Why Do So Many People Believe Donald Trump?

BS DetectorGOP primary candidate Carly Fiorina offered the Washington Post the most succinct analysis of Donald Trump’s campaign behavior: “This is the pattern, isn’t it? The pattern is — he says something insulting, offensive and outrageous; the media pays attention; then he claims we all misunderstood him.”

By “we” Fiorina probably meant members of the press and other smart, analytical people who listen closely, pay attention and maintain a healthy skepticism. That is as opposed to less educated, non-analytical, more emotional people who believe in angels and American exceptionalism who don’t misunderstand Trump, but instead take his every outrageous declaration as true, sincerely delivered and above argument.

A recent study titled “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit,” published in Judgment and Decision Making 2015 by Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek J. Koehler, & Jonathan A. Fugelsang, may offer some insight into why people believe what Trump says. The study focused on “pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.”

Before delving into the study itself and its results, let’s consider what Donald Trump has said during the current campaign. Here’s a sampling:

  • On Mexican immigrants: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best [sic]. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
  • On Obamacare, which he also called the Big Lie: “It is going to be amazingly destructive.”
  • On climate change: “It’s freezing and snowing in New York – we need global warming!”
  • On the American dream: “Sadly the American dream is dead. But if I get elected president, I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again.”
  • On what makes a good president: “We need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.'”
  • On foreign policy: “I beat China all the time.”
  • On social media: “My Twitter has become so powerful that I can actually make my enemies tell the truth.”
  • On building walls: “I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me — and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

Those are all fine examples of bullshit, if not pseudo-profound bullshit, which is the topic of the study. For a brief yet thorough summation of the research, check out this Forbes article, “Why Do Some People Find Deepak Chopra Quotes Deep And Not Dung?”

For our purposes here, we’ll skip right to the findings of the study — the characteristics of people who are inclined to believe bullshit like Trump’s.

When it comes to people’s tendency to accept bullshit as true, humans apparently are hard-wired to first believe and then analyze later, though apparently not everyone gets to step two:

The startling possibility with respect to pseudo-profound bullshit is that people will first accept the bullshit as true (or meaningful) and, depending on downstream cognitive mechanisms such as conflict detection, either retain a default sense of meaningfulness or invoke deliberative reasoning to assess the truth (or meaningfulness) of the proposition.

The other dynamic at work here is the ability to detect bullshit, or the tendency to equate vagueness as truth. In other words, if the bullshit does not trigger some cognitive conflict mechanism that makes a person say, mentally, “Hey, wait a minute,” then she will not question the validity of the bullshit, but simply accept it. From the study:

With respect to bullshit, there are likely many factors that may lead an individual to successfully detect the need for skepticism that will depend on the type of bullshit encountered and the bullshit context. For example, the source (perhaps a known bullshitter) may be particularly untrustworthy. Or, perhaps, the bullshit may conflict with common knowledge or specific knowledge or expertise of the recipient.

Analytical thinkers are, we would assume, more likely to question bullshit and try to determine whether it is true and/or meaningful:

… more analytic individuals should be more likely to detect the need for additional scrutiny when exposed to bullshit. More intuitive individuals, in contrast, should respond based on a sort of first impression, which will be inflated due to the vagueness of the bullshit.

Then there are those who are ontologically confused, mixing up “aspects of reality,” which leads them to believe bullshit statements as true:

Consider the belief that prayers have the capacity to heal (i.e., spiritual healing). Such beliefs are taken to result from conflation of mental phenomena, which are subjective and immaterial, and physical phenomena, which are objective and material. On a dual-process view, ontological confusions constitute a failure to reflect on and inhibit such intuitive ontological confusions. Ontological confusions may also be supported by a bias toward believing the literal truth of statements.

Another class of person that is susceptible to bullshit contains people who hold “epistemically suspect beliefs” that conflict with a priori beliefs about the world around us.

For example, the belief in angels (and the corresponding belief that they can move through walls) conflicts with the common folk-mechanical belief that things cannot pass through solid objects. Epistemically suspect beliefs, once formed, are often accompanied by an unwillingness to critically reflect on such beliefs. Indeed, reflective thinkers are less likely to be religious and paranormal believers. … Although epistemically suspect claims may or may not themselves qualify as bullshit, the lack of skepticism that underlies the acceptance of epistemically suspect claims should also promote positive bullshit receptivity.

Now let’s look at these study findings in terms of Trump supporters.

The profile that has emerged from a number of polls is that Trump supporters are more likely to be male, white, older, with less education — but they are not necessarily more likely to be right-wingers.

