It would be nice to think that voters elect their representatives based on careful consideration of candidates’ policy proposals, qualifications and prior voting records. But the truth is that we often choose who to vote for based on immeasurable personal qualities like authenticity and charisma. There’s no doubt that character matters in politics—but it’s also true that innate prejudice can influence our perception of a candidate’s personality.
In 2002, several researchers published a seminal study that developed a theory called the “stereotype content model,” a framework that explains how wealth, race, and gender intertwine to influence our perception of others. They found that subconscious bias seeps into and screens our understanding of others in subtle ways that can have profound consequences.
For example, researchers overwhelmingly found that people assume the rich to be exceptionally capable and intelligent. This finding was consistent regardless of whether individuals had inherited their fortune, gotten ahead through connections, married into money, or were just plain lucky.
“We’ve found that there’s a correlation between social economic status and the perception that people are competent,” says Peter Glick, a professor of psychology at Lawrence University who worked on the study. “There’s a strong bias to assume a direct causality: If you’re really well off, you must have been smart and competent to earn that.” This theory can help explain why so many perceive Donald Trump to be qualified for the role of US president, despite having no political experience.
When I sat down with a Trump supporter at Princeton University to ask what makes his favored presidential candidate compelling, he balked at Trump’s extremist immigration policy and denounced his anti-Muslim rhetoric. But in favor of Trump, he said: “Trump’s not a politician—he’s a good businessman.”
More than a few Trump constituents use this label to express their faith in Trump. To his supporters, Trump’s appeal is less about his legislative agenda and more about his personal brand: He’s a business, man.
But Trump’s reputation as a real-estate tycoon doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. Though he professes to be worth $10 billion, Forbes estimates his wealth at less than half that number. That’s still no meager sum, but Trump didn’t exactly start from naught: His father was at one point one of the richest men in America. The exact amount Trump inherited from Fred Trump remains unknown, but it’s estimated to be about $40 million (not to mention the value acquired from his father’s connections and business loans). And when it comes to Trump’s business acumen, his reputation can only be viewed with skepticism: Since 1991, four separate Trump-related companies have filed for corporate bankruptcy. How Trump’s name became synonymous with success has less to do with personal achievement and more to do with how he ostentatiously flaunts his wealth.
In a newly published study, Susan Fiske, a professor at Princeton University and one of Glick’s colleagues, returns to this model to dive deeper into the assumptions people around the world make about the rich. Drawing on a decade’s worth of data from 38 nations across every inhabited continent, she found that the correlation between money and inferred capability holds true regardless of location. “Originally I thought this might just be an American disease, but it’s everywhere,” Fiske says.
Fiske explains that our assumption that wealthy people have superior abilities appeals to our deep-seated desire to explain and rationalize hierarchy. “It makes the system seem stable,” she says. “If people get what they deserve and people who are talented and hardworking succeed, then everything makes sense. If you think that if you get up and work hard then you’ll have a chance of succeeding, it helps you get up in the morning.”
But this perception comes at a price to the rich—although often considered clever, they’re also frequently seen as cold and calculating. “If you know that someone’s very wealthy, you might not trust them as much,” Fiske says.
By this logic, if Trump benefits from our desire to see a causal relationship between intellectual merit and financial success, he should also be disadvantaged by the undesirable traits associated with wealth. He certainly has a tendency to make ruthless, callous remarks. So why don’t his supporters perceive him as uncaring, self-absorbed, and insensitive—traits typically attributed to the rich?
Once again, psychology offers an explanation: Fiske and her colleagues noticed that people were less likely to consider rich people to be cold if they also believed them to be in-group allies. Trump has marketed himself as someone who understands and cares about his constituency, so to his fans, he seems warm.
“A lot of people that support Trump see him as speaking for them and saying things they’re not really empowered to say, and in that sense, he’s an ally,” Glick says. “When you think someone is your ally, it’s in your interest to have these cold, nasty tactics toward the enemy.” So by positioning himself as an in-group member, Trump’s violent, punishing rhetoric avoids being perceived as that of a cold capitalist.
But some people are at a greater risk of being perceived as cold than others. Individuals who are part of specific “out-groups,” such as Asians, Jews, and feminists, are particularly likely to be viewed as capable but ill-disposed, Fiske says. Researchers found that women were usually perceived in one of two camps: benevolent caretaker or conniving commander. “If you’re a stay-at-home housewife, you’re seen as nice but not respected so much. If you have a career and are successful, you can be seen as competent, but not trustworthy and not warm,” Glick says.
The “cold” persona that is so frequently attributed to Clinton is a common perception associated with high-status women. “People don’t question Hillary’s competence—no matter what you think of her, she’s proved that she’s intelligent,” Glick says. “But you still see her labeled as selfish, manipulative, and only in it for herself, which are all coldness dimensions.”
When men are labeled cold, it often doesn’t pose the same threat to their image because it doesn’t contradict some fundamental notion of how they are expected to act. While society expects Clinton to present herself as nurturing, Trump isn’t subjected to the same scrutiny. “Trump doesn’t really have to work on that, because there is this permission for men to be the competent-but-cold commander,” Glick says. “People think, Yeah, he’s out for power, but hey! That’s what men are supposed to do, right? So he gets more leeway on that.” This means that powerful women are more likely to fall victim to prejudice against their personal character.
This may be why Clinton is the candidate facing the brunt of the criticism for being untruthful, even though her opponent habitually makes verifiably false statements. “That’s really typically of how powerful women are perceived,” Glick says. “People will be like, Yeah, she’s smart, but I don’t trust her.” The facts counter Hillary’s reputation as the deceitful candidate; Polifact rated Clinton one of the most honest of the 2016 primary candidates, while Trump was not only rated the least-honest candidate but also received the 2015 “Lie of the Year” award. Yet Trump is the one with the reputation for authenticity and speaking the truth.
While we might be hardwired to question Clinton’s character for reasons outside her control, Trump’s campaign is bolstered by our innate prejudice. His money—or the impression of it, given that his actual fortune remains a mystery—inflates the perception of his competence. Meanwhile, his aggressive attack on an illusive “other” has led his constituents to identify with him, lending him the illusion of warmth.
So thanks to the workings of the human brain, Trump has managed to invent the image of a candidate radically altered from the real, living one before us. While people are primed to dislike Clinton no matter what she does, Trump can project an image of competency and likability without ever earning it.