Home Psychology The Psychology of Persuasion in the 2016 Election

The Psychology of Persuasion in the 2016 Election

This article has been written with the sole purpose of examining the psychology of persuasion in the 2016 election utilized by presidential candidates Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. It by no means has been written with the intention of pushing the political agenda of either candidate.

In only a few short weeks, the 2016 Presidential Election will come to an end when the American people elected the 45th President of the United States. In what has been deemed the strangest, and potentially most publicized, election ever to take place on American soil, two highly polarizing mega-icons have battled to secure votes by preaching vastly different messages. To win the presidency, Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump have relied on contradicting psychology of persuasion strategies in hopes of appealing to the widest possible range of voters.

To gain an understanding of how each candidate uses the psychology of persuasion, and better prepare ourselves for the final few weeks of the race, we can examine a number of campaign strategies that have been used throughout this election cycle. To do this, however, it will first be important to improve our understanding of a number of psychologically based persuasion concepts and explore the methods that past presidential candidates have used to influence the general public.

The Psychology of Persuasion:

In the field of psychology, persuasion is regarded as one of the main strategies that individuals and businesses use to influence the behaviors, emotions, and opinions of others. In much the same way that advertisers use persuasion as a tool to entice us to buy particular products, politicians use persuasion as a way to convince us to vote for them or support their given agenda. By looking at a number of relevant concepts found within the psychology of persuasion literature, we can formulate a basis for better understanding the methods that Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump used to secure votes.

The first psychological concept that is worth discussing is the Elaboration Likelihood Model of persuasion (ELM), which was developed in the mid-1980s. Distinguished psychologist Richard Petty and celebrated social neuroscientist John Cacioppo developed the model as a way to show how individuals and businesses use two different persuasion routes in hopes of influencing others to act or think a certain way. The ‘central route’ of persuasion aims to entice others with logical reasoning and factual information, while the ‘peripheral route’ of persuasion emphasizes positive feelings and emotional appeal.

Petty and Cacioopo believed that the persuasion potential of the two routes is largely dependent upon factors such as the audience and situational circumstances. If the recipients of the persuasion message have the motivation and abilities to intellectually think about the reasoning of a given topic, the central route would serve as a more adequate persuasion method. However, if the recipients have a minimal interest or don’t possess the intellectual abilities to process the proposed message, the peripheral route would be considered to have more persuasion potential.

While the central and peripheral routes of persuasion outline the basic framework of influence, they do little to shed light on the tips and tricks that are used by professional marketers, politicians, and salesmen. To increase our understanding of the intricacies of influence, we can look to Robert Cialdini’s highly acclaimed 1984 book ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.‘ Within this national bestseller, Cialdini, who has become one of the world’s most well-respected business psychologists, outlines six universal truths of influence that can be used to persuade others:

  • Liking: Individuals are more willing to be influenced by those who are similar to them.
  • Reciprocity: Individuals typically repay what has been given to them, so giving others what they want to receive can be used as a way to influence them.
  • Social Proof: Individuals are easily influenced by respected peers or majority group thinking.
  • Scarcity: Individuals are influenced when they are offered something that they don’t currently possess.
  • Authority: Individuals are easily influenced by the opinions of experts.
  • Consistency: Individuals typically stay true to the commitments that they make, so securing a commitment from others can assure future influence.

Depending upon the particular situation or circumstances, a number of these truths can be useful to remember when attempting to persuade others. In order to examine the persuasion techniques used by the 2016 presidential candidates, we will focus on the universal truths of Liking, Social Proof, Scarcity, Authority, and Consistency. These five truths, along with the two persuasion routes found within the Elaboration Likelihood Model, will help us differentiate and make sense of both Donald Trump’s and Hilary Clinton’s persuasion strategies.

Persuasion in Presidential Elections:

A picture of a newspaper from 1952 when Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidential election. He used innovative psychology of persuasion techniques to appeal to was audiences.

In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first presidential candidate to use television advertisement.

Throughout the history of presidential elections in the United States, a number of key factors have consistently helped to shape the persuasion strategies used by presidential candidates. The ever-evolving technological landscape has made it easier than ever for today’s presidential hopefuls to reach mass audiences, but that hasn’t always been the case. It wasn’t until the third presidential election in 1796 that candidates began using mass media persuasion strategies to entice large numbers of people, and it wasn’t until 1952, that presidential hopeful Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first candidate to use television advertisement. Another major persuasion shaper has been the demographics of the country, which have continuously shifted since the founding fathers drafted the original Declaration of Independence in 1776. The Latino population in the United States, for example, grew from 6.3 million in 1960 to 55.3 million in 2014.

In addition to factors such as technology and demographics, presidential candidates will also customize their psychology of persuasion strategies depending on their political affiliation, the current state of the country, and the background of their competitive counterparts. While Donald Trump has promised change from the status quo, Hilary Clinton, who is closely associated with Barack Obama, has aimed to highlight the immense progress that has been made during the current President’s eight years in office. Furthermore, both candidates have been quick to attack each other’s history, judgment, and qualifications as a way of persuading voters through negative propaganda.

Persuasion Tactics in the 2016 Election:

Now that we have examined a number of relevant psychology of persuasion concepts, as well as the key variables that affect the persuasion strategies of presidential candidates, let’s turn our attention to exploring the persuasion approaches taken by Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

Hilary Clinton:

A picture of Hilary Clinton at the first presidential debate. Her psychology of persuasion methods very closely resemble that of a typical politician.

Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

If you had the opportunity to watch the first presidential debate in late September, you assuredly would agree with the notion that Hilary Clinton relies primarily on the central route of persuasion as her means for securing votes. Thanks largely to her political experience and deep understanding of the issues Americans face today, Clinton strives to influence voters with logical reasoning and political rhetoric, even though some of her conceptual ideas may not be easily understood by segments of the general population. Monica Alba and Ali Vitali of NBC News reported on the first presidential debate and tell us:

One looks to be hunkering down with homework, research and rehearsals, while the other [Donald Trump] seems to be taking an on-the-fly casual approach to what could be the most important 90 minutes of the presidential election.”

In regard to the previously mentioned universal truths of influence, Hilary Clinton has aimed to attract voters by using the principles of Liking, Authority, Social Proof, and Consistency. There has been a great amount of media attention paid to Clinton’s unlikeable political demeanor, and it is because of this widely held perception that the former Secretary of State has focused much of her efforts on appearing more welcoming and personable. She has similarly used the Liking truth to negatively portray Trump as being out-of-touch, a womanizer, and a racist. Clinton also relies on what is probably the most useful universal influence method for presidential candidates, the Authority truth, as a way to promote her image and demote the image of her competition. She regularly references her distinctive track record as a politician while undermining Trump’s political experience and legitimacy as a candidate. For example, she is quoted as saying:

He’s not just unprepared — he’s temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility.”

In addition to the Liking and Authority truths, Clinton has used the Social Proof truth in hopes of swinging independents and moderate Republicans away from voting for Trump, by discussing how a number of prominent Republicans are unwilling to make allegiance to the Republican candidate. Finally, because of her previous work history with Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee has had to focus on using the Consistency truth to remind Americans of the progress that has been made during the past eight years.

Donald Trump:

Donald Trump is shown at the first 2016 presidential election. Trump's psychology of persuasion differs greatly from Hilary Clinton.

Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP

In stark contradiction to Clinton’s use of the central route of persuasion, Donald Trump has attracted voters with spontaneous wit, immense confidence, and an unwillingness to back down from anyone. By utilizing the peripheral route of persuasion, Trump has been able to reach voters at an emotional level by portraying himself as the only candidate who can keep the country safe, increase the income of the middle class, negotiate trade deals that positively reshape the American economy, and revive the American Dream. For example, he is quoted as saying:

This is the new civil rights agenda of our time – the right to a safe community, a quality education, and a wonderful job.”

While the messages that Trump and Clinton use to entice voters are vastly different, the universal truths of influence that they use are much more similar. While Clinton has tried to increase her likability with voters, Trump has used the Liking truth by portraying himself as an unpolitical politician who is dealing with the same issues and fears that the average American is dealing with. Instead of relying on flashy political rhetoric, he speaks to the American people using conversational vocabulary that is more easily understood by all. In a similar fashion to Clinton’s strategy, Trump has used the Liking truth to negatively describe Clinton as being unreliable, unhealthy, and lacking the business knowledge to improve the American economy.

Trump, like all presidential candidates, also relies heavily on the Authority truth to secure votes and does so by discussing his immense success as a negotiator and businessman. By comparing his history of making good business deals with the failed trade deals that have been made by American politicians, he has been able to persuade voters concerned with the national debt, job market, and overall economic well-being of the country. When discussing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, for example, Trump is quoted as saying:

The TPP is horrible deal. It is a deal that is going to lead to nothing but trouble. It’s a deal that was designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone. It’s 5,600 pages long, so complex that nobody’s read it. This is one of the worst trade deals. And I would, yes, rather not have it. We’re losing now over $500 billion in terms of imbalance with China, $75 billion a year imbalance with Japan.”

In addition to using the Liking and Authority persuasion techniques, Trump also uses Social proof and Scarcity truths. He regularly references endorsements that he has received from important groups of citizens, such as the Fraternal Order of Police, in hopes of convincing others to follow their lead. Lastly, while Clinton has had to make the effort to legitimize Barack Obama’s time in office, Trump has counteracted her pitch by using the Scarcity of truth to paint a bleak picture of American life today. His promises about safety, prosperity, and economic well-being are very much given as a way to show the American people that he can supply them with what they don’t currently have.

Over the next four weeks, it would be worth your while to analyze each candidate’s pitches from the perspective of a psychologist. By understanding the psychology of persuasion techniques utilized by both Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, each of us can be better prepared to decide which candidate we will support on November 8th.

1 comment

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