Ideas for Leaders #BG 006

Brain Gain - Fall 2018: Trump - Two Years On

News Analysis: 

At the end of February 2016, before Super Tuesday in the American Presidential election and when there were still seventeen Republican candidates in the field, Brain Gain predicted that Trump D. would not only win the nomination but would be elected President the following November.  And so it transpired.  Two further Brain Gain pieces during the campaign elaborated on that prediction.

The bases of the prediction came from applied neuroscience – the new understandings of behaviour that come from the 21st century’s capacity to see the brain working in real time.  

The prediction relied upon the perceived qualities of the two Presidential candidates on one specific dimension; a simple and subjective analysis of the then overall state of the USA; and an understanding of the main neurochemicals that control behaviour. 

In 2017 a remarkable book appeared showing that the titan who constructed the twentieth century’s assumptions about the psychological bases of human behaviour was essentially a fraud. Freud, it transpires, published what became known as his classic clinical cases and which are the basis of all psychoanalytic training not in terms of what actually happened on his consulting couch but what he said ought to be happening.  Theory subverted fact.  As in so much of psychology that likes to present itself as the science of human behaviour, assertion is more powerful than evidence.

This century is different. The new understanding is that psychology is secondary to biology. Behaviour is determined by neuro-chemicals, not neuro-ses.

The neurochemicals are themselves organised and subsequently triggered by the pathways in the brain that attach emotions to experience to create meaning.  So all behaviour is underpinned by emotion.  The more meaningful the behaviour, the stronger the emotional underpinnings.  

That means that the new science of human behaviour takes as its starting point the fact that the brain has organised itself before we have conscious awareness of what decision the brain has already made.  Our capacity to think is retrospective - a way of giving ourselves an account, a story, of how our own personal algorithms of experience have defined our actions.  But, contrary to the assumptions of the past three hundred years, our thinking does not control our actions.  We are rationalising, not rational, systems.

One consequence of this is that trying to understand emotions, and the complexity of feelings that they generate, will give us a better guide to behaviour than trying to predict actions just on the basis of behaviour.

Getting back to practicalities, it is a general assumption among those who track voter behaviour that trust in a candidate is a key component of voter intention.  What the pollsters tend to ask, however, is how individuals say they will behave in the voting booth, not what their underlying emotions are.  Brain Gain does it the second way.

There are six elements that make up the qualities of a leader who is worth following (the limbic leader, who knowingly integrates emotion and thought into action).  Five are based on the individual’s trust in themself.  These then may generate trust in others.

One of the pre-election Brain Gain pieces proposed a simple assessment of trust in the candidates by ranking the five self-trusting qualities and then the sixth, making a composite score of who might be trusted the greater.  It asked:

So how do Trump D. and Clinton H. rate (for trust), on a scale of 1-10 where 10 is high?  

  • Connect is the capacity to establish an engaged relationship with others:  DT 8  /  HC  5
  • Be courageous:  DT 8  /  HC 4
  • Be clever enough:  DT 7 / HC 7
  • Walk own talk:  DT 9 / HC 4
  • Inspire others into action:  DT 8 / HC 5
  • and then.... Be trusted: DT 4 / HC 2      
  • Totals:  DT 44  /  HC 27

Oddly the Be trusted scores are low for both, but the perception of each candidate’s capacity to trust themselves is what makes the distinction between them.  When offered a binary choice, trust is what creates voter attachment – the most powerful mechanism underlying what we like to think of as choice.  

So what does it look like now, two years on and just before the mid-term elections?

The American Constitution was carefully crafted to ensure that no President could exercise arbitrary or absolute power.  What it failed to make provision for, as the highly intellectual gathering of men who framed the Constitution could not, perhaps, have imagined such a possibility, is that there might one day be an incumbent president whose entire pattern of apparent success in life was built on being completely arbitrary.   President Trump is not essentially interested in the exercise of absolute or arbitrary power.  He simply functions in a completely arbitrary manner in pursuit of his own sense of being completely right – and in doing so happens to have managed the biggest corporate takeover in American history by capturing the Presidency on his own terms.   

This is the basis, Brain Gain suggests, of the undiminished rage of the Democrats.  It is a rage that has completely immobilised their collective, decision-making, frontal lobes.  Far from setting out to see how they could outwit the Presidential tide of Republicanism in the forthcoming mid-term elections, when all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are contested, a third of the seats of the Senate are contested, and a majority of State Governorships are up for election, they have stayed in a bewildered state of incomprehension.  It is the same state that made them believe Hillary Clinton was a shoe-in for President.

Meanwhile the President has gone on simply being himself in every theatre of activity in which he operates.  And though the mid-term elections have an infinite number of local influences that a single big picture may not over-ride, Brain Gain predicts that the President will emerge from the mid-term elections with his hold on office much consolidated rather than otherwise.

That’s a big shift from eighteen months ago, when in the immediate aftermath of taking office the popular question was how long would it take for him to be forced to resign for one reason or another. 

So bizarre did his actions seem to some observers that in June 2017 the American Psychoanalytic Association rescinded the element of its ethical code that prevented its members commenting professionally on the behaviour of public figures.  That freedom to comment has paradoxically rather strengthened one of President Trump’s perceived qualities, which is that he uses his own intransigence to provoke others into acting in ways that they might otherwise not.

The second element that underpinned Brain Gain’s predictions of 2016 was a sense from traveling across America during the early stages of the Primaries that America as a whole was in an uneasy state with itself.  

Two things stood out in conversation. There was a sense that two terms of an Obama administration had not proved the path to all kinds of enlightenment that his election had seemed to promise.   And it also seemed that the creeping tide of political correctness and changes in sexual mores were unsettling swathes of middle America.  Brain Gain saw these as creating a background of sub-acute stress in much of American society that Donald Trump’s refusal to act in response to any rules but his own seemed to be releasing.  So stress neurochemicals were, it was suggested, giving way to those chemicals that form bonds of attachment.  That, it was argued, would drive voters to signifying they wanted Trump as President.  

This was reinforced by the observation that during the Presidential contest voters seemed to love to hate Donald but hated to love Hillary.  This antithesis also created a paradoxical process of attachment to candidate Trump rather than candidate Clinton.

So for a half-term report, and in the absence of any alternative charismatic Presidential candidate emerging from within either party, the interim verdict is that the chemicals that got him there are keeping him securely there.  The resulting predicted Republican strengthening of both Houses will leave President Trump even more self-aggrandising than, two years ago, anyone might possibly have imagined.  But such evidence of his own invincibility may further inhibit what limited self-regulating powers this incumbent President possesses.  The roller-coaster progress of this Presidential ride has not come to a halt yet.

Faculty bio: 

Dr Paul Brown is Faculty Professor, Organizational Neuroscience, Monarch Business School Switzerland: International Chairman of the Vietnam Consulting Group: and Chairman of Global Leaders / Executive Coaching Vietnam.  Until recently based in Laos, where he was part of the National Science Council in the Office of the Prime Minister, he now maintains from SE Asia an international consulting practice.  His recent co-authored books include Neuropsychology for coaches: understanding the basics (McGraw-Hill); a novel under the pseudonym Tyndale King, River Dragon (Spartan Publishing). In 2015  IEDP, in association with Palgrave Macmillan, launched a new book series The Neuroscience of Business, of which the first title is Neuroscience for Leadership: harnessing the brain gain advantage which in 2017 won Gold in the Practical Manager Category at the Chartered Management Institute’s Management Book of the Year awards . The Fear-free Organization (Kogan Page) appeared in July 2015. 

Published Date

29 October 2018


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