CNN, Fox, and ABC/WashPo polls reveal that Americans with more education are less likely to support Trump’s presidential candidacy. Most strikingly, the ABC/WashPo poll finds only 8 percent of college-degree-holding Republican voters plan to vote for Trump, compared to 32 percent of Republican voters without college degrees. Moreover, those with college degrees (56 percent) are about 6 points more likely to believe that Trump is wrong about immigration compared to those without college degrees (50 percent), the Fox poll finds.

U.S. news & World Report conducted a series of interviews with Trump supporters and found these consistent characteristics:

Trump supporters are sympathetic to business interests and appreciate his financial acumen. They like that he’s self-funding his endeavor with his own fortune and think it inoculates him from political pressure and corruption. They render his ability to recruit top talent to surround himself with as impeachable, and therefore permit him leeway on offering a dearth of policy specifics. … And they are hankering for a bare-knuckle fighter.

Nationwide polls have Trump’s support among white evangelicals at anywhere from 29 percent to 32 percent or even higher.

David Brody of CBN explains why evangelicals like Trump:

Donald Trump operates in a world of absolutes: A world of right and wrong; a world of winners (him) and losers (McCain, Perry, etc); a world of put up or shut up (literally). Trump’s world is colored in black and white. There ain’t much grey. And what does Trump get for speaking out so boldly without holding back? Public ridicule.

Now, think of conservative evangelicals. In their quest to champion biblical values, their mindset is much the same. It is a world of absolutes. They believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God. Non-negotiable. They believe there is only one way to heaven and that is through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Non-negotiable. They see the world through the lens of spiritual warfare (good vs. evil). And what do evangelicals get for speaking out so boldly without holding back? That’s right: public ridicule.

In a November Quinnipiac/Huffington Post poll in Iowa, 59 percent of respondents to the question Is Donald Trump honest and trustworthy or not? said yes, while 37 percent said no and just 4 percent was undecided or didn’t know.

Kirsten Powers, of Religious News Service, found one explanation of why people believe him “I play to people’s fantasies,” Donald Trump wrote in his 1987 memoir, “The Art of the Deal.” “I call it truthful hyperbole,” he explained. “It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.”

Sounds like bullshit to me.

So, we can now answer the question of why people believe, follow and support Donald Trump, despite the fact that almost everything he says is bullshit:

  • They are less educated (non-analytical thinkers) and therefore less likely to question bullshit when they hear it.
  • They are prey to ontological confusion where they mix up aspects of reality, which leads them to believe that Trump really could build a wall on the southern border and get Mexico to pay for it.
  • They tend to hold epistemologically suspect beliefs, i.e., in angels, Jesus, a kind and loving God, and Donald Trump will make America great again.

These are people who believe that reality TV shows are real, that markings on a piece of toast are a manifestation of Jesus Christ, that it would be feasible to round up 11 million people and deport them all to their respective countries of origin. They believe that it’s OK to have been married three times and to not ask for God’s forgiveness except when taking communion, which, in the Presbyterian church happens maybe twice a year. They believe it’s OK to close our borders to any and all Muslim immigrants and to keep close tabs on all 3 million Muslims already in the United States, and they believe that President Donald Trump would be ISIS’ worst nightmare.

They believe Donald Trump’s unceasing stream of bullshit for a wide variety of reasons that, as we have seen, are unlikely to change — no matter what bullshit he says. So say the researchers:

Bullshit is a consequential aspect of the human condition. Indeed, with the rise of communication technology, people are likely encountering more bullshit in their everyday lives than ever before. … Using vagueness or ambiguity to mask a lack of meaningfulness is surely common in political rhetoric, marketing, and even academia. Indeed, as intimated by Frankfurt (in “On Bullshit,” 2005), bullshitting is something that we likely all engage in to some degree (p. 1): “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share.” One benefit of gaining a better understanding of how we reject others’ bullshit is that it may teach us to be more cognizant of our own bullshit.

However, if we are a non-analytical, magical realism kind of Trump follower with a tenuous hold on reality and a firm belief in angels, we are not likely to recognize or reject either Trump’s or our own bullshit before the election of 2016.


  • Isfriendly
    December 11, 2015 - 9:12 pm | Permalink

    This article of profound bullshit is spot on! People I see in trumps crowds do seem to be the less educated who hear but do not comprehend! Trump can rally for numbers but he is not telling the whole truth!

