We Pick Presidents (and Dates) With Our Guts, Not Our Brains

We’ve all been there: super attracted to someone your friends have warned you against. Maybe you’ve even had interactions with this person that prove they’re not a good fit for you, or even that they’re downright unsavory. But facts and warnings be darned — the heart wants what it wants.

A Stanford University professor says picking a president falls along the same lines. We choose him or her based on our gut gutsreactions, not cold, hard evidence of character or accomplishments. Jeff Hancock, who teaches communications at the college, said this has been particularly significant in the 2016 presidential election.

“I think trust is a really important topic for this election since both candidates have really low levels of trustworthiness,” Hancock said in an interview with Worldview Stanford. “We don’t trust people just based on their past actions or what they say. It’s a very intuitive thing. …

We can see it in other kinds of social media. With Match.com or eHarmony you’d fill out lots of information about how you fall in love and who might be a good match. That was disrupted by Tinder — all it showed was photos. Tinder intuited that people make judgments based on what they can see. That’s an important part of the election this year — the visual component.”

The concept of “trust” is shifting big time, Hancock says. Now, rather than trusting institutions — the government, the media, police, big corporations — we trust each other.

“For example, a young woman has some drinks with her friends in San Francisco, calls an Uber, a guy in a black car pulls up that she’s never met before and will never meet again, and she gets in,” Hancock said. “And 99.999 percent of the time, it works out great. … Future elections may have to rely much more on the individual-level trust.”

This is part of a larger hypothesis Hancock has about social media and how it’s changing politics in the United States. Although social media is blamed for the efflorescence of partisanship in U.S. politics, that widening political gap started yawning in the 1960s and ’70s, way before Facebook and Twitter came on the scene (which was only about a decade ago), Hancock said. And, at the end of the day, social media is just another form of media for politicians to incorporate into their campaigns. After all, radio and television were once new technologies, too.

guts“When the TV came, candidates had to figure out how to look trustworthy on TV,” Hancock said. “If you were sweating too much, like Nixon, that’s bad news. Now we’re trying to figure out, and the candidates are trying to figure out, how to come across as authentic in social media. This need to feel that the person you’re voting for is authentic goes way back, probably back to our evolutionary roots.”

Authenticity isn’t something you can force. But it seems the speedier the candidate’s responses on social media, the more “authentic” they appear, Hancock posits.

“Donald Trump, for example, responds really quickly… and he’s perceived as a very authentic guy who says what he feels and what he means,” he said. “The campaigns are working on speed — let’s be part of the conversation fast. Let’s react, so it feels authentic rather than manufactured.”

guts“Emotional contagion” via social media has also been at play during this election season, Hancock said. It sounds creepier than it is — emotional contagion is actually “when you feel an emotion because you have seen or heard somebody else experiencing that emotion,” he said. It’s also impacted us throughout the year when devastating things have happened around the world.

“Somebody reading about or seeing the attacks in Nice or Orlando, for example, can actually feel the fear and the anxiety that the people in that local area are feeling,”  Hancock said. “I think that’s playing a big role in this election. The candidates’ talk about law and order, the rhetoric about fear and anxiety — it’s because these emotions are palpable.”

With social media getting more and more advanced and more and more integrated into our lives, what do the elections of the future look like? Hancock said handheld, immediate social features like Facebook Live and Twitter Periscope might be the new broadcast news.

“We’re already seeing more peer-to-peer trust,” he said. “People love seeing Facebook Live or Twitter Periscope because it feels like unfiltered information from a friend or a peer in a network, and can be trusted more than mainstream media, which we often think is biased. I think we’re going to see more and more individual C-SPANs because we trust our peers more than we trust institutions.”

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.