How the media helped Donald Trump get elected

August 2016

This was written during the campaign for president in 2016. I wish we had all paid more attention to it.

There have been several studies showing that Donald Trump’s unconventional approach to campaigning gets incredible coverage in the media – much more than any of his competitors. If you pay attention to the news, you already know that. He gets a lot more mentions than Hillary.

I believe that psychological research tells us that this simple frequency of mentions, whether negative or positive, may have a lot to do with his success.

About 40 years ago, Psychology Today magazine reported on research from Professor Robert Zajonc of Michigan State University. The title was “Brainwash: Familiarity Breeds Comfort.”

Zajonc contended that his research showed that “The mere repeated exposure of an unfamiliar stimulus is enough to increase one’s attention to that stimulus. Repeated exposure makes words more positive, food more appetizing, strangers more acceptable.”

Zajonc offered several studies to support his thesis, including one in which he used two college newspapers to publish ads with a list of Turkish words without explanation. He ran some words more frequently in one paper and some more frequently in another. Some words appeared just once, some five or ten times, some as many as 25.

Students (some who had read one paper, some the other one) were then asked to participate in a study that was trying to determine whether or not people could tell if a word in another language represented something “good” or something “bad” just by the sound. (This was a lie of course. The words had been chosen at random.)

Invariably, people were much more likely to place the words that had run more frequently in the “good” column and the words that had run less frequently in the “bad” column. What else could this be but the effect of mere exposure?

Then Zajonc went into politics. A man named Pat Milligan agreed to run for office without making any appearances, or taking stands on any issues. His entire campaign consisted of saturation advertising (billboards, ads, mail) with five words: Three Cheers for Pat Milligan. He won easily.

Forty-some years later, Professor George Lakoff, whose field is cognitive science, uses brain research to explain how this can happen.

“All thought uses neural circuitry. Every idea is constituted by neural circuitry. But we have no conscious access to that circuitry. As a result, most of thought — an estimated 98 percent of thought — is unconscious. Conscious thought is the tip of the iceberg.”

So much for the idea that we are mostly rational beings. If Lakoff is right, 98% of our thought is subconscious, running without the control of our rational minds.

Lakoff argues that one of the most important mechanisms of this subconscious neural circuitry is “….Repetition.” He asserts that “The more a word is heard, the more the circuit is activated and the stronger it gets, and so the easier it is to fire again.”

I don’t know how much research Donald Trump does but I wonder if Lakoff and Zajonc are on his reading list

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