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Op-Ed: Hillary Clinton’s efforts to paint Trump as ‘risky’ play right into his hands

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Spokane, Wash. on May 7.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Spokane, Wash. on May 7.

(Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

A wide array of opponents to Donald Trump have coalesced on a theme: He’s just too risky and unpredictable. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton referred to him as “a loose cannon.” Early on, Republican Mitt Romney called out Trump’s Syria policy as “ridiculous and dangerous.” Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine declared that Trump seems too “hot, impulsive.”

Ironically, such efforts to portray Trump as a risky choice may play right into his hands. In discontented times like ours, psychology suggests voters are more amenable to a radical new approach to government, even if it is unconventional or high-risk.

One of the central conclusions of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s Nobel Prize-winning work on prospect theory is that people become “risk seeking” when they feel they are in the “domain of losses.” A classic experiment illustrates this phenomenon: People were asked to choose between two treatment programs for the outbreak of a disease expected to kill 600 people. Treatment A would save 200 lives but 400 people would die for sure. Treatment B had a one-third probably of saving everyone but a two-thirds probability that everyone would die.

Which treatment people favored depended on whether the outcomes were framed in terms of lives saved or lost. When told how many people were expected to live under each program, 72% preferred Treatment A, which would assure 200 survivors. Told how many people were expected to die, the opposite was true: 78% chose the all-or-nothing treatment gamble.

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These findings held even when it was doctors making the choice. The lesson: When contemplating losses, people tend to have a much higher tolerance for risk.

This has been further demonstrated in the domain of politics. In a 1988 study, Tversky and psychologist George Quattrone described election scenarios with two presidential candidates — one who experts predicted would either greatly improve prosperity or deliver a very bad economy (with equal probability); the other candidate, experts agreed, would produce middling but predictable results. When the scenario implied that economic conditions in the country were fine, only 28% of voters preferred the risky candidate. If the scenario implied that the economy already was off the rails, voter support for the risky candidate jumped to 50%.

Trump’s outlandish proposals, blatant bullying and general theatrics can strike voters as signs that he’s a trailblazing firebrand.

In real life, the same psychology applies. When their circumstances get really bad, people know they won’t feel much worse even if things deteriorate further. And at that point, risky options start to look appealing. They don’t feel like they have much to lose, and they are willing to take risks to gain even a possibility of salvation.

So are things that bad in the U.S.? Americans’ evaluations of President Obama are up recently and the economic outlook is better than it has been in recent years. But, according to Gallup polls, confidence in nearly all American public institutions — Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, police, public schools — are near record lows. Such thoroughly disillusioned voters are likely to be more open to the prospect of a president who will turn government inside-out if he or she offers hope that things could get better.

Perhaps by dumb luck, Trump has tapped into that psychology. His outlandish proposals, blatant bullying and general theatrics can strike voters as signs that he’s a trailblazing firebrand.

Outrage at Trump’s bluster — especially coming from establishment political figures — only reinforces this image. Instead, his opponents should undercut any perception that his approaches are bold or risky. Attacks should tie him to the aspects of politics that Americans are so dissatisfied with. Clinton has done some of this, for example a recent ad of hers ties Trump to the housing meltdown. The consistent talking point should be: Trump is not a trailblazer; he’s just a jerk. And there’s really nothing new about that.

Polls suggest that Clinton’s previously comfortable lead over Trump has begun to erode. Her favorability rating is barely better than his. As she strategizes for the general election, she should stop with the “loose cannon” attack. Voters already know that about Trump — it’s what many like about him.

Christopher J. Bryan is an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago. Kristy M. Pathakis is a doctoral student in political science at UC San Diego.

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