I’ve just got back from an anti-Trump demo in Brighton, England. A few thousand people were out on a Monday night, in a city thousands of miles from Washington DC, but where 1 in 20 residents signed a petition to ban Trump coming to the UK.
People are angry and rightly so.
In the first week of his presidency, Trump has (illegally) banned people from travelling to America based on race or religion, suspended the refugee resettlement program and stopped foreign aid to schemes which are in any way linked to abortion. What do all of these policies have in common? You can probably think of multiple similarities, the descriptions of which may include swearing (there was certainly lots of “f’ing outrageous” at the demo).
One similarity you may not have considered is that in all cases something has been lost through being banned or stopped. The positives associated with immigration, helping some of the most desperate and giving women support when they need it most have been taken away.
In response, people are starting, signing and spreading petitions, organising events, making signs, giving up their time to attend demos, tweeting and generally talking about these issues. But before last week, not many people were taking any of these actions to try and increase the number of people who could come to their country via immigration or asylum or raise money for the causes they clearly believe are important.
I’m in no way trying to criticise the actions people are taking now. There’s something amazing about singing “refugees are welcome here” in your city as thousands of others chant the same all over the country and all over the world. However, decades of psychological research have shown we all have biases in our thinking and decision making and the prosocial social decisions we make are no different.
Back in the 1970’s Daniel Kahneman (incidentally an immigrant to America who escaped the Nazi regime) and Amos Tversky (also an Israeli who lived, worked and died in America) turned economic theory upside down by demonstrating in a series of experiments that people’s decisions were often irrational. A key part of their work, which later won Kahneman a Nobel prize, was showing that people find losing things more aversive than how positive they find gaining the same amount. For example, how upset you feel about accidentally dropping £10 is likely to be stronger than how happy you’d feel if you found £10. It has even been claimed that the pain of losing something is twice the joy felt when gaining it.
Back to the world of politics and this “loss aversion” could partly explain, for example why British people will fight harder to defend the NHS than Americans campaign to get public healthcare. Incidentally, Obamacare got more popular when people were set to lose it as Trump became president. It could also be one reason you’re feeling so angry at the other things Trump is taking away, which you may not have given as much thought to in the past.
Those pretty pleased with Trump’s achievements certainly have not escaped this bias. The rhetoric of Trump’s campaign and the campaigns of other far-right politicians across the world also focus on loss, this time to create fear. The threat from immigration of losing jobs, homes, values, culture or even lives in the case of terrorism has been exaggerated, not just by these politicians but also in the irrational brains of voters. Avoiding these losses becomes far more important to people than the gains in diversity, skills, economic grown and many more factors which come with immigration.
All of the issues I’ve mentioned are of course far more complex than simply weighing up gains and losses. Political views have a complex psychology which we don’t yet understand and there are plenty of other reasons people are particularly motivated to take action at the moment (including the need to show this “populism” isn’t popular and make Trump’s first days in office as unsuccessful as possible).
But loss aversion is a well-established way in which we are irrational, so what can we do about it? I doubt that armed with knowing about this bias you’ll be able to reason with Trump supporters but feel free to give it a try. And I’m certainly not saying stop all the protesting and tweeting and petitioning in response to what he’s currently taking away. If anything, use your new understanding of loss aversion to get all your friends protesting too by emphasising what they and others stand to lose.
Rather than decreasing what you’re doing to prevent losses in immigration, support for refugees and aid, why not also focus on things you want to gain? Surely if you’d fight for something not to be taken away it’s worth fighting to get more of it? Don’t just try and stop things getting worse but try and make them better! That way you can focus on the positives, not just the negatives, and feel smug you’re being far more rational.