When a person declares himself “NeverTrump,” he thinks he’s making a political statement. Or a moral one. But he’s not. He’s making a psychological commitment that’s very difficult and painful to break.
Identity is the highest, most powerful form of persuasion. Identity also drives our decisions in parts of the brain we don’t really have conscious control over. I realize many conservatives reject brain science, but, for those of you who are open to learning, I’ll explain as best I can in a moment.
Before that, I’ll tell you that I am not a brain scientist. I’m a persuasive design strategist, and I study this stuff every day. I even work with some brain scientists. But I’m not one. So I’ll have to quote some of those professional, certified scientists to show you how this works.
Our Brains Decide Before We Do
First, our brains decide before we do. In a famous study by neuroscientists at the Max Planck Institute, researchers watched brain activity while subjects responded to images with either their left hand or their right, depending on the image. The images slowly resolved, so it took a while for the subjects to get enough information to make the decision. Here’s what happened:
By monitoring the micro patterns of activity in the frontopolar cortex, the researchers could predict which hand the participant would choose 7 SECONDS before the participant was aware of the decision.
“Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done,” said study co-author John-Dylan Haynes, a Max Planck Institute neuroscientist.
Those subjects felt like they made a conscious decision, but they really didn’t. The brain decides before we do. And the brain makes its decisions, in part, based on defaults and filters we consciously implant.
Identity Is Everything to the Brain
One of the most powerful defaults we implant in our minds is identity. For example, I identify as a Blues hockey fan. I don’t know all the ways this affects my behavior, but I know it does. And I now know, after years of studying brain science, that my Blues fan identity affects my behavior in ways I will never be aware of. I’m okay with that. It’s how we’re wired.
But what does that have to do with NeverTrump? Everything.
NeverTrump is not a slogan. It’s an identity claim. Sam Gosling, a personality psychologist at the University of Texas, puts it this way on Eric Barker’s Barking Up The Wrong Tree blog:
Identity claims are deliberate statements we make about our attitudes, goals, values, etc… One of the things that’s really important to keep in mind about identity statements is because these are deliberate, many people assume we are being manipulative with them and we’re being disingenuous, but I think there’s little evidence to suggest that that goes on. I think, generally, people really do want to be known. They’ll even do that at the expense of looking good. They’d rather be seen authentically than positively if it came down to that choice.
Some people think I look like an idiot when I wear a Blues hockey sweater. I’m 52 and I haven’t played ice hockey for 15 years. But I wear it anyway because I’d rather be seen as a Blues fan than positively.
The Brain Wants to be Consistent
When someone publicly identifies as NeverTrump, he makes a commitment. And most people behave consistently with their prior commitments.
My favorite persuasion scientist, Dr. Robert Cialdini, demonstrated this phenomenon in a famous experiment.
In one posh neighborhood, very few residents were willing to place a rather ugly Drive Safely sign in their front yards. But in a similar neighborhood nearby, four times as many residents said “yes” to the sign.
The only difference between the two neighborhoods: a week before, the residents of the second neighborhood were asked to place a small postcard in their windows that read “Drive Safely.” Many of these residents agreed to the postcard. Almost all of the people who accepted the postcard also accepted the sign.
These folks had made a prior, public commitment to safe driving, so they had to “yes” to the big sign. They behaved consistently with that commitment even though they probably didn’t know why they said “yes” to the big, garish sign. They identified as pro-safe driving.
NeverTrump Is Dangerous
In my morning post, I came down pretty hard on the consequences of NeverTrumpism: increased abortions, increased racial violence, and potential assassinations. It’s all true, but I know people didn’t want to read it. If you think I was just lashing out at people I disagree with, this post might change your mind. Here’s why.
NeverTrumpers identify as NeverTrump. Some, like Jonah Goldberg and Bill Kristol, make NeverTrump their primary identity claim. In their brains, all decisions are filtered through the NeverTrump lens. We’ve already seen the science on this, so you know this is true.
As the election gets closer, their fantastical hopes of a viable third choice for president–someone other than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump–will fade. They will realize what you and I already know and have known: the choice for president is binary. It’s crooked Hillary or Donald Trump for president. There will be no third way.
When that happens, most NeverTrumpers will choose consistency. It won’t be a conscious choice. They’ve already surrendered their conscious decisions to the NeverTrump filter in their brains. They will feel like they’re making conscious decisions about how to vote, but they won’t be. They’ll just obey the defaults and filters they’ve implanted.
Unless they turn soon.
There’s Still Some Time
So those NeverTrumpers, to be consistent, will actively work against Donald Trump. In the voting booth, that will mean wasting their votes on a non-viable candidate. But before that, they will do whatever it takes to throw the election to Hillary Clinton. Their identity claim will demand it.
The reason I wrote such a powerful statement this morning is to warn others: be careful when making identity claims because you will become that identity. You’ll probably lose control of your decisions. And you will suffer serious emotional pain if you break from that identity, especially if you value consistency. Remember, the brain decides before we do, and the brain decides based on prior commitments. One of the most powerful commitments a person can make is an identity claim, like “NeverTrump.”
You can call my other post “tough love” if you wish, or you can call it me being a dick. I don’t care. But I do care about the damage Hillary Clinton has done and will do to this country with the help of NeverTrumpers.
After all the good they’ve done in their lives, it’d be a shame for Jonah Goldberg and Bill Kristol to be remembered as the Republicans who fed America to the Clinton wood-chipper. The NeverTrumpers are in for four emotionally painful years unless they break their self-defeating identity claims soon. And they will blame the voters, never themselves.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. NeverTrumpers can go through the pain of breaking their commitment to NeverTrumpism before the election and work to influence Trump’s administration and Congress. It will hurt for a moment, but they will be heroes in the end. I wrote a book to help them.
There’s time to turn, but that time is draining away fast. Choose wisely.
Also published on Medium.