Ever since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, political experts have been debating how it happened. One critical factor often overlooked, says UB psychologist Shira Gabriel, is Trump’s 14-year reign as a reality TV star.
“I strongly believe that Donald Trump would not be president if it weren’t for his being on ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘The Celebrity Apprentice,’” says Gabriel, lead author of a recent study, published in the journal “Social Psychological and Personality Science,” that examines how parasocial bonds people forged with Trump through their television sets contributed to his victory.
A parasocial bond is a one-sided relationship formed with a person one has never met; it could be a celebrity, a media personality, even a fictional character. The relationship is not reciprocated, but the bond is keenly felt. And though parasocial bonds can be formed in many ways, television is a particularly potent and immersive multisensory medium. In a way, says Gabriel, television mimics reality in that relationships develop slowly over time at regular intervals.
“We feel like we know these people,” she says. “We feel interested in their lives and happy when good things happen to them. Logically, that doesn’t make sense, but we still feel connected to them when we spend time with them—and it’s a relatively healthy and common thing to do.”
Gabriel has been conducting research on parasocial bonding for the past decade. For this study, she and her co-authors used an online survey to gather information from 521 voters, including how much they watched Trump’s shows, how they feel about him generally and whether they believed his campaign promises. They also asked for party affiliation and voting behavior, and measured each participant’s tendency to get emotionally involved in their favorite TV shows.
Results showed compelling evidence that parasocial bonding led people to like Trump, to believe the promises he made and to discount the negative stories about him that surfaced during the campaign, says Gabriel. They also revealed a correlation with voting behavior: The more people watched Trump on his reality shows, the more likely they were to form bonds, which in turn predicted whether they would vote for him.
Gabriel wasn’t overly surprised by the results. “The mass of shows is amazing,” she points out. “Fourteen seasons of hourlong episodes presenting Trump as a calm, infallible decision-maker, who listened to others but came to his own conclusions.” People who “got to know” Trump through his character on TV grew to like him; when he ran for office, they believed many of his campaign promises, as if trusting the word of a friend. And much as they would do for a friend, when negative stories about Trump surfaced, they were less likely to be influenced by them.
“This makes sense,” Gabriel says. “It’s how we would behave with real relationships. For example, if you had a friend in real life for 14 years and saw evidence, again and again, that he was a great leader and decision-maker, exhibiting wise and sound behavior, you would be likely to discount negative things said about that friend because you would feel as if you knew him better.”
The research also helps explain the most surprising Trump supporters—those who crossed party lines to vote for him. Parasocial bonding proved to be an especially strong predictor of voting among Trump backers who weren’t lifelong Republicans. In other words, the study suggests that some people who would not have chosen Trump for political reasons felt that they knew him and liked him due to “The Apprentice”—and voted for him because of that.