The Cognitive Neuroscience of Fear, or Why Donald Trump Might be President

While the success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign may seem beyond comprehension, cognitive neuroscience goes some of the way towards explaining how this demagogue has made it so close to the White House.

Like many political campaigns that came before, at the centre of the Trump Phenomenon is fear. Trump has repeatedly invoked fear in his constituents to garner support. He has done so by painting the ‘other’ – the immigrant, the refugee, the disabled person – as a plague, a peril or a poison.

Fear typically activates a certain part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is a throwback to the reptilian brain, and is highly attuned to perceive immediate threats in the environment. When the amygdala is activated, the brain is no longer able to effectively process information in a rational and conscious way. Amygdala activation is Trump’s bread and butter.

A study published in Current Biology demonstrated that there were structural differences in the brains of students with different political attitudes. Students with conservative political beliefs had an enlarged amygdala. On the other hand, students that tended towards liberalism had more grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that enables us to effectively process complex information. This is also the part of the brain that helps to regulate our response to an emotional event or emotional information.

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Does Trump’s election strategy appeal to our most basic, reptilian instincts?

Do these structural neurological differences explain political preference entirely? Well, no. Do these brain structures align with certain cognitive styles and, thus, political preference? It certainly seems that way.

Another cluster of studies published in Psychological Science explored the idea of cognitive perceptions of threat, and their effect on political preference. They found that when people experienced a threat to their safety and security, they increased their support for a conservative presidential candidate. The authors used Terror Management Theory – yes, that’s its real and spectacular name – to test this relationship. Terror Management Theory, or TMT, stipulates that humans are in a constant state of subconscious distress about the inevitability of death, and that this abject terror motivates most of human behaviour in some way. In a political context, subtle reminders of death and threat draw people closer to a conservative candidate. Or in Trump’s case,
not-so-subtle reminders: “You have people coming in, and I’m not just saying Mexicans — I’m talking about people that are from all over that are killers and rapists, and they’re coming into this country.”


“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Fear alone is not enough, though. You need to scare the spaghetti out of people, and then offer them a solution that will neutralise both the threat and (more realistically) their heightened state of fear. Obviously, Trump and the Republican Party have created the problem, and then presented themselves as the solution.

So why are people still buying into this fear mongering? Why isn’t it obvious that Trump is pressing all the right amygdala-shaped buttons to secure their terror – and their vote? There’s a psychological theory to explain that too.

In 1999, Cornell University researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Diffculties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self- Assessments’. They describe what is now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, which proposes that individuals with gaps in knowledge typically don’t recognise these gaps. That is, the cognitive skills needed to acquire and retain knowledge are similar to those required to recognise when one lacks knowledge. As Darwin put it: “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge.”

The Dunning-Kruger effect has two parts to play in explaining the Trump Phenomenon. First, Trump’s supporters don’t know what they don’t know. Ergo, they blindly believe Trump’s lies, even the most absurd, like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton co-founding ISIS. They believe him because he is nothing if not overtly over-confident, because he too
doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. They believe him because their rational brains are literally paralysed by fear.

So what can be done about the control that Trump the reptilian overlord has over so many tiny lizard brains? Not much, actually. Put your faith in natural selection and hope it knocks him out of the presidential race.

Dr Jessica L Paterson
Senior Research Fellow
CQUniversity, Appleton Institute

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