2020 Won’t Be 2016 (or 2000)

We’re entering what’s been called and what’s going to be “the longest two weeks in human history”. A neuroscientist who writes for Scientific American says we shouldn’t worry too much about what’s going to happen:

Will we be surprised again this November the way Americans were on Nov. 9, 2016 when they awoke to learn that reality TV star Dxxxx Txxxx had been elected president?

. . . Another surprise victory is unlikely to happen again if this election is looked at from the same perspective of neuroscience that I used to account for the surprising outcome in 2016. Briefly, that article explained how our brain provides two different mechanisms of decision-making; one is conscious and deliberative, and the other is automatic, driven by emotion and especially by fear.

Txxxx’s strategy does not target the neural circuitry of reason in the cerebral cortex; it provokes the limbic system. In the 2016 election, undecided voters were influenced by the brain’s fear-driven impulses—more simply, gut instinct—once they arrived inside the voting booth, even though they were unable to explain their decision to pre-election pollsters in a carefully reasoned manner.

In 2020, Txxxx continues to use the same strategy of appealing to the brain’s threat-detection circuitry and emotion-based decision process to attract votes and vilify opponents. . . .

But fear-driven appeals will likely persuade fewer voters this time, because we overcome fear in two ways: by reason and experience. Inhibitory neural pathways from the prefrontal cortex to the limbic system will enable reason to quash fear if the dangers are not grounded in fact. . . .

A psychology- and neuroscience-based perspective also illuminates Txxxx’s constant interruptions and insults during the first presidential debate, steamrolling over the moderator’s futile efforts to have a reasoned airing of facts and positions. The structure of a debate is designed to engage the deliberative reasoning in the brain’s cerebral cortex, so Txxxx annihilated the format to inflame emotion in the limbic system.

Txxxx’s dismissal of experts, be they military generals, career public servants, scientists or even his own political appointees, is necessary for him to sustain the subcortical decision-making in voters’ minds that won him election and sustains his support. . . . In his rhetoric, Txxxx does not address factual evidence; he dismisses or suppresses it even for events that are apparent to many, including global warming, foreign intervention in U.S. elections, the trivial head count at his inauguration, and even the projected path of a destructive hurricane. Instead, “alternative facts” or fabrications are substituted.

. . . Reason cannot always overcome fear, as [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] demonstrates; but the brain’s second mechanism of neutralizing its fear circuitry—experience—can do so. Repeated exposure to the fearful situation where the outcome is safe will rewire the brain’s subcortical circuitry. This is the basis for “extinction therapy” used to treat PTSD and phobias. For many, credibility has been eroded by Txxxx’s outlandish assertions, like suggesting injections of bleach might cure COVID-19, or enthusing over a plant toxin touted by a pillow salesman, while scientific experts in attendance grimace and bite their lips.

In the last election Txxxx was a little-known newcomer as a political figure, but that is not the case this time with either candidate. The “gut -reaction” decision-making process excels in complex situations where there is not enough factual information or time to make a reasoned decision. We follow gut instinct, for example, when selecting a dish from a menu at a new restaurant, where we have never seen or tasted the offering before. We’ve had our fill of the politics this time, no matter what position one may favor. Whether voters choose to vote for Txxxx on the basis of emotion or reason, they will be better able to articulate the reasons, or rationalizations, for their choice. This should give pollsters better data to make a more accurate prediction.


Pollsters did make an accurate prediction of the national vote in 2016 (Clinton won it). Most of them didn’t taken into account the Electoral College, however, or anticipate the last-minute intervention by big-mouth FBI Director James Comey.

In 2000, the Electoral College result depended on an extremely close election in one state. That allowed the Republicans on the Supreme Court to get involved. There’s no reason to think that will happen again, despite the president’s hopes that it will.