As I wrote about yesterday, Donald Trump may be appealing to a large contingent of politically conservative voters because, to the extent that (a) many of these voters have a strong distaste for uncertainty and (b) we can all dependably count on Trump to consistently say anything and everything that happens to be on his mind, his tendency to "put it all out there" and leave no room for ambiguity regarding his political positions will feel comforting and strongly desirable to many of his fans.
However, given obvious flip-flops like Trump's shifting stance on abortion, his candidacy as a member of the Republican party after years of close ties to Democratic candidates, and his very un-Republican suggestion in 1999 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), why exactly do we think that Trump is somehow more "honest" than the average politician?
Even in the face of evidence that suggests he really might be "flip-flopping" as much as any other "ambiguous" candidate, it still makes psychological sense that many people perceive Trump as being more honest and credible than his opposition -- and, once again, the reason why lies in the fact that people see what he's saying as atypical of most politicians. In one redditor's words, "He is someone who dares to speak the truth about those topics that are being avoided by the politicans which is also great and unprecedented." In other words, he says things that aren't what you'd expect for a politician to say.
Non-Normative Statements Are Seen As More Likely To Be "True."
Imagine you're a fly on the wall watching a job applicant interview for a potential new position. The interviewer asks the applicant if she ever smokes marijuana -- making it very clear as she asks the question that she herself is stone-cold sober and hates the stuff.
The job applicant responds by saying that she hates pot, and she would never smoke it -- never, ever.
How well do you think you know this applicant now? How confident do you feel about her attitude towards marijuana?
If you're like most people...you probably don't really feel like you know her that well at all. After all, she could be telling the truth. Or, she could actually be someone who gets up and smokes weed every morning, simply saying that she doesn't because that's obviously what she is supposed to say to get this interviewer to like her. The statement she just uttered also happens to be a self-serving, normative one, so whether or not it's actually true, there's more than one plausible reason why she could be saying it. That means you can't really make any confident judgments about what she's "truly like as a person."
But what if the applicant actually responded to the interviewer's question by saying that really, sorry-not-sorry, she loves her daily toke?
Well. You probably feel pretty confident about her attitude now, don't you? You're not going to say, "Well, she could be telling the truth and really love pot, orrrrr, she might be lying, who really knows?" That doesn't make any sense. Why on earth would she respond to a job interviewer who just said she hates marijuana by saying that she actually loves it? That's not a normal response. That's not what you'd expect a job applicant put in that position to say. So you probably feel real certain that this girl truly loves her marijuana -- and real certain that you can make some confident, true judgments about what she's actually like.
When people say things that are non-normative, unexpected, or non-self-serving, those things are seen as more likely to be true, and outside observers are more likely to think they have a good chance of really knowing the authentic, deep-down, true personality of the person saying them. It doesn't matter what those statements objectively are. The marijuana example is a fun one (and was actually used in a lie detection study by Robert Kraut in the late 1970s, I didn't just make it up), but it doesn't even need to be quite so drastic. If you act bubbly and outgoing in an interview for a sales position, for example, people won't know if you're actually bubbly by nature, or if you're just putting on a front to get the kind of job that would value those attributes. If you act bubbly and chipper in an interview for a position as a computer programmer, people will feel much more confident that you are really a "bubbly and outgoing" person by nature and that they can make a confident judgment about what you're "really like," because those aren't necessarily attributes that you would ever expect people to think that they should fake for that kind of a position.
So, when a person says something that isn't seen as "self-serving" or "normative" for the position that they're in, other people are not only more likely to think that those statements are what that person truly believes, but they're also more likely to feel more generally like they can know what that person is truly like deep down. It makes the person saying those things seem more "authentic." And it makes us more likely to feel like that person isn't lying. Even though Trump has given us just as many reasons as the other candidates to think that he's a "flip-flopper," the fact that he's not saying things that you would expect a politician to say means that his audience will be more likely to overlook those flip-flopping reasons and assume he's actually a truth-teller.
So, Trump isn't saying what you'd "expect" a politician in his shoes to say, and people are responding to this by calling it "refreshing" -- because it creates this feeling that, for once, they can really, genuinely know what someone running for office is actually like. But of course, this all relies on the assumption that Trump's comments aren't actually "self-serving." Given the enthusiastic response that he's received from some voters and the fact that his "controversial" comments seem to be gaining him fans, we can't really claim that these comments aren't self-serving, can we? It may actually be the case that calling more attention to the calculated, manipulative nature of his comments (and how they seem to be winning, not losing, him fans) might reverse the trend in his popularity -- once people begin construing his comments as "politically manipulative," politician-y, and self-serving after all.
But why would the content of his comments be winning him fans? Why is it self-serving to appeal to being "anti-PC," and why is there a faction of this country that would be responding positively to this anti-PC attitude? What is it that some people are responding to with such visceral anger when they hear the phrase "political correctness"?
Again, as I mentioned in yesterday's post, there is a not-insignificant portion of this that can be attributed to simple racism, nationalism, and sexism -- and that should not be ignored or overlooked. But there are also other reasons why people claim to be against the idea of "political correctness" -- and most of this comes down to different factions of the country having completely different visions and interpretations of what that term actually means.
Come back tomorrow for Part III to find out what they are.
Jones, E.E., Davis, K.E., & Gergen, I.J. (1961). Role playing variations and their informational value for person perception. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 302-310.
Kelley, H. H. Attribution in social interaction. New York: General Learning Press, 1971.
Kraut, R.E. (1978). Verbal and nonverbal cues in the perception of lying. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 380-391.
All Donald Trump images: Gage Skidmore, via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.
Puppet: Free public domain image via Pixabay.