or downright unlikeable. But because of his reputation for "telling it like it is" and "being honest to a fault," they also feel certain that they can believe Trump when he says he's telling the truth.
Essentially, Trump comes across as the "dependable" candidate -- to the extent that you can dependably count on him to consistently say anything and everything on his mind, and you don't have to worry that he's trying to hide what he truly thinks or feels. To someone who hates ambiguity, that candidate probably feels a lot more intuitively comforting than a more pleasant, likeable candidate who runs the risk of actually being an authentic-self-masking "flip-flopper." For the significant faction of the conservative voter base that will naturally feel quite anxious when things are ambiguous and will cringe at the thought of a politician whom they find difficult to read, a candidate who seems to be "putting it all out there" and provides no room for ambiguity regarding his political positions will be refreshing -- and quite desirable.
But...why exactly do people believe that Trump really is telling the truth? After all, he has been criticized for his shifting stance on abortion, he's running with the Republican party after years of close ties to Democratic candidates, and he once made the very un-Republican suggestion that the wealthiest 1% of Americans should pay a one-time 14.25% tax on their entire net worth to wipe out the national debt, an idea that bears very little similarity to his current stance in favor of huge tax cuts for the wealthy.
Well, there's actually a good psychological reason why we're more likely to think Trump is actually being "honest" with what he's saying, even in the face of evidence that suggests he really might be "flip-flopping" as much as any other "ambiguous" candidate.
Come back for Part II tomorrow to find out what that reason is.
Frenkel-Brunswik, E. (1948). Intolerance of ambiguity as an emotional perceptual personality variable. Journal of Personality, 18, 108–143
Jost, J.T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A.W., & Sulloway, F.J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 339-375.
All Donald Trump images: Gage Skidmore, via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.