Tricks of Persuasion in the Presidential Election

A Review of
Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter
(Author: Scott Adams)

Scott Adams’ Win Bigly already feels a bit dated, given that the shock of the 2016 election is slowly fading.  But the lessons that that election offered us must not be ignored or forgotten, and Adams’ perspective on it is useful.

Trump Hillary 2016

Voters need to have a deeper understanding of persuasion:  to recognize it when a politician is baiting their emotions, to be suspicious when fallacious logic is being employed.  It’s not merely about civility, or that voters should stick only to facts, nor even yet that politicians and partisan media should have greater need to fear getting “caught.”   Most of all, it is that today’s clutter of public bullshit eclipses even the possibility of serious public deliberation about issues.

Adams’ case study of Donald Trump’s electoral victory is instructive.  Adams does not comment upon Trump’s political principles or fitness for office.  Rather, Adams admires him as a “master persuader” who cleverly manipulated voters using techniques that would be familiar to devotees of the academic icon Robert Cialdini.  Some examples Adams cites:


  • Linguistic kill shots.

Trump’s nicknames anticipated future confirmation bias to make them stickier and more powerful over time. We all knew ‘Lyin’ Ted’ Cruz would say things in the future that the fact-checkers would flag, because all politicians do. In time, even his accurate and honest statements would start to look suspicious, thanks to confirmation bias and Trump’s sticky nickname. Trump’s nicknames were designed for strategic contrast. Many voters didn’t trust Trump’s honesty and motives, so he labeled his main primary opponent Lyin’ Ted and his general election competitor Crooked Hillary. That reduced the contrast between his credibility and that of his competition.

  • Visual imagery.  For example, regarding his beautiful Wall,

Trump was also smart enough to be vague about the details of the wall so that each of us could imagine the wall we wanted to imagine. He could have easily provided his own artists’ renderings of the wall, but that would have been a mistake. It would have given critics lots of targets to attack. But there is one kind of wall that is hard to criticize: the one that is entirely different in each person’s head.

  • Effective slogans.  “Make America Great Again” is active and powerful, and has a strong association to Ronald Reagan’s erstwhile slogan.
  • Social proof.  A frequent Trump preface: “Many people are saying…”
  • Repetition.  “It’s true.  It’s true.”  (Or, more recently, how about “No Collusion”, and “Witch Hunt”?)
  • Simpler looks right.

And so on.  Adams revels in the premise, shared by many if not most academics today, that people are blind to their own irrationalities.  I often feel I can detect a certain amount of glee in these assertions, but… what then?  We’d all like to see more critical thinking by voters, but easier said than done.

Giving people a descriptive vocabulary and examples of persuasion techniques, though, would at least be a starting point.  More substantive voter knowledge about national issues also could suppress some of the excesses.

I think Adams’ insights are important and timely, though there is a lot to dislike about the book: his self-promotion, his conceit, his cynicism.  I can’t help but include a rather jaw-dropping exposition towards the end of his book:

I don’t vote. Doing so would destroy whatever objectivity I might have. Once you join a side— for anything— it kicks your confirmation bias into overdrive. Suddenly (and it does happen fast) you start to see everything your side does as wise, while anything happening on the other side looks like stupidity and bad intentions.

I have voted in the past. As I got older, and more aware of my mental limitations, I came to understand that my vote adds nothing to the quality of the outcome. As far as I can tell, no one else adds intelligence to the election outcome either, but most voters think they do. And that illusion is necessary to support the government. It gives the voters a sense of empowerment and buy-in. That creates national stability. The democracy illusion is probably one of the most beneficial hallucinations humankind has ever concocted. If you think democracy works, and you act as if it works, it does work.  If you removed the public hallucination that an average ignorant voter has the ability to forecast the future, the whole thing would fall apart.

We all know that the vast majority of our fellow citizens are too underinformed and simpleminded to make good voting decisions. And yet there is widespread acceptance of the majority-vote system. As long as citizens buy into the illusions that they have superpredictive powers and that their votes add intelligence to the system, they will support the democratic voting process that is the foundation of the republic.

If people were rational, they would realize they don’t have the psychic powers required to distinguish between a great candidate for president and a bad one. And voters certainly don’t understand the more complicated questions about health care, budgets, and international treaties, to name a few. But if we accepted the limitations of our own predictive abilities, we wouldn’t vote, and we wouldn’t feel as much allegiance to the country, so the whole system would fall apart.

Holy Mackerel!  Of course, Adams indulges in sloppy argumentation here.  Without getting into a technical “Miracle of Aggregation” discussion (e.g. see Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter), it should suffice to assert that voter “superpredictive powers” are not actually necessary for democracy to work.  Adam’s description of a mass illusion does, though, have parallels to Achen and Bartels’ “folk theory of democracy.”

My own basic retort to Adams here is that the public dialogue does constrain the actions of our leaders.  And if we can cause more serious (and, less disingenuous) public discussion of issues to occur, then democracy’s functioning does not have to be an illusion.  Helping ordinary citizens understand the recognize the tricks of political persuasion is one way that the public dialogue could be elevated.

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