The Trump Effect: Nobody Loves A Braggart Until Everybody Does

New study explains why the right kind of boasting can win voters—and the wrong kind can tank campaigns

When Donald Trump boasts, the world listens. Here's why. — (REUTERS)
Mar 30, 2016 at 5:56 PM ET

Donald Trump is the most boastful candidate in recent memory. “I have millions of followers. Millions. I don’t do press releases anymore,” Trump quipped in 2014. “If I want a press release, I put it out on Twitter…It’s like owning the New York Times without the losses.” By all accounts, such shameless boasting (remember the “I’m really rich” claim of 2015?) should be a major turnoff—and yet, polling data and primary results suggest that it’s not.

Now, a new study motions that America may be buying Trump’s boasts for the same reason that we buy products even after advertisers brag about them ad nauseum—because, despite our distaste for egotism, we believe the hype.

“Political candidates are products,” says Grant Packard, professor of marketing at Wilfred Laurier University in Canada and coauthor of a forthcoming study on the psychology of boasting, published in the Journal of Consumer Research. “We found that trust…was the crucial factor for whether you ‘buy’ the boast or not.”

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Boasting is a double-edged sword (“the biggest, best double-edged sword you’ve ever seen”). On one hand, we hate people who brag about their achievements, and we’re unlikely to take them seriously. On the other hand, even the loudest egotists are occasionally trying to convey important information about their qualifications—information that we could benefit from.

We subconsciously know this, the new study suggests. And so when we hear someone bragging loudly about his incredible business acumen (to borrow a classic Trump boast) we make a quick calculation, between bouts of nausea: Is this a flat-out lie, or a sign of a highly qualified businessman who just happens to be an egotist? Because even though we never like to hear a boast, we occasionally listen when we think the information therein may benefit us.

“Our studies always found that boasting was perceived negatively,” Packard says. “But if boasting is useful to the person that hears the boast, it can enhance social perceptions.” To test that theory and learn more about what makes us trust some boasts while discarding others, Packard and colleagues conducted three separate marketing experiments.

In one instance, researchers asked 127 college students to read an online review of a beach getaway. One version of the review boasted about the writer’s travel experience, while the other was more modest. Meanwhile, some participants were told that the writer was a college student of their gender in the same university, while others were told that the writer was older, of the opposite gender and from another city. Interestingly, participants were more likely to believe a boast when they felt they had something in common with the writer.

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Each of the subsequent studies also found that, generally speaking, “boasting decreases the persuasiveness of a word of mouth source in the presence of a low trust cue, but increases persuasiveness in the presence of a high trust cue,” according to the study. In other words, if we already mistrust someone, their boasts make us trust them even less. But when we do trust someone, a solid boast can make us even more likely to believe what they’re saying.

To sum up the results: We trust people who are most similar to us. And when we do trust someone—for whatever reason—we’re more likely to believe his or her boasts. And that’s where Republican candidate Donald J. Trump comes in.

“I wonder if the Trump vs. Clinton phenomena is that Clinton is part of a distrusted system (‘the establishment’),” Packard says. “As an outsider, Trump might seem more trustworthy to those who feel disenfranchised in America. And so you accept Trump’s boasts more than you do Clinton’s.”

Indeed, for all his pride in being financially and intellectually superior to everyone else, Trump never ceases to remind voters that he is a self-made man (a term Trump uses loosely, given that “small million dollar loan” from his father). In any case, Trump continues to market himself as the boastful billionaire who is somehow still essentially Of The People. And that may be why The People are listening to his boasts—and casting their votes accordingly.

“While this would be more an extension of our research, I also speculate that boasting is so fundamental to the Trump brand … boastful assertions are perceived as normal from him,” Packard says. “People trust Trump will boast every time he speaks. And so they might have more trust in Trump’s boasts.”