We’re putting the band back together. That was the message UCLA psychology professor Craig Fox sent out this past summer to a tight-knit, rarefied group of academics at the nation’s top universities. For more than a decade, this unusual team, which calls itself the Consortium of Behavioral Scientists, has worked to uncover new information on how people make decisions. Now their expertise is being deployed for an urgent mission: maneuvering the public into voting for Hillary Clinton.
Major corporations have been employing this type of persuasion science in their advertising and sales strategies for years. One of the most famous applications helped clean up filthy men’s restrooms at the airport in Amsterdam. (Come to think of it, this may be perfect for politics.) Rather than post signs instructing men to aim into the urinals, the airport’s solution was to etch the image of a fly near the urinal drains. The result was that men locked their aim onto the flies, and the floors had 80 percent less residue.
Fox offered Democrats this type of insight into decision making in 2004, but presidential nominee John Kerry wasn’t interested. He lost, and George W. Bush was reelected. By 2006, the academics were so offended by Bush’s policies that they went into overdrive to sell Democrats on their science. At the time, the Bush Republican machine was pushing the rhetoric that the war in Iraq was part of the “war on terror.” The Democrats’ denial wasn’t cutting it, so the consortium helped craft the line that the war in Iraq was a “detour” in the war on terror. Hillary Clinton, then a New York senator, paid close attention and attended a small meeting where some of these “decision scientists” gave advice on how to take Congress back from the GOP. Using this new message in various forms, Democrats won control of both houses of Congress that fall.
It sounds like the spin-doctoring of press secretaries and communications strategists, but the field of decision science is already influencing U.S. politics. In the political game, these academics look at questions and conduct real-time experiments through e-mail polling and web-link tracking to find which messages move people to volunteer, donate money and deliver a vote at the ballot box.
Fox assembled the group again to get President Barack Obama reelected in 2012. Helping were Robert Cialdini, who earned his Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of North Carolina, did postdoctoral work at Columbia and wrote the best-selling book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion; Michael Morris, a professor at Columbia Business School who has written more than 100 articles on decision making for psychology and management journals; Samuel L. Popkin, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ph.D., professor at the University of California, San Diego and author of The Candidate: What It Takes to Win—and Hold—the White House; and Richard H. Thaler, a behavioral economics pioneer, University of Chicago professor and co-author of Nudge, a book about tactics such as etching flies on urinals.
He was so impressed with Obama when they met in 2004, Thaler told The Guardian, that he made the first political contribution of his life to Obama’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. By 2008, Thaler was being described as the “in-house intellectual guru” of Obama’s White House run. The campaign never admitted to using the scientists’ advice—but after winning, Obama himself praised their unique research and appointed Cass Sunstein, co-author of Nudge, as administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
When I contacted Thaler to ask him about Fox’s group and their advice for Clinton, he refused to talk and accused me of “making up claims.” But his colleagues who did provide me with information firmly believe they’re on a mission. And Clinton is fortunate these experts lean left, because even with Donald Trump’s repeated meltdowns, he’s an agile persuader and an expert at controlling the conversation, whereas Clinton often “short circuits,” as she put it in August.
Other experts in persuasive techniques argue that Trump’s off-the-cuff, authentic remarks are more deftly calculated than he lets on. Trump has such a mastery of persuasion (he grew up with The Power of Positive Thinking author Norman Vincent Peale as his minister) that he has internalized the techniques, according to persuasion expert Scott Adams. Known for his popular Dilbert comic strip and author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Adams runs a blog that includes thoughts on the art of persuasion. “Trump’s technique matches pretty much point for point what the best persuaders would do,” says Adams.
So Clinton is going to need something revolutionary to beat Trump at his own game. Referring to one of Professor Fox’s stars, Robert Cialdini, Adams admits, “If Godzilla’s in the fight, Trump’s got a problem.”