In a 1976 a campaign speech, Ronald Reagan unveiled the “welfare queen” to the world. “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare,” he said. “Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.” While such abuse was the exception, rather than the rule, the welfare-queen image stuck, and it’s still called up in arguments about whether governments should financially support people.
Donald Trump has been leaning on the same rhetorical device to shape his narratives. The reality-television star speaks on how immigrants are more violent (when in fact they’re less) and how terrorist attacks are underreported (when they’re not). For his ends, it doesn’t really matter if those claims are true or not; the point is to present a crime-ridden world.
In doing this, both GOP presidents exploit what psychologists call the “availability heuristic,” as Emily Dreyfuss notes at Wired. When you don’t know the actual, statistical likelihood of something, the brain uses the most readily surfaceable image. “It basically works the way memory works: you judge the frequency, the probability, of something based on how easily you can bring it to mind,” John Coley, the director of Northeastern’s Conceptual Organization, Reasoning and Education Laboratory, told Wired. “Creating a vivid, salient image like that is a great way to make it memorable,” he added. Like, say, that Mexico when “sends its people” to the U.S., they are bringing drugs and crime. “They’re rapists,” Trump memorably said in his June 2015 announcement speech. “And some, I assume, are good people.”
The availability heuristic tracks all the way back to the formative research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose partnership is the subject of Thinking, Fast and Slow and The Undoing Project. “[A] person evaluates the frequency of classes or the probability of events by availability, i.e., by the ease with which relevant instances come to mind,” they wrote in a 1973 paper. In this, and in so many other ways, the mind organizes around efficiency, rather than rigor.
It’s a potent quirk of cognition: Rather than sorting through what is right, the mind optimizes for what is readily seen, and since these images have a high feeling of rightness, there’s no need to examine them. Following Reagan’s minting of the welfare queen, Trump, in his alternately bypassing and exploiting the press, gets people to construct an America in their heads that is more crime-ridden than it is in reality. Similarly, Americans are more scared of terrorists than guns, even though they’re more than 3,000 times more likely to be killed by a firearm than a terrorist attack. The scary takeaway: A claim doesn’t have to be true to shape a worldview, it just has to be salient.