If the first thing you hear about a topic is something that’s associated with fear, that will often suppress the rational part of the brain. It will be placed into long-term memory by this more primitive part of the brain, and it turns out to be very, very difficult to dislodge that. If you do fear conditioning in a rat so that it learns to associate a tone with an electric shock, it never goes away for the rest of the rat's life. It will always freeze when it hears the tone, even though you're not giving shocks anymore.
The point is, those fears that these charismatic leaders arouse are often committed to permanent indelible memory, and they become extremely hard to dislodge, and they are easy to evoke simply by making people scared again. So all that Trump has to do is say “these immigrants are going to kill you,” and his entire message about immigration becomes immediately recalled.
Sara Gorman: Fear is one of the most primitive, most basic parts of the brain. But it's very, very powerful, and the part of the brain that works against that, which is the prefrontal cortex, it actually takes a lot of energy for us to engage that part of the brain.
Khazan: Explain what cognitive load is and how that makes us more susceptible to persuasion.
Jack Gorman: It requires a lot more effort to use the reasoning part of the brain. The default is to use the faster parts of the brain. So if you’re in a state of stress or there are too many facts coming at you or too much information, the default mode is to say, “I can’t handle all that stuff, it’s too much, or it's too frightening, or it's too complicated. I'm gonna default to the more rapid acting part of the brain, and make immediate decisions.” Now, as we point out in the book, and as many people have pointed out, from an evolutionary point of view, that was probably very adaptive because you often need to make rapid decisions for safety’s sake. And so if there’s a burning building that you have to get out of, don’t sit there analyzing all the aspects that causes fire and where the smoke is coming from, you just run away. So you operate purely from fear. And that's what the effect of fear and cognitive overload does: It directs attention away from the slower-acting parts of the brain that require much more effort.
Khazan: A lot of Americans believe in conspiracy theories, and there’s some evidence that some of the distrust of government among some Trump supporters stems from the world of conspiracies. What are some of the hallmarks of these theories, and what makes them so seductive?
Jack Gorman: One of the things you find with the conspiracy theory is that they’re actually very, very fluid. If you’re actually able to disprove one of their tenets, they don’t say, "Oh, guess we were wrong." They immediately move to another reason to support their original fear. The classic example is with the anti-vaccine people, who are little by little having to give up on the idea that vaccines cause autism. But instead of saying, “Vaccines are safe; you should be vaccinated,” they move on to “It's too many vaccines, it overloads the immune system.” So they keep moving in this very fluid way. It's really looking for some reason to support a fear. That’s a very serious problem.