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This is the natural cognitive bias that Donald Trump leveraged to win

There were many surprises in this election campaign, but ultimately, the thought process that helped elect Donald Trump has been well-studied for years

Donald Trump

(Win McNamee/Getty)

The ascension of Donald Trump to the American presidency is clearly a milestone in American electoral history, and perhaps in electoral history period. Just what kind of milestone remains unclear. It will be years—literally years—before we understand the full significance of this election.

But a few points are worth noting.

The first point worth noting is that Trump has been elected to the highest office in the U.S. without having to even pretend to value all voters, or to respect the rights and dignity of all persons. He got away not just with being misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, and racist, but with being openly misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, and racist. We’ve surely seen people with those values win elections at various levels before, but for most of modern American history they’ve had to at least pretend. They might pretend in order to fool women, LGBTQ folk, and racial or ethnic minorities into voting for them, or they might pretend in order to make other folks feel less bad about voting for them. Trump refused to pretend—or at least, refused to pretend about that.

Of course, this raises an interesting question about just how deep his values really run. Trump might be lauded by fans for his so-called authenticity, but he’s flip-flopped on so many issues that it’s hard to say just what he believes, and what his values are, and what values will drive his presidency.

But even if the values he spouted during the election weren’t deep (is anything about the man deep?), his success—the success of a man openly espousing a set of values considered not to be “politically correct”—has effectively licensed others who are deeply misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, and racist to fly their colours openly. We’re already hearing reports of incidents of open anti-semitism, racism, and proud proclamations of “white power.” This licensing of hate is perhaps the most dangerous long-term effect of a Trump presidency.

A second point worth making has to do with truth. Trump’s victory seems like the death of truth. Throughout his campaign, Trump successfully thumbed his nose at fact-checkers. We’re not just talking about occasionally bending the truth, or saying things that could only be construed as true if you squinted just right. We’re talking about outright lies, dozens of them, told day after day, as if no one were checking the actual facts.

Students of psychology, and in particular of cognitive biases, will generally find Trump’s success in this regard unsurprising. Trump benefited—intentionally or not—from a phenomenon that marketers have known about for years. Psychologists call it “affect heuristic,” or the tendency to make judgments based on mood or emotion. The net result of this built-in human mental trait is that rather than letting our beliefs about the world tell us how to feel, we tend to let our emotions tell us what to believe. Afraid of crime? Then you’ll tend to see the world as violent (even if violent crime is at its lowest point in a generation or more). Worried about your job? Then you’ll believe that unemployment is up (even if it’s at at a 10-year low). Trump capitalized on this by telling Americans things they felt were true. And feeling is much more compelling than listening to eggheads spout statistics on television.

Finally, a point about signalling. Lots of people take this election result to be a matter of the electorate (or a significant part of it) sending a strong signal. “We don’t like Washington.” “We don’t like the status quo.” “We’re not happy with politics as usual.” Fair enough. Those are reasonable signals to want to send, if they could be sent in a clear and pure way. But elections don’t work that way, and Donald Trump—hell, any politician, but perhaps especially Donald Trump—is an incredibly messy way to send such a signal. Yes, voters told The System that they weren’t satisfied. But they also sent a strong and hateful message to a substantial proportion of their fellow citizens, and their fellow human beings.

Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Interim Director of the Ted Rogers MBA at Ryerson University, and founding co-editor of Business Ethics Highlights.