Economist Syon Bhanot Examines Impact of "Trump Tape"

Syon Bhanot

MisbehavingThe Power of Certainty: How Behavioral Economics Helps Us Understand the "Trump Tape"

By now, pretty much everyone in America knows about the tape of Donald Trump saying lewd things about women while on an Access Hollywood bus in 2005. The recording has had a seismic effect on the presidential campaign, and has triggered an important conversation about sexual assault. The backlash is, on the one hand, completely understandable. But some are wondering – why are we so surprised? Based on his public statements, isn’t it clear that Donald Trump is capable of saying things like this in private? Perhaps behavioral economics can help explain why we were so collectively shocked.

Let’s think about this from a “rational” perspective. In a "rational" model, people assess uncertain situations based on the information that is available to them. In the past few months, voters have wondered – is Donald Trump a sexist? Based on his public statements, is he the “kind of guy” who would say offensive things about women? In assessing this, people were making what’s known as a probabilistic judgment, whether they realized it or not. Based on what Mr. Trump has said publicly about women, a rational voter might easily have assigned a pretty high probability to the chances that Mr. Trump would, in private conversation, say something like what he said on that bus.

So let’s suppose that a rational voter thought, subconsciously, that the odds that Trump had said vulgar things like that in private at some point was, say, 60 percent. Given that, how might this hypothetical rational person have responded to the tape? Well, the tape certainly increased those odds – right up to 100 percent. And this might lead some rational people to change their views about Trump. But should they have changed so dramatically? An increase from 60 percent to 100 percent is a big difference, but it’s hardly a major shock.

I would argue that the world is not full of rational voters – it is made up of people swayed by “behavioral” forces, which go beyond rational calculations of probabilities and likelihoods. First and foremost, psychologists and behavioral economists have long studied the idea of salience. That is, things hit us harder when they are right in front of our faces. In the days following the tape’s release, you could hardly watch a typical news broadcast for more than a few minutes without hearing audio clips from Trump on the bus. So the sheer ubiquity of the tape in the media upped its salience to the average citizen – and drove our strong response to it.

There is another behavioral principle that may be subtly influencing us as well, and it is one of the centerpieces of behavioral economics – prospect theory. Prospect theory deals with how we assess uncertain situations. One often-overlooked aspect of this is "probability weighting," whereby people are thought to (among other things) underweight high probabilities when assessing situations of uncertainty. 

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Syon Bhanot, who joined Swarthmore's faculty in 2015, conducts research based on field experiments that use behavioral science concepts to influence decision making with a focus on pro-social behavior, environmental conservation, personal finance decisions, and issues around development, poverty, and welfare. A regular contributor to the Misbehaving blog, he is also an affiliated researcher with the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics and the Yale Applied Cooperation Team. Bhanot earned a B.A. in public policy and international affairs from Princeton University and an M.P.P. and Ph.D. in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.