Can A.I. Help Trump & Clinton Supporters Understand Each Other?
Using machine learning to better understand oppositional viewpoints and increase empathy.
[*A version of this article also appeared on Huffington Post.]
As both a corporate and individual relationship expert, I’ve been fascinated with how science can increase empathy, understanding and closeness between people. Last year, when I came across Arthur Aron’s research on building rapid intimacy, I hacked together The Love Game. I watched with awe as the app went viral, the card game version flew off the shelves at Urban Outfitters and people began emailing me love stories catalyzed by the game.
Last week, while dressed in a fuzzy full body white rabbit outfit at a costume party on New York’s upper east side, I had an intriguing conversation with my friend Spencer Greenberg about how he was applying machine learning in an effort to help Trump & Clinton supporters have more empathy.
This is an interview with Spencer about his organization’s use of machine learning to study the question of why Trump and Clinton supporters have such trouble understanding each other. He discusses the most valuable and surprising insights about this election that this work led to, and some next steps we can personally take to bring this country together.
Greenberg is the founder of ClearerThinking.org, a non-partisan organization devoted to helping people reduce bias and improve their decision making. They conduct original research and offer free decision making tools. Greenberg has a PhD in Applied Mathematics from New York University, specializing in Machine Learning.
Anthony David Adams: What was the question you wanted to answer with your research?
Greenberg: Everyone knows this presidential race has been extremely contentious. But what particularly struck us is how incredibly difficult it has been for each side to see the opposing perspective. Clinton and Trump supporters are baffled by each other despite each group representing a substantial portion of the country. Unfortunately, when there is a lack of understanding people often jump to negative judgements. Many have decided that supporters of the opposing side must be ignorant, stupid, evil, or all three at once.
We decided to run a series of studies on Trump and Clinton supporters to get a much deeper grasp of why the two sides can’t understand each other, and ultimately to see if we can create more empathy between the groups.
Our method was to apply a machine learning method (a basic “A.I.” algorithm) to 138 factors that we collected about Trump and Clinton supporters, with the goal of building a predictive model of who supports each candidate. Our model achieved 91% accuracy predicting who has decided to vote for Trump versus Clinton when we tested it on people whose data we had not yet looked at.
For further insight we then conducted a follow-up study where we asked Trump and Clinton supporters to explain in an open-ended fashion how they felt about the topics that our machine learning algorithm had already identified as being most important to their disagreement. Overall, we recruited over 1000 participants online for the three studies that we conducted on this topic.
[Click here to see a visualization of their machine learning algorithm’s results, along with commentary about each of the most important factors that were found. Red is used to represent Donald Trump supporters, and blue for Hillary Clinton supporters.]
Adams: Why was this question important to you, and why should it be important to other people?
Greenberg: Regardless of what you think of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as human beings, each has backing from a very substantial portion of our country. That means that they must each be supported by some intelligent, knowledgeable and moral people. If you can’t understand why an intelligent, knowledgeable, and moral person would support the side that you oppose, then you’re missing something deep about what’s going on in this country, and perhaps something deep about human nature as well.
If you truly care about understanding the situation in the U.S. you should be able to explain the other side’s position in such a way that they would agree with your explanation. If you can’t, then you haven’t really understood it. And I believe that right now most people are far from being able to do that.
Now, this is not to say that if you understand the opposing side you will end up agreeing with their views. But the process of understanding will help you relate to rest of this country, and learn from the valid points they are making, while discarding any invalid points. Understanding each other helps us create a country that is good for all of us.
Regardless of who wins this election, the same Americans will still be here, with the same problems. The need to understand the perspectives of the other side will be just as great.
Adams: Tell us about your organization and why you decided to study this problem.
Greenberg: Our organization, ClearerThinking.org, conducts research on bias and belief formation, as well as providing free tools and training programs to help people improve their decision making. For instance, our Political Bias Test helps you understand if the facts you think you know about the world are in fact biased by your political affiliation, and our “How Rational Are You?” test, which has been completed by more than 100,000 people, helps you become more aware of decision making errors that may be holding you back now in your life.
This massive level of disagreement we’re seeing between Trump and Clinton supporters struck us as an unusually important opportunity to help people understand each other, and to better understand decision making and belief formation in general. We are seeing a lot of people become attached to their Clinton or Trump supporter group identity and demonize the other side. We want to help each side see each other’s perspectives, because both sides have some valid points to make.
