The psychology behind Trump, the wall and the government shutdown

by Marc Wilson / 24 January, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - Donald Trump psychology

Donald Trump wants US$5.7 billion for a border wall. Photo/Getty Images

Like Donald Trump, we are naturally biased towards where we see the cause of things, and react accordingly.

Sorry, in advance, for returning to one of my apparent obsessions – Donald Trump. The Potus has been fulminating mightily and at length about his wall, partially shutting down the Government over the US$5.7 billion needed.

As I’ve just described it, I’m attributing the cause of the shutdown to Trump. Though he had proclaimed, pre-shutdown, that he would be “proud” to shutter the Government for border security, he has more recently blamed the Democrats – pointing the finger at someone else.

Depending on which attribution you make, you’ll have a different impression of the parties, and the issues involved – a capricious President seeking to memorialise himself in concrete (or is it steel?) or Democrat leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi grandstanding with malice in their hearts?

Let’s say I think it’s really Trump’s fault. Why is he doing it? If I think it’s a reflection of his hubris, then I’m making a dispositional attribution to something about a person’s character or temperament. In that case, I’m going to feel justified in venting my spleen at His Orangeness.

But maybe there really is a border crisis, and the US political system, with its two chambers, is to blame. Now, I’m making a situational attribution – it’s not the President, but the context that has brought us here. I might grumble resentfully, but spleen-venting in Trump’s direction won’t feel so justified.

Again, what I believe affects my attitude towards the parties involved – who to vent my spleen at, and why.

The Government shutdown is a product of human decisions and actions, but our attributions, particularly with events over which we have little control, both influence and reflect our attitudes and behaviour.

Trump. Photo/Getty Images

Trump. Photo/Getty Images

Closely related to attribution is the notion of locus of control – the idea that we are biased towards seeing a particular cause for things that happen to us. “I did it”, reflects an internal locus, but “it was bad luck”, or “it was just too hard”, reflect externality. You’ll think and behave differently from others depending on where you tend to see the cause of things.

Take natural disasters. Three years before the Canterbury earthquakes, Matt Spittal and colleagues at Victoria University of Wellington showed that New Zealanders with a more internal locus had a greater likelihood of taking steps to prepare for seismic events (such as having a store of food and water) and mitigate the damage (securing shelves, for instance).

Here’s another example of how perception of causes may be important for actions. You see a middle-aged man by a bus shelter. He looks dishevelled, and he’s talking to himself. Such an example reflects one of the faces of schizophrenia – a syndrome of hallucinations and/or delusions that may not reflect reality. Does how you respond to this picture depend on whether you think the “cause” of schizophrenia is internal (maybe a product of substance use?) or a product of genetics and brain chemistry (is it a mental illness or a brain disorder)?

The Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America is campaigning to have schizophrenia reclassified as a brain disorder, first because we don’t have a perfect handle on what causes it but we’re pretty certain that brain chemistry is involved, and, second, in the hope that there is less stigma associated with neurological diseases than mental illness.

Think of Alzheimer’s, or other diseases of the brain, say proponents of the change. You don’t see the same kind of stigma and fear associated with those conditions as you do with schizophrenia and other psychotic conditions. We worry more for patients with dementia than we do about them.

Maybe Trump’s malady is entirely genetic, in which case it doesn’t seem so fair to blame him for what he says. At the same time, there’s a lot more evidence that schizophrenia has a genetic component than for a genetic explanation of Trump’s love of 9m walls.

This article was first published in the January 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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