Donald Trump frequently employs a rhetorical strategy built on the power of social influencers. We pay attention to what happens around us, and adjust our behaviors and even our beliefs relative to the groups that surround us. When we are around people who cuss a lot, we might cuss more. When we are around people who exercise every day, we might start exercising more. Whatever the trend in the groups of people around us, we follow suit, learning from the social influencers in our company. What President Trump does is use suggestive language to indicate a trend or a social movement that may not exist. The president frequently says things like, “many people believe,” “lots of people are saying,” or “most people think.”
President Trump doesn’t live in a world governed by reality and when he uses the rhetorical devices listed above, there is almost never any actual substance to his claims. But nevertheless, his statements can be influential. He is taking advantage of our susceptibility to nudges based on social conformity.
In Nudge Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write about this approach toward nudges. When people employ these techniques, the authors write, “they try to nudge you by telling you what most people are now doing.” The nudge works because we care about people around us and want to doing what others are doing. We might not want to admit it, but we follow the cues of social influencers and pick up on what the majority opinion is.
We want to be in the know and keep up to date on trends and news so that we appear to be good allies to the people in our tribes. We want to be like others so that they empathize with us and want to help us if we ever need it. Doing what most people do, emulating what most people determine to be socially desirable will help ensure that we have people around who have resources to help us. This is why it is so powerful for advertisers, politicians, and people in positions of authority to tell us what most people are doing. We don’t want to be an outcast, and if most people are moving in a certain direction, then surely we should as well.