Decision Making and the Will of the People

This week, Donald J Trump will take the oath of office of the president of the United States.

A lot of people can’t believe it’s actually happening. There have been “Not My President” rallies across the country. There’s been hopeful talk that Russian hacking scandals might forestall him taking office. Some Democrats are planning to boycott the inauguration ceremony.

Like it or not, Mr Trump won office fair and square. Well, according to the rules of the US electoral system. Complaining about his victory will achieve nothing. But trying to figure out how he did it might prove to be more profitable.

How did a man with no experience of public office whatsoever manage to defeat a woman who was regarded by all to be one of the most qualified candidates ever to run for the presidency? What were people thinking when they voted for Donald J Trump?

In the early 1970s two brilliant young academics embarked on a research project to unravel the mysteries of human decision-making.

Amos Tversky (left) and Danny Kahneman were professors at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and they hoped that by revealing the mechanics of decision-making, their work could transform how individuals, corporations and governments chose which courses of action to follow.

Tversky and Kahneman thought if they could transform decision-making into a kind of engineering problem, they could design decision-making systems.

You know, formulas for making better choices.

They called it “decision analysis”, and they really believed that once they’d cracked its code they could train experts to sit with leaders in business, the military and government to help them properly frame every decision, to calculate the odds of this or that happening, and to assign values to every possible outcome.

Once that was achieved, they could help the human race from following gut feelings, which they said almost always steer you wrong.

Then in 1974, after the Arab-Israeli War, US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, commenced peace negotiations between Egypt, Syria and Israel.

As Israelis, Tversky and Kahneman thought they had found the perfect forum to show off decision analysis. They assembled a list of possible critical events or outcomes that could arise from the negotiations. Then they approached the Israeli foreign minister and gave him the precise numerical estimates of each outcome occurring.

And guess what? Armed with the best decision analysis available, the foreign minister didn’t want to rely on numerical estimates. He wanted to follow his gut.

Danny Kahneman later wrote, “That was the moment I gave up on decision analysis. No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.”

This isn’t to say the facts don’t matter. They do. But they don’t matter as much as whether those facts fit into a story we want to believe.

This helps explain why a reasonable, rational, liberal British prime minister like Tony Blair was so willing to go along with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Remember, there was no rational basis for the invasion. I looked at the grainy photos Colin Powell held up in the Congress, purporting to be WMDs, and figured I was just missing something. Even though I campaigned against the war in 2003, I remember thinking that if Tony Blair was willing to send British troops to join the invasion maybe there was more to it than they were telling us.

But there wasn’t.

The recent Chilcot Report, commissioned by the British parliament, found that, no, Saddam Hussein did not pose an urgent threat to British interests; there were no weapons of mass destruction; and that a war in 2003 was both unnecessary and illegal.

So why did Blair fall for it?

He obviously believed the story Powell, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were spinning, and filtered the facts accordingly.

We do it ourselves all the time. Armed with the facts about the best value-for-money car or computer or house we still buy the one that fits the story we’re in (or want to be in).

Which brings me to Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency of the United States and how he did it. We know he didn’t sway voters with his grasp on the facts. During last year’s campaign, Politico analyzed Mr Trump’s speeches and found that he told an untruth, on average, once every five minutes. A Huffington Post fact-checker found he made 71 mistakes over the course of just one town hall event.

After winning the election, he admitted that claims he would build a wall along the US-Mexico border and prosecute Hillary Clinton was just “campaign talk”. Remember, this is the guy who boasted in his autobiography about being a master of “truthful hyperbole”, by which he meant lying.

Here’s what Donald Trump did better than any of his opponents: he told voters what they thought was a better story. His story had clearly defined bad guys (Hillary, Mexicans, Muslims, China), and obviously innocent victims (working Americans, conservative evangelicals). His policies were simple (out-negotiate China, build a wall with Mexico, stop Muslim immigration, make America great again) and his confidence in his own ability to deliver the goods was unparalleled.

Many American voters were like Tony Blair in 2003. The facts didn’t add up, but the story made perfect sense to them. It’s a story they want to live in, a story in which decent working people are guaranteed a job and protected from evil forces amassing around the globe.

You can complain all you like about Donald Trump, but you’ve got to give him this: he knows people need a story and he’s good at telling them one they want to believe.

If you don’t like Donald Trump, don’t argue with his supporters about the facts. Just tell them a better story, a story about justice for all and reconciliation between enemies; a story about peace-making and hospitality and shared tables and ethnic diversity; a story about social justice and generosity and openhandedness; a story about local and global citizenship. Tell them a story about how to those to whom much has been given, much will be expected. Tell them about loving their neighbor as themselves. Oh wait… someone did once tell that story, didn’t they?

It’s a far better story than the one Trump is telling, but no one’s found a way to tell it better than he tells his.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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3 thoughts on “Decision Making and the Will of the People

  1. The story you receive depends on the story you live. Take American Evangelicalism. It lives in faith of the power of the market, (quid-pro-quo), success (trickle down), authority (patriarchy), and bold independence. Nothing or no one embodies that story more than DJT. I would go so far to say that DJT is America’s faith incarnate. How can the narrative of the Kingdom of God (the first shall be last, the least of these, the suffering servant, do not lord over each other) compete against that?

    1. Right on Al. I think you’ve highlighted an important point, though some would argue that Trump’s actual success (versus his inherited wealth) are overstated. Your point stands however – he embodies everything America Evangelicalism “wants” to be (and plenty of wealthy, so-called progressive societies the world over – like Australia where I live – are leaning more and more to fear based, protectionist stances ). As wealthy westerners, I suppose we fall into the category that Jesus spoke about when he said how hard it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God – such are the perils and temptations of wealth, or even just the pursuit of it.

      I think it should be noted though, that Jesus’ message has always faced the same challenges – there were wealthy beneficiaries of the Roman Empire along with those who were chewed up by it. For me, the hopeful fact is that the narrative of the Kingdom of God doesn’t need to compete in the same way that people / businesses need to in a free market – even with globalisation, our economics, politics etc can only tell a small story in comparison to Jesus’ total upending of the universe. Somehow through that story, lived out in the small, supposedly useless acts of love, service, compassion, sacrifice etc, the Holy Spirit heaps coals on the claims of any Empire, whether it be Roman or American Evangelicalism.

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