  • Joan
    December 16, 2015 - 6:12 am | Permalink

    I know that no one listens to Huckabee, but I have to say he is a complete bag of sh*t. The fatso who never served a day in his life tells the young folks to get off their butts and,
    beat Isis, perhaps he should send his fatso boys to beat Isis and then they would stop torturing and killing stray dogs.

  • CRJudge
    December 27, 2015 - 11:06 am | Permalink

    That the ontologically confused is a sad thing. But that there are so many of them is actually frightening. But it is the genius of every successful demagogue to know when to lie, how to lie, and to whom to lie. Trump possesses that genius, to the detriment of us all.

  • Pingback: BS and Politics | I am not really here…

  • Ben Jones
    August 5, 2016 - 10:47 am | Permalink

    “Trump for President”?? I got sooo excited… “Great! He’s not a typical politician, so let’s change things up! Woohoo!” So I feverishly started doing research… reading/watching *everything* I could about him. I wanted to help. I’m sad to admit that I actually fell for it when he first started campaigning.
    But the more I saw/read/heard… from his own mouth…. well, *that* is when the “sick to my stomach” feeling began… and has only increased with each passing day. I’ve never played “party politics”… I’m not blindly beholden to one side or the other. I vote for whoever I think will do the *best* job for America and it’s People. (Hell, I was young and inexperienced, but I voted for Ross Perot my 1st time out. So before you say it…. NO… I’m not a registered Democrat or Hillary supporter. I don’t really care who wins…. as long as it’s NOT Trump!!)
    Watching his campaign… I now understand how even Hitler came to power and had supporters at one time. Brainwashing people into thinking they need some wannabe know-it-all “I can fix everything because I’m me” racist egotistical megalomaniac sociopath self-imposed/annointed “nation savior” to restore “national pride”. Our nation is already “great”… and to say otherwise is to ignore all proven statistical facts & figures… for the sole purpose of generating false-fear. (And in describing Trump, I’m not just picking random adjectives there. *THOSE* are Trump qualities… everything a “businessman” *should* be… BUT, *everything* that a world leader should NOT be!!) Our
    I can now say that I’m not only frightened of him…. but of how there are sooo many people who are blindly falling for Trump’s Third Reich Nazi-style propaganda campaign of fear, xenophobia, empty promises and “feelings” vs. facts… blinded to Trump’s ignorance, arrogance, and proven (time & again) complete incompetence.
    “Take the risk, but before you do, learn what you’re getting yourself into.” ~Donald Trump
    One of the only things he’s said that I can agree with. So please people… do your ‘due diligence.’ It takes a strong person to stubbornly stand there and proclaim that *they* alone are “right”…. but it takes a stronger person to admit when he may be wrong. So please take careful consideration before casting a ballot for a man who has *nothing* to offer this Nation… except misery.
    Granted, he may very well believe in what *he* is doing… but it’s only to serve *his* own narrow self-interests… NOT the People’s… NOT the ‘big picture.’ He looks at this as some ‘high school class elections’ popularity contest…. and has no idea how to handle the *real world* responsibilities that come with being the highest elected official in the land. He is the equivalent of the popular kid in high school… maybe “captain of the football team”, because he’s popular to some and bullies everyone else. But do you really want him in charge of the debate team(foreign affairs), chess club(military strategy), math/science clubs(EPA/CDC/NASA/& science in general)… and the front office(immigration/deportation)… and so on
    He is NOT a good leader… or even a good ‘person’, for that matter. His name/’brand’ is all that he has. But that will do nothing on the world stage. Look how he handled his golf course in Scotland. They can’t stand him now… and they are our allies!! Imagine how he’ll disrupt the rest of foreign relations when he doesn’t get his way all the time. America will become the laughing stock of the world… and his petty obtuse narrow-minded view of the world & foreign affairs will only encourage more disputes & conflicts.
    All I can suggest is that we stop this “my side vs. your side” bantering… and look at the facts. Trump may stand for his twisted WASPy billionaire-boys-club version of what HE *thinks* America should be…. but it is *NOT* the America that our Founding Fathers proposed. His words, actions, & proposals are about as anti-American as you can get. Capitalist… yes. “American”… NO!!
    It’s a sad sad time for our Nation when people are so desperate that they ignore the blinding facts and remain loyal to someone who has the potential to set our country back decades in terms of foreign policy, envirnmental protection, science, religious freedom, climate change, and ethnic discrimination while trampling on the Constitution. (Something that I’m sure he’s hasn’t even read…. let alone understands!)
    ***Again… before you say it…. NO… I’m not a registered Democrat or Hillary supporter. I care and support America! So I don’t really care who wins…. as long as it’s NOT Trump!!

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *