Why does Donald Trump do well in the post-debate analysis when he doesn’t answer questions, repeatedly goes off topic, and refers to things that are incorrect or irrelevant? Why doesn’t Hillary Clinton emerge with a clear advantage when she answers questions, is fairly accurate and, for the most part, stays on point and doesn’t get too nasty? The answer lies in the reptilian brain—the part of the brain that filters messaging. The messages that stick are those that trigger instinct and emotion.
The Economist ran a cartoon a couple of weeks ago that summed it up for me. The cartoon had Clinton explaining how something needed careful analysis and thoughtful consideration. I don’t remember the words. Trump’s bubble said “Loser.” And that’s what I remember.
The winner of a debate is the one who paints the most pictures that make us feel something, independent of context or reason. The key is HOW they message, not WHAT they say. I’m not talking politics, except insofar as this impacts voting results. I’m not picking sides. I’m talking about the way our brains work.
When you talk to someone with pictures, it engages their instincts, emotions, and memories. If your messages are only words that don’t make pictures, the rational brain has to decode them to see what they mean. Our brains are lazy and that’s a lot of work. The more image and emotion, the more attention the brain allocates—the more it cares and the more YOU care. Images and emotion influence how we make meaning of words. If we are afraid, we look for security. We don’t debate the truthfulness, we cognitively circle the wagons. Whether through knowledge, experience or luck, Trump gets this and Clinton largely does not.
Whether you like it or not, Trump is just a better picture painter. He makes pictures that trigger emotion. Even if you don’t agree with what he’s saying or even if what he’s saying has nothing to do with the question at hand, he paints an image that sticks—most often one that is a threat to the listener’s existence. Trump lays the blame for the fear and uncertainty on Clinton or elsewhere. It makes no sense, of course, but our brain doesn’t care; it is scared and wants to feel safe again. Trump doesn’t even have to say he’s the answer.
The inner workings of the human brain and the neural processing that result in our thoughts, feelings and actions are complex. People have used various models to simplify it so we can better understand why we do the things we do. For example, you’ve probably heard of people being right brain (creative, image-oriented) or left brain (linear, fact-oriented). Kahneman (2011) made dual processing famous describing the difference between fast thinking behaviors and slow thinking that increases the demand for conscious attention. Neuroscientist MacLean (1990) proposed that we had three-brains-in-one (the tripartite brain theory) made up of conscious thought in the new, rational brain, and unconscious reactions in the emotional brain and the reptilian instinctive brain. This Triune Brain, in particular, provides a good rule of thumb for how to get a message heard. Information comes into the brain through our senses. It is first processed by instinct (the reptilian brain) and emotions—speaking the language of feelings and images.
When the debate moderators raised the question of sexual assault raised by a 2005 videotape showing Trump bragging about accosting women, Trump responded by talking about the dangers of ISIS. This was either irrelevant or the same as saying that lewd “locker room” talk was not a serious problem in the face of “real” problems. But our brains don’t ponder these intellectual implications. Our brains make the pictures of ISIS brutalities that Trump described: slit throats, mass bombings in Paris, and drowning people in cages. Thus he left people revisiting the horrors of ISIS—which have nothing to do with such vulgar proof of his sexist perspectives.
Clinton, in response, said that this video shows what Trump is like. What does that mean? Clinton gave away a huge reptilian-brain opportunity to paint that picture of a man who forces himself on you, your wife, your sister, or your friend, a man who condones saying lewd things about women because it’s locker room talk, or a man who thinks that sexual assault—grabbing parts of a woman’s body without consent— doesn’t count as a “real problem.” It was clear that Clinton really didn’t understand the reptilian brain and the importance of communicating in imagery when she referred to Trump’s “demagoguery” a word even fewer people will understand than “deplorable.”
Elections are about emotions. It’s about people who feel angry and scared and who want someone to blame. Trump continually pulls that trigger. He paints that image using words and physical space. While Clinton is articulate, poised and thoughtful, Trump looms, crowds her personal space, and tries to physically dominate the camera. He uses ISIS, he uses lost jobs, he uses Bernie Sanders to reengage the anti-Clinton emotions that Sanders created and he offers up the “establishment” as the cause of all this evil. Clinton is walking a delicate line, as gender is an issue in the lens people use to view her comments. If she had been half as rude as Trump, she would have skewered in that unspoken double standard that allows rudeness in “forthright men” who tell it like it is as opposed to “bitchy women.” This is another really good reason for Clinton to paint some vivid pictures and let the voters “feel” the difference. As we learned in 3rd-grade language arts: she needs to show, not tell.
If you think this election defies all logic, pay attention to who speaks to the reptilian brain.
P.S. Ironically, it’s that same ability to “paint a visual picture” that may take Trump down. After the release of various videos and women coming forward with their experiences, is there anyone left without all-to-clear image of Trump forcing himself on women or peeking up models skirts? Whatever happened to the dignity of the office of President?
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
MacLean, P. D. (1990). The Triune Brain in Evolution. New York: Plenum Press.
Great fun joining colleagues at the 2016 Digital Hollywood for our panel on the psychology of virtual reality and the practical and cognitive challenges of creating of seamless (i.e. stealth) user experience.
May 3, 2016
Stealth mode is the new reality to get from idea to application. Sophisticated technology can deliver amazing experiences, but the seduction of technology can disrupt the user journey. You reach your audience by tapping into the user’s needs and goals to create authentic, emotionally rich experiences. Stealth mode avoids distraction by balancing technology with humanity through the application of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. By applying research to practice, we can develop strategies to solve design problems, predict behavior and have significant social impact. Recent projects include visually organizing information overlays in product development, extending the fan experience in sports, amplifying content impact through platform profiling and helping to disrupt terrorist narratives on the global stage.
Jerri Lynn Hogg, Ph.D., Director of Media Psychology Program, Fielding Graduate University, Moderator
Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., Director, Media Psychology Research Center
Shane Pase, Ph.D., Director of Technology, Lotte Project
Tunisha Singleton, Brand Psychology and Audience Engagement Certificate Faculty, Fielding Graduate University
Linda Durnell, Managing Partner, Madison Lane Consulting, Silicon Valley
There’s a new study called “Smartphone-Based Conversational Agents and Responses to Questions About Mental Health” by Miner, Milstein, Schueller, Hegde, and Mangurian (2016) that examines the response of “conversational agents” like Siri to mental health, physical health, and interpersonal violence questions. Why does this matter? As authors note, according to Pew Research, 62% of smartphone users use their phones to look up information about a health condition (Smith, 2015). Thus is makes a lot of sense to see what Siri and her co-conversational agents are saying when we ask really hard questions.
Informational searches vary considerably. For example, “what is bird flu” or “what are hangnails” are quite different from asking for guidance or pleas for help, such as “I want to commit suicide.” Kind of surprisingly, however, it turns out that Siri, Google and their digital companions are much worse at these questions than you might think. They vary from having ineffective (although quasi-empathetic) responses such as “I’m sorry to hear that” to irrelevant, wrong or simply no answers at all.
Miner et al’s findings are pertinent and important as long as we, as a society, don’t get lost in the weeds and forget the big picture. It’s easy to assume that Siri and friends should get better answers (and they probably should, to some degree), but we need to ask some higher level questions. We should not lose sight of the important ethical and legal implications of having voice recognition algorithms give out of context advice. All of the situations the researchers queried would be best served by dialing 911 and talking to a trained emergency response professional. Technology has limitations and we shouldn’t be fooled by the fact that our phones can talk.
While Pew Research doesn’t distinguish between information searches and asking for emergency help. It is this narrow subsection of questions that the researchers are testing. Thus, we don’t know how many of the 62% of smartphone users are posing these kinds of urgent questions. Yet, as the researchers note, their results suggest that these voice services may be missing a big opportunity to provide some basic social services. It is certainly possible that algorithms could be expanded to include basic referrals to emergency services, much the way a 911 call would. However, how do we build this system of questions and responses to make any sense? Psychologists in particular grapple with the ramifications in how advice can be ethically leveraged using technology.
User expectations of where to get help and the value and validity of the help they receive are important elements of this equation. How many people actually expect their smartphone to know what to do if they’ve been raped or are depressed? Does the human tendency to anthropomorphize technology, particularly ones that talk to us, make that a helpful or dangerous place to provide information that lacks any context beyond geographic location? There are over 90,000 health care apps, ranging from diagnostic tools to wellness apps so we’re not strangers to relying on our smartphones for health and safety information. This assumption of care can be an important factor as well as a determinant of behavior. If Zoey Deschanel can ask about rain, should we expect Siri to know about depression, too?
While the study points out that there are clearly missed opportunities to help people, there are a great number of ethical issues, not to mention potential legal liabilities, in providing anything but relatively unhelpful answers, such as “please dial a local emergency number” or to, at best, provide a number for a relevant resource (if Siri got the question right), from emergency services to rape hotlines. I could argue that this is as much a case for media literacy and the importance of educating users about the limitations of online information sources, not to mention Siri’s voice recognition. Should Siri and her buddies educate people on the potential inadequacies of their information? (I have a vision of the best intentions turning into solutions with 30 seconds of legal disclaimer preceding any advice—we often make something equally unusable by trying to solve problems without considering the big picture. Usability is rarely the concern of the legal department.)
Given all the talk of big data and oversharing, we should also consider that it is very “big brother” to assign responsibility to technology (or to Apple or Google or whomever) to provide this level of care. It’s easy to see how Siri or Google could recite the symptoms for a stroke, but wouldn’t the person have been better off calling 911 immediately? Does it violate our privacy? Providers are often legally required to follow up on cases that involve the potential for personal harm. Does Siri have the same obligation to share with an authority? Do we want to be tracked for making any such query to Siri? Mental health clinicians currently protect themselves and their patients by routinely including the following message when not available to answer a call in person: “if this is an emergency, do not leave a message. Please hang up and dial 911.” Maybe Siri and friends should just do the same.
None of this should take away from the study. And to their credit, the researchers address many of these issues in the study’s limitations, such as language and culture and the difficulty of a building algorithms that can appropriately triage information and make judgments about the nature and seriousness of a situation. The study does, however, raise important issues about the current use and limitations of technology, individual rights and responsibilities, social outreach, and filling gaps in the social divide for people who don’t have the ability to find or access to other services.
We will continue to face new horizons with tough questions that we have to answer before our smartphone can. We should, however, avoid the kneejerk tendency to solve these problems one by one without a larger discussion. There is a much larger question here. It goes far beyond the presumption that smartphones need to learn what to say to hard questions. There is a myriad of mental and physical health issues and instances of interpersonal violence that are often highly subjective and vary in degree of urgency and potential for personal injury or harm. Maybe we can start with just teaching smartphones to say, please dial 911 and turn your location feature on.
Miner, A. S., Milstein, A., Schueller, S., Hegde, R., & Mangurian, C. (2016). Smartphone-Based Conversational Agents and Responses to Questions About Mental Health, Interpersonal Violence and Physical Health. JAMA Internal Medicine.
Smith, A. (2015). US Smartphone Use in 2015. Pew Research Center, 18-29. Retrieved March 13, 2016 from http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/01/us-smartphone-use-in-2015/.