Explaining The Rise Of Donald Trump

Orlando Wood reviews the results of our latest self-funded project – predicting the US election results and understanding the deeper dynamics at play.

Psychology tells us that humans are fast and frugal in our decision-making, that we ‘think much less than we think we think’. Instead, we are guided by impressions, associations, past experience, stories and feelings. We use mental shortcuts or rules of thumb to help us decide between options, products, brands – and indeed politicians. This is what psychologists refer to as ‘fast’ or ‘System 1’ thinking.

Back in late January, before the very first Caucus or Primary vote was cast – when the prediction markets and polls were in a state of flux (and indeed you might say they still are!) – we conducted research in the US to understand how well the US candidates had established the important mental shortcuts of Fame, Feeling and Fluency. Continue reading

Once Upon An Election: Research, Politics and Stories

Study the current US election for a week or two and you’ll notice one word turn up again and again in the commentary: narrative. Politicians control the narrative, they reinforce the narrative, they seize the narrative, they reshape the narrative, they build the narrative, and that’s before the voters get their say, at which point they might defy the narrative, overturn the narrative, confirm the narrative, or perhaps just get heartily sick of the narrative and stay home. They might have the sympathy of Washington Post writer Erik Wemple, who last week wrote a heartfelt column: “A Plea To Pundits: Stop Saying ‘Narrative’”


Narrative is one of those words that starts off sounding smart and ends up sounding clichéd. Marketing has those kind of words too – “engagement”, or “insight”, or “disruption”. Such words gradually begin to lose much of their specific meaning. But that doesn’t mean they never had any. All these overused words have kernels of something useful inside them. In the case of narrative, what the word intuits is a truth the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has succinctly expressed. Human beings are not logic processors. We are story processors. Continue reading

Sex, Lies, And The Ballot Box

Sex, Lies And The Ballot Box (Biteback Publishing, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford)

There’s a saying in market research – if something’s interesting, it’s wrong. Sex, Lies And The Ballot Box, a collection of short essays on polling and electoral science published in the run-up to the 2015 UK election, goes some way to prove it. It’s impeccably sourced, written by experts, and packed with relevant data. In other words, it’s hardly ever wrong, and very useful. But a lot of the time it’s not quite as interesting as you’d like it to be, either.

The last few decades have seen plenty of attacks on “homo economicus” – the rational, considered, decision-maker – as the baseline for theories of economic (and consumer) choice. His cousin, homo politicus, has not had an easy ride of it either. We’ve known for decades that image and emotion matter a lot in politics – for instance, that the same policies will be rated well or badly on purely partisan grounds. In Cowley and Ford’s book, there’s an entertaining example showing that former Downing Street Cat, Humphrey, became far less adorable to Labour voters when described as “Thatcher’s Cat” and to Tories when called “Blair’s cat”. The associating machine of System 1 is more powerful than mere cuteness. Continue reading

The Social Voter

One of the things I talk about a lot is what poor witnesses people are to their own behaviour – especially predicted behaviour. But why does this happen?

Here’s a great example, from an unusual source – American politics site Politico, which is covering the US presidential race in exhausting detail, and latched onto a particular study comparing voting intentions to behaviour.

What’s the big deal? We all know voting intentions don’t match behaviour. But what the study looked at wasn’t the candidate people were voting for, but whether they planned to vote at all. And it turns out that over half the people who tell pollsters they don’t expect to vote – and drop out of the survey because of it – end up voting after all.


Now – perish the thought! – I dare say some people are saying they won’t vote to get a pollster off the line. But obviously a lot of people are not judging their intentions correctly – they don’t intend to vote and yet, on election day, there they are. Why?

It’s because, the study says, they get swept up in the excitement. We are social animals, we like to copy what other people are doing, and if a lot of your neighbours and friends are going to vote, so will you even if you hadn’t really meant to.

This matters, says Politico, because an awful lot of US polling is based on “likely voters”, i.e. polls taking these claims at face value. But the implications are wider. It suggests that predicted behaviour gets far more unreliable when the prediction involves an event or something else highly social. When a Triple-A game or a new iPhone is announced, for instance, how many of the people who declare their lack of interest end up getting it anyway? Turn a launch into an event and you may find your predictions go pleasantly awry.

As for researchers, it underlines – yet again – how important it is to take the emotional context of an action into account when you’re trying to collect data around that action. It’s likely that no amount of contextual hacking in a survey can replicate the social weight and excitement of election day, but that doesn’t mean pollsters have to be quite so dry…

Voting Fast And Slow

Today is local election day in the UK – and several of Britain’s cities are electing a mayor. Then Sunday sees the Presidential run-off in France, and there are crucial elections coming up later in the year in Greece, Egypt, Mexico… and the small matter of a US Presidential Election too.

So what better time to revisit this classic experiment in priming, in which close analysis of American polling data suggested that people are more likely to vote for a school funding initiative if they were assigned to vote in a school. As the authors put it, “These findings underscore the subtle power of situational context to shape important real-world decisions.”

There are no such location-based implications for national polls, but the experiment does get you thinking about the choice architecture of the polling booth. The electoral ritual of the secret ballot has been scrupulously designed to avoid bias and in particular to avoid a particular kind of social effect – you make your decision unable to see anyone else’s. Voting, in the popular and political imagination, ought to be a system 2 activity – the conscious weighing up of choices. Look at the comments on this thread about a referendum for Scottish Independence – outrage and mockery at the idea that people might change settled opinions in the voting booth: “The idea that people will be persuaded en masse to abandon deeply held beliefs based on a minor rewording is ludicrous.” – this reporting on a poll whose results suggested precisely that!

But electoral experts believe that about a quarter of voting intentions shift in the immediate run-up to an election, with some minds surely changing in the booth itself. So it’s well worth thinking about the choice environment the voting booth offers. As you’d expect for such an important decision there has been an awful lot of work on this, looking at phenomena such as the “Ballot Order Effect” – the candidate at the top has an advantage. But the work has been unevenly distributed, with some behavioural areas getting much less attention.

For instance, what impact do queues have on voting intentions? High turnouts are generally felt to favour less conservative candidates (as conservatives do better at mobilising their vote) – some recent experiments, though, suggest that time pressure and higher cognitive load make people more conservative. Given all the time in the world to arrive at a choice, the undecided voter might think carefully through the options. If they feel time-pressured, though – and with a winding queue behind them they very well might – wouldn’t they be far more likely to reach for an easy choice?

There’s no evidence this effect operates in elections, so it’s no more than a hypothesis to test. But there is more to making independent decisions than simply sealing individuals off from other people at the moment of choice.