Adams: What are the biggest differences between Trump and Clinton supporters that you found?
Greenberg: Commentators have made a huge deal of how Donald Trump is fundamentally different from prior candidates. And this is certainly true in some ways. But nonetheless, the single strongest predictor we found for which candidate a person supports is still just party affiliation. In other words, despite many unusual things about Trump’s candidacy, Republicans tend to support him while Democrats tend to oppose him.
The next most predictive factors that we found after party affiliation were people’s feelings about health insurance and political correctness.
One thing we looked more deeply into is why attitudes differ so much regarding health insurance. Clinton supporters who agreed that the government should require it tended to support their belief with the idea that healthcare is a human right that everyone deserves, or argued that requiring everyone to have it actually ends up making it cheaper for everyone.
On the other hand, Trump supporters who opposed government required health insurance argued that people should have the freedom to choose, since not everyone needs or wants insurance. Furthermore, they tended to believe that required health insurance amounts to the government doubling down on a healthcare system that is already broken or excessively expensive.
This disagreement is therefore part philosophical. A human right is being evoked on the Clinton side, and freedom of choice on the Trump side. But also a major part of this disagreement is empirical: does requiring health insurance make it cheaper, on average, for everyone else? How good is the quality of care being provided, and does universalizing it improve this quality or make it worse? These are questions that can only be answered with data, not with opinion, but too often data doesn’t even enter into the discussion. This highlights one of the dangers with excessively strong group identities: we refuse to look at the data, or look at it but then deny what it says if it doesn’t happen to support what our group already thinks. But our policies had better take the data into account, or we’re ultimately going to make decisions that hurt us all.
Adams: how do Trump and Clinton supporters differ in their perspective on honesty in particular?
Greenberg: One of our most interesting findings is that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters tend to think about honesty very differently. Would you say that honesty is more about getting facts and numbers correct, or about saying what is truly running through your mind rather than filtering what you’re thinking? Sadly and disturbingly, both major party candidates pretty regularly say false and misleading things to the public. Sometimes it’s by mistake, other times it’s intentional. That being said, fact checkers find that Trump misstates facts and statistics substantially more often than Clinton. For instance, Politifact rates 70% of his statements they have fact checked as mostly false or worse, versus 27% for Clinton . Both of these rates of falsehoods are disturbingly high, but if you trust the fact checkers, the conclusion is clear about who is inaccurate more often. But there is more to the story than this.
When Clinton supporters see Trump’s factual errors they say Trump is a liar. But there is also a way in which Trump is more honest than Clinton: he clearly is much more likely to say what happens to be popping into his mind at any given moment, rather than carefully controlling and filtering what he says. Trump supporters tend to view this as much more honest than Clinton’s approach, because with Clinton it’s hard to know what she is truly thinking due to her controlled nature. So which is actually more honest, getting the facts about the world right, or saying what’s really in your mind? It depends on what honesty means to you.
The data was clear that both Clinton and Trump supporters find the opposing candidate dishonest when they watch them speak.
Yet both groups in our study agreed that Clinton is less likely to say what’s really on her mind than Trump is. She has a different speaking style, which you may see as less authentic.
Clinton supporters were quite a bit more confident that their preferred candidate gets statistics right more often than Trump supporters were about their preferred candidate (93% versus 74%), even though both sides felt their candidate tended to be better at this than the opposing one.
But more telling still was the fact that 85% of Clinton supporters in our study felt it is more dishonest to cite inaccurate or misleading facts than to rarely or never say what’s really in your mind, compared to 52% of Trump supporters. In other words, they tend to see honesty differently.
There is yet one more aspect to this story, however. Most of the fact checking of Trump and Clinton’s claims is being performed by the mainstream media. But Trump supporters in our sample were far more likely than Clinton supporters to distrust the mainstream media. In other words, when they see the fact checkers saying that Trump is getting his facts wrong, they may simply interpret this as a case of media bias, rather than as evidence that Trump is inaccurate. It may simply reaffirm their distrust of the media, rather than disaffirming their trust of Trump.
