Illustration: Jim Cooke/Gizmodo
Imagine attending a work dinner and having your boss single you out and order your meal for you. Then imagine that meal was meatloaf. Chris Christie may not have cared about it so much, but to many people, that would be considered an obnoxious move at best. Unfortunately, that kind of behaviour and worse is par for the course with Donald Trump, whose character flaws seem to manifest in horrifying new ways every week. But what Trump’s associates may not know is that science, an enterprise the new administration seems to have little regard for, could help make their boss a slightly more tolerable human being. Insights from fields like cognitive science and psychology could curtail some of Trump’s worst qualities, from lack of empathy to bigotry to narcissism.
“Presidents are almost narcissistic by definition,” says Keith Campbell, a professor and head of the Psychology Department at the University of Georgia. “But of all of them, Trump, to me, seems up there.” Campbell cites Trumps grandiosity, ego, aggression, self-promotion, and callousness as evidence that the commander in chief is a world-class narcissist — though this should never be conflated with having a mental illness, according to the psychiatrist who wrote the criteria defining Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Narcissistic behaviours have an effect on relationships and decision-making. Campbell notes that in relationships, narcissists are more likely to be unfaithful, and at work they’re more likely to be unethical. “What you see with narcissistic decision-making is that if it’s public, they’re often willing to take big risks,” says Campbell, “In some ways, the decisions will be influenced by the self-promotional aspects of it.” And when a narcissist deems outcomes to be unfair, research shows that they’re more likely to forgo forgiveness and seek revenge. “There’s also overconfidence and an inability to learn from errors,” he says.
Unfortunately, rigorously treating Trump’s narcissism would require acknowledgement and effort on his part, and it’s hard to keep any narcissist in therapy. Still, there are aspects of narcissism that can be targeted more easily, some without the narcissist’s cooperation.
Take impulsivity, for example. A 2006 meta-analysis of 23 psychological studies showed that impulsivity is strongly associated with grandiose narcissism, for which there are a handful of pharmaceutical interventions that may help. But if Trump’s aids wanted to work on his impulsivity privately, they should take a look at a 1