Why People Fall for Charismatic Leaders

A new book explores how fear, uncertainty, and group psychology lead people to believe leaders who say false things.

The Atalantic/October 13, 2016

By Olga Khazan

Why do people still believe Donald Trump when he says things like, "Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they've ever been in before. Ever. Ever. Ever"? (Even setting aside slavery and Jim Crow, “Nationally, the black poverty rate is 24.1 percent, which is much higher than the 9.1 percent percent it is for whites. But that’s still lower than it has been in the past,” Politifact points out.) Or that there could be anywhere from 3 to 30 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., but “the government has no idea.” (The number is 11.4 million, Politifact says, and the government is quite sure.)

It could be because Trump, like many charismatic leaders, casts his arguments in ways that tickle the emotional parts of our brains while telling the more rational lobes to shush. That’s the process explored by Sara E. Gorman, a public-health expert, and her father, Jack M. Gorman, a psychiatrist and CEO of Franklin Behavioral Health Consultants, in their new book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us. “Persuaders might want to reduce the possibility of dissonance by constantly reassuring people that they have made the right choice ... or that there is no viable reasonable alternative,” they write. (Remember “I alone can fix it?”)

In the book, the Gormans explain not just how people fall for the false claims of politicians, but also how intelligent people wind up in cults or why a nation wracked by gun violence continues to reject gun-control measures. They admit they do not support Trump, but they’re otherwise equal opportunity debunkers, taking on GMO fear-mongering and anti-vaxers along with the National Rifle Association. I recently interviewed the Gormans about why false information and charismatic people can seem so seductive. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Olga Khazan: You write that cults often draw people of above-average intelligence. Why is that?

Sara Gorman: I just want to say I think it was fortuitous that the book has come out now with Trump running for president, because we see a lot of parallels with the charismatic leader and the conspiracy theories. And one of the things that we emphasize in the book, that is really the center of it is that idea—this is what made us write the book—that a lot of the people who hold some of these beliefs including being easily easily persuaded by charismatic leaders or pulled into cults are actually very intelligent.

The response has usually been just to throw facts at people and assume that they just don’t know any better. When in reality, often you are dealing with intelligent people. I think what happens with people who fall into cults and also conspiracy theories, it has more to do with feelings of powerlessness, and especially if you're very very stressed, you can really be much more susceptible to these ideas. In that way, it's not as much about your intelligence as it is about your circumstances and feeling like you've lost control in some way.

Jack Gorman: That's totally right, and you know we also have to make a distinction between how much education someone has and how intelligent they are. One of the very amusing things was Trump right after the [first] debate developing a conspiracy theory himself that the microphones were broken and that the Democrats did it. So he sort of churns these things up, and although I don’t particularly like him, I would have to say he's intelligent. So that's just an example of somebody who not only believes them, but, you know, makes them up.

Just to get back to Sara's thing about "voiceless" and "powerless," there was actually an article in The Atlantic that looked at the characteristics of Trump supporters, and although it talked about the usual triad of male, poor, and white, the article said that the two most strong predictions of who supports Trump were not having a college degree and people who feel voiceless and powerless. So that voiceless and powerless trait looks like it aligns with both supporting Trump and being prone to believing in conspiracy theories.

Khazan: Would you call Trump a charismatic leader? Why or why not?

Sara Gorman: I would absolutely call him a charismatic leader. A charismatic leader is not necessarily a negative, but what we found in the book and what we see with Trump often is that anti-science charismatic leaders, or charismatic leaders who espouse things that are not true, obviously they have a big effect that can be very negative.

It’s really striking how he lines up with some of these anti-science charismatic leaders on some of the basic characteristics. One of the big things for him is that he’s positioned himself as an outsider and being on the fringes. That actually helps him build up his charisma and his identity as a charismatic leader because it creates a very strong sense of him being able to come in and create a totally different order and a revolution. But it also allows him to create a very strong us-versus-them narrative, in which he can really point to a very large group of people—no matter what party they're in—it's all of the government is against him and against us, the Americans.

And what that in turn does, is once you create a sense of a “them,” you reinforce a strong “us.” And when you reinforce a very strong “us,” a lot of group psychology will sort of kick up. There's a lot of conformity, there's a lot of not questioning things because other people seem to be going along with it. It's harder for individuals who are part of groups to make independent judgments and decisions.

He also uses fear and personal stories to heighten risk perception. He will lead with stories of individual people who were supposedly murdered by illegal immigrants. He also positions himself as the person who will protect all of your rights and all of these huge issues around justice and fairness and freedom of speech. He often will bring things back to those huge issues rather than going into more specifics around various policy issues. That makes it harder to disagree with him, and it creates a sort of authoritarian godlike aura around a person.