Unfortunately, we found that Trust for the media in both groups was disturbingly low. In our sample, 84% of Trump supporters and 59% of Clinton supporters at least somewhat agreed to the statement “I don’t at all trust the mainstream media.” A full 46% of Trump supporters and 17% of Clinton supporters in our study gave this statement the highest possible agreement rating (i.e. 3 on our -3 to 3 agreement scale).
Ultimately, what one person sees as authentically speaking your mind, another may view as impulsiveness. While few people in our study said it’s okay for a leader to be impulsive, Clinton supporters were much more against impulsiveness than Trump supporters.
Adams: What is your personal perspective on what honesty is?
To me, honesty encompasses three aspects: saying true rather than false things, actually believing what you are saying, and expressing yourself in a way that will not mislead others. In other words, I prefer a definition of honesty that encompasses truth, your own beliefs, and how you can reasonably expect others to interpret your words. It’s not enough to say the facts, even if they are correct, if those facts are likely to be misinterpreted. Nor is it enough to say something you feel is true at that moment, if you state it as though it were a verified fact when it’s not. Nor is it honest, in my opinion, to say something that you don’t yourself believe, even if you know that the audience you are saying it to is already convinced of it.
Adams: Is political correctness really such a big issue in this election?
Greenberg: We were amazed out how strong a factor political correctness is in this election. In fact, it was the 4th strongest factor predicting who a person will vote for out of all 138 factors that we studied.
We spent a long time digging into to why people do or don’t find political correctness important. Interestingly, Clinton supporters in our sample were about evenly split on whether there is too much political correctness in the U.S., whereas Trump supporters almost all agreed there is too much of it.
We learned that Clinton supporters in favor of political correctness tend to believe it protects people from being offended, asks society only for a basic level of politeness in discourse, and reduces tolerance for prejudice.
On the other hand, we found that Trump supporters tend to view society as having become excessively sensitive and too easily offended, so they don’t like the shielding effects of political correctness. In other words, there is a genuine disagreement over whether people should or shouldn’t be protected from things they may find offensive. Moreover, Trump supporters tended to argue that in practice political correctness inhibits freedom of speech, makes people afraid to speak their minds due to concerns of being attacked for what they believe, and prevents important societal issues from being discussed.
Both sides have understandable points on this issue. Reasonable people can disagree about how much we should try protect people from being offended versus how much we should enable people to speak their minds about topics that have the potential to offend others. Both extremes are clearly undesirable: we obviously shouldn’t tolerate people calling for the murder of other groups, nor should we allow political correctness to be so extreme that nothing can be expressed in public that has even a slight potential to offend someone else. But where to draw the line between these two extremes is not clear cut.
We also investigated what Trump supporters felt were important topics that aren’t getting discussed due to political correctness. Subjects they frequently mentioned include radical Islamic terrorism, how society should handle illegal immigrants, government corruption, perception of crime or violence in black communities, and discussions about race generally.
Adams: What should people do next based on your research that would make their lives and the world at large, better?
Greenberg: One of the most useful things to do regarding any polarizing topic, but especially for this one, is to stop for a second and assume that at least some of those that disagree with you are intelligent, knowledgeable and moral people. Then ask yourself: What are they seeing that I don’t? Until you can explain their perspective so well that they would agree with your explanation, you haven’t fully understood their position, which means that you’re likely missing out on some important truths about the world.
Sure, some who disagree with you are probably unintelligent, ignorant, and immoral, but these are not the people that have something important to teach you. And anyway, some of the people that agree with you are probably also unintelligent, ignorant, and immoral, but of course that doesn’t imply your position is invalid either. You should grapple with the best arguments the other side has to offer, not their worst arguments.
We hope that our findings will help you understand, or even better, empathize with the side that you view as your opposition. We hope that it will help you step outside of your group identity for a moment, and consider what truths the other group is saying. We all want our country to be as great as it can be. We all have to live here together. Once this election is over, it can only help us to better understand and learn from each other.
[ To try ClearerThinking.org’s many free decision making tools visit their website. To find out more details about the methodology and data collected in the studies discussed above, see the bottom portion of this article. ]
Anthony David Adams is a leading expert in the transformative power of relationships. He is best known for his work with individuals seeking to build powerful romantic and social relationships; couples and family systems looking to transcend old patterns and create a context for true self actualization; and companies and organizations looking to harmonize the creative visions of their team to unlock their deepest positive impact in the world. Visit PlayTheLoveGame.com/coaching to booked a gifted session.