Trump’s Victory and the Neuroscience of Rage
To understand this election you must understand the brain’s threat detection mechanism
Pollsters, politicians, much of the press and public are dismayed by Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the presidential election, but not neuroscientists. The bewilderment arises from an attempt to comprehend the election result rationally, but rage, not reason, is what drove people to put Trump in the White House.
Emotions are powerful motivators of behavior. For most animals, emotion, not rational thought is what drives behavior, and this remains true for our esteemed species, self-christened as Homo sapiens—“the wise one.” But our decisions are not made solely by reasoning. In fact, in the most complex and momentous decisions we make we rely on emotion—gut feelings. Whom to marry, where to live, or even what entrée to select from a dinner menu, are decisions we make not by reason, but rather by how we “feel.”
We have emotions because we need them. They arise from an astonishing neural network that performs an extremely complex, instantaneous analysis of our situation and sets us upon a definitive course of action. To accomplish this, input from all of our senses streams into the brain’s limbic system to assess our internal and external state, constantly sifting the data stream on the lookout for danger. All of this information processing operates below the level of consciousness and rational thinking, because the enormous amount of information processing involved would overwhelm our conscious mind. We can hold no more than a pitiful string of seven digits in working memory on average, which is why the simple steps of long division requires a pencil. When faced with very complex situations, it is our deep brain threat assessment circuitry, not only our cerebral cortex, that most often moves us to action. Especially so when our fundamental wellbeing is at stake. But language arises from neural circuitry in the cerebral cortex, so the brain’s subcortical threat detection system does not communicate with words, but rather by using multicolored emotions. Each emotional feeling communicates clearly to our conscious awareness the specific type of threat confronting us: hunger, fear, loneliness, alienation, jealousy, frustration—a rainbow of infinite colors, but every one a brilliantly distinct hue of meaning.
Many in this country feel angry, fearful, and threatened. These feelings arise from perceptions of personal risk, social disruption and alienation, imminent threats of terrorism, and a chronically dysfunctional government. To continue reading see Scientific American
I’m currently reading your excellent book, ‘Why We Snap’, and have just read your full article on ‘Trump and the Neuro-Science of Rage’ on the Scientific American page. I’m intrigued by your conclusions and would love to know if you would assign the Brexit referendum result to the same rage neural network? The reason why ask this is especially because of the conclusions in the following article published in today’s Daily Mail in the UK: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-4258522/A-poisonous-conviction-taking-root-Left.html
The article is written by a left-wing commentator and is effectively criticising the attitude of the Liberal Elite in the UK towards those who voted to leave the EU (and, inevitably, comparisons are made here with the election of Trump in the US.) However, what is of interest is that the author makes reference to a letter by Professor AP Grayling to every MP in Parliament regarding Parliament disregarding the result on the basis of most people using System 1 i.e. ‘impulse’ thinking to make decisions. Instead, Prof Grayling implied that such decisions should be made using the more rational System 2 approach (I’m presuming that the Professor is making reference to Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking; Fast and Slow’ theorems here?)
Putting political viewpoints on the rights and wrong of Brexit aside here and whether it should actually happen or not, I immediately thought about the arguments that you have put forward in your book and am intrigued to know if Professor Grayling was on the right lines in terms of neural science. My personal perspective is that he may have neglected the impact of the phenomenon known to psychologists as ‘Confirmation Bias’, which I believe is something that everyone is prone to, including probably the Professor himself. I don’t believe that every decision is rational, as my understanding from Kahneman and others is that System 1 thinking – such as the rage circuit – is, as a rule, infinitely more powerful than the weaker System 2, which can only really act in an ‘advisory’ capacity at best.
The author of the article, Mike Hume, suggested that there was more rational thinking underlying the majority decision for Brexit and this may have some truth. However, it seems to me that ultimate decision most people made was based on ‘gut feeling’, especially as the levels of information required to make a rational choice on Brexit were more than System 2 could realistically process at any given time.
However, it also seems apparent that the opposing side in the referendum – the so-called ‘Remainers’ – are also prone to same thinking process and are probably no more rational. Indeed, it seems that there is a dangerous manifestation of tribal-orientated thinking – again, seemingly related to the rage circuit – emerging here on both sides, and which seems to parallel the situation in the US. Your article in Scientific American certainly put me in mind of this.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this from a neuro-science perspective, if you’re able to.
Many thanks again for a great article!
Dear Nicholas, Thank you for your thoughtful letter. I do believe that from a neuroscience perspective Brexit and the election of Trump illustrate the brain’s threat-detection and aggression circuitry in action at a societal level. Specifically, the T (tribe) trigger of aggression is responsible. I have an article in press on this (the parallels between Brexit and Trump’s election from a neuroscience perspective), coming out soon in the RSA journal (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce). It is not a question of whether “rational” or “emotional” decision-making is superior, both are extremely powerful and important neural mechanisms for making behavioral choices (including voting), and each one has distinct advantages. One cannot paint with such a broad brush, as Hume does in his article. My point is that to the extent that anger is driving the decision-making process, and there is no doubt that this is a prime motivator for many (not all) voters for Brexit and Trump, then the brain’s threat detection and aggression circuitry is engaged in the decision making and this rage circuitry must be understood.
I find Mike Hume’s argument weak. I see little evidence that the “elites” are working to restrict voting. Ironically, by dividing people into “elites” and “the masses” Hume is activating the T circuit, which, from a neuroscience perspective, will divide and promote aggression. All modern successful democracies have procedures to assure that the views of the minority are heard and respected, so as to avoid the problem of “mob rule.” In successful democracies divergent opinions must be heard and a fair and open process to reach a decision must be practiced. The democratic process in the US is not simply one of majority rule. We have the Senate and the House of Representatives, political parties, and the electoral college, which no matter how flawed, exist to prevent the simple majority of dictating the decisions for all of society. When this inclusive approach is taken, the T trigger then unites, and the O trigger (social order) engages to further unite all members of the social group.
Dear Mr Fields,
Apologies for not having replied sooner – this is the first opportunity I’ve had to follow up on the letter (although I have now completed your book, which has certainly provided me with a lot of illumination on the subject, including the chapter entitled ‘A World of Trouble.’.)
Your observations regarding the circumstances regarding the Brexit vote are extremely illuminating and I would certainly agree that, for many people, the T trigger is responsible. It was very interesting to see your observations regarding ‘rational’ and ’emotional’ thinking both being powerful neural mechanisms for making behavioural choices and decision-making, especially in light of Daniel Kahneman’s work (which, admittedly, I haven’t fully read as yet.) This is actually quite heartening to know, as I feel that – from an evolutionary point-of-view, at least – that human survival depends on a healthy balance between the two.
I feel also that there is certainly a confirmation bias taking place in Hulme’s article with his belief regarding the alleged behaviour of political elites in our western democracies, and there is no doubt this is the T circuit at work here. Such perspectives do aggravate what is an increasing dangerous divide in society, I think this needs to be recognised and reversed as this trend is – in my opinion – counter-evolutionary. Hopefully there will be a reversal.
I am glad to say that there is hope in the democratic process on both sides of the Atlantic, as you mention. Indeed, it seems the ‘check and balances’ the Founding Fathers built-in to the US Constitution seem to be working well in keeping Trump in check thus far, as I rather expected them to. Here in the UK, the Supreme Court ruling was correct in stating that Parliament should have the final say in triggering Article 50. (Certainly, our system is not perfect and is in need of reform, but at least it is still working!)
On another related but slightly different point, the tragic incident which occurred this week here in the UK (at the Palace of Westminster) certainly demonstrated the workings of your theory regarding the Rage Circuit and LIFEMORTS. There is no doubt that the Tribe elements were at work in relation to the actions of the assailant, however, there were also some definitive demonstrations of the positive side of these neural circuits with some of the acts of heroism displayed, such as the member of the public who went to try and assist the injured Police Officer. The man in question demonstrated an ability to ‘run towards the danger’ in order to provide first aid, something which certainly put me in mind of the numerous examples referred to in your book. (Interestingly, I believe that this person in ex-military, as well.) Would I be correct in assigning the ‘Life-or-Limb’ element to this, if I’ve read you book correctly? Its also very unfortunate that this incident has also triggered the T response in a lot of media commentators and other people here, but I suppose there is a grim inevitability about this.
Many thanks again and I’ll certainly endeavour to read the article which you mentioned above.
It says things like To understand this election you must understand the brain’s threat detection mechanism”, or “This neuroscience perspective explains the seemingly incomprehensible situation of a privileged billionaire becoming the champion of working class men and women…”, or “Whether these real divisions in society will explode into factionalism or unite us will be determined by the same neural circuitry in our prefrontal cortex that separates “us from them.