Olga Khazan: Being less specific makes it harder to disagree with them?

Sara Gorman: Absolutely.

Jack Gorman: I once heard a speech by Wayne LaPierre, the director of the NRA.  And you could insert almost any cause into that speech, because he almost never actually used the word gun. He talked all about freedoms, fairness, protection, family—you could imagine a far left person talking about their cause putting it in the same words. You’ll very rarely hear Wayne LaPierre talk about the data about whether personal gun ownership is actually safe or not. He’ll talk about, “I’m protecting your freedom.”

And you have the same thing when Trump talks about immigration. He’ll never cite actual data on the number of crimes committed by immigrants vs. non-immigrants. You probably heard if you listened to the VP debate when the moderator said to Pence, "but you know the most recent incidents were all done by American citizens, how do you account for that?" and he ducked that question and went right back to very loaded emotional words — “tragedies occurring to families.”  So what he does is deflect attention away from the data onto these base emotions, and then they tell you, “we’re the only ones who can save you." And if you already feel like you're a person who doesn't have a voice, that's an extremely attractive way to put things.

Khazan: One of the things you note is that most charismatic leaders tend to be great communicators and have a lot of verbal eloquence. Eloquence does not seem to be one of Trump’s strengths, but perhaps the “says what we’re all thinking” element telegraphs that a bit.

Sara Gorman: I agree with the verbal eloquence part, but he is always appearing as though he’s winging it. I think all of that sort of helps build his personality cult. Because in a weird way it makes him seem more approachable, like he’s being genuine, and he's a person, and so the cult around him or the whole support around him is about his personality versus political beliefs. That is so typical of the charismatic leader, versus the sort of traditional leader, which is more like Hillary Clinton, who really gleans her authority from experience and bureaucratic processes. And the personality cult, the groups that form around them tend to be much stronger than the groups that form around these traditional leaders.

Khazan: Don’t Hillary supporters do the same thing, though? Doesn't anyone who runs for president have to cultivate that same kind of aura around themselves?

Jack Gorman: I think that's a really important point, that's kind of the difference between the anti-science charismatic leaders that we're dealing with in the book and at least that aspect of politics, because politics is a forced choice. So you basically have to choose one of these two people. With the anti-science area, you don’t have to choose to believe [vaccine skeptic] Andrew Wakefield. [But] certainly there are people who are drawn to Hillary Clinton merely because she’s a woman and they want to vote for a woman.

But I would say that Hillary Clinton and also Tim Kaine ... both of them have a tendency to try to bring up facts. Tim Kaine especially [at the debate] kept doing that, and you can see how to another scientist like me, that's extremely refreshing. On the other hand, it comes across as being very flat, and people constantly complain that neither of them is convincing or persuasive or energetic or attractive in the way they talk. And you could see that [in the most recent debate], and that is a difficulty that scientists have in how to get their message across in a way that persuades people while still being true. Hillary has a harder time developing a cult of personality, which I would say is a great thing, a positive thing, but it's hard for a politician nowadays to get by without that.

Khazan: Explain why false or fear-mongering information can be so powerful.

Jack Gorman: This is an oversimplification of the way the brain works. That being said, many scientists have identified this higher-order, rational, slow-working part of the brain, which is basically the prefrontal cortex, and the more primitive parts of the brain that work faster or more automatically, and subserve emotions like fear. And there are good data showing that the first thing that you hear makes the biggest impression—and that if it’s heard under emotional circumstances, that it’s always associated with that emotion.

If the first thing you hear about a topic is something that’s associated with fear, that will often suppress the rational part of the brain. It will be placed into long-term memory by this more primitive part of the brain, and it turns out to be very, very difficult to dislodge that. If you do fear conditioning in a rat so that it learns to associate a tone with an electric shock, it never goes away for the rest of the rat's life. It will always freeze when it hears the tone, even though you're not giving shocks anymore.

The point is, those fears that these charismatic leaders arouse are often committed to permanent indelible memory, and they become extremely hard to dislodge, and they are easy to evoke simply by making people scared again. So all that Trump has to do is say “these immigrants are going to kill you,” and his entire message about immigration becomes immediately recalled.

Sara Gorman: Fear is one of the most primitive, most basic parts of the brain. But it's very, very powerful, and the part of the brain that works against that, which is the prefrontal cortex, it actually takes a lot of energy for us to engage that part of the brain.

Khazan: Explain what cognitive load is and how that makes us more susceptible to persuasion.

Jack Gorman: It requires a lot more effort to use the reasoning part of the brain. The default is to use the faster parts of the brain. So if you’re in a state of stress or there are too many facts coming at you or too much information, the default mode is to say, “I can’t handle all that stuff, it’s too much, or it's too frightening, or it's too complicated. I'm gonna default to the more rapid acting part of the brain, and make immediate decisions.” Now, as we point out in the book, and as many people have pointed out, from an evolutionary point of view, that was probably very adaptive because you often need to make rapid decisions for safety’s sake. And so if there’s a burning building that you have to get out of, don’t sit there analyzing all the aspects that causes fire and where the smoke is coming from, you just run away. So you operate purely from fear. And that's what the effect of fear and cognitive overload does: It directs attention away from the slower-acting parts of the brain that require much more effort.

Khazan: A lot of Americans believe in conspiracy theories, and there’s some evidence that some of the distrust of government among some Trump supporters stems from the world of conspiracies. What are some of the hallmarks of these theories, and what makes them so seductive?

Jack Gorman: One of the things you find with the conspiracy theory is that they’re actually very, very fluid. If you’re actually able to disprove one of their tenets, they don’t say, "Oh, guess we were wrong." They immediately move to another reason to support their original fear. The classic example is with the anti-vaccine people, who are little by little having to give up on the idea that vaccines cause autism. But instead of saying, “Vaccines are safe; you should be vaccinated,” they move on to “It's too many vaccines, it overloads the immune system.” So they keep moving in this very fluid way. It's really looking for some reason to support a fear. That’s a very serious problem.

Sara Gorman: Conspiracies can and have happened, so our philosophy in the book is we shouldn't dismiss people who believe [these] things, because there’s a lot of psychology behind that and some historical truth. But there’s a lot of drama around these statements and a lot of emotional hype, because, again, that's something that can be used to get people to not use the rational parts of their brain and just believe something that's probably not true. The other thing to look out for is, and this comes up a lot in anti-science conspiracies: How likely is it really that the groups of people who have been identified as the ones conspiring would really be able to all come together and do this? Someone like Andrew Wakefield’s argument is that every single scientist in every single government agency and the pharmaceutical industry, they’re all together in this conspiracy against him. That just feels very unlikely. But what that does is create a very strong sense of us-versus-them.

Khazan: I think a lot of people would say that people of the opposite political party don’t seem to listen to logic or reason, that they seem irrational. What’s a good way to inoculate ourselves against false, yet persuasive messages? Or to deal with someone who believes in conspiracy theories? If open-mindedness is our goal?

Sara Gorman: [Dealing with someone who believes a conspiracy theory,] you can take their arguments and sort of present them in a very unemotional way, and a very bland way, over and over and over, and just repeat weakened versions of the argument in a flat manner. And that has actually been shown to be somewhat effective in getting people out of the grasp of a charismatic leader or a conspiracy theory. So it's like inoculation, as you can see, because it's like a weakened version of the thing.

I think the example we use in the book is in a healthcare setting. So if you have a patient who comes in and says “vaccines cause autism.” There’s a tendency is to just immediately say, "That's not true—here's the data against that, blah, blah, blah.” That really antagonizes the person and actually can backfire and make their beliefs stronger. Which is a little bit frightening. What you could do instead is say, "As I understand it," in a calm measured voice, "Andrew Wakefield argues," and sort of list the arguments out. And if you do that multiple times, people really do start to calm down. They disengage the emotional part of their brain, which frees up space to engage a more rational part of the brain.

Khazan: So the key is to not get agitated? Or is it the repetition?

Sara Gorman: I think it's both. Using those same arguments, but making sure you don’t have any charismatic qualities at all while you’re saying it. The other thing is, you can engage people on the level of, what are your values? What do you really want? For vaccines, it’s, “I want my child to be safe.” When you get them to rehearse their values, you actually can see a reduction in their willingness to believe crazy ideas.

Jack Gorman: [For yourself,] the first thing you should do is slow down and take a deep breath. The second thing is, is there an ulterior motive for making these statements? Who’s paying for it, for example. The second thing is, think of what the person just said, and ask the question "Compared to what?" So if the person says, “This is dangerous,” say, “Compared to what?” Because it may well be that they’re talking about five people who were harmed, and 10,000 people were helped. And that would make a difference.

Another question is: Are there any expert opinions in this area, and what do the experts think?

We are launching a new entity called "Critica" that will be an online community [looking at] the best ways to approach uncertainty, and what research we can do. Because we're interested in, what does convince the public? Only recently, for example, people have been figuring out what was successful to get so many Americans to stop smoking cigarettes. It looks like it probably wasn't all the advertisements, but rather raising taxes on cigarettes that was probably the most persuasive. So we want to see a lot more of that kind of work done to actually figure out what it is that helps persuade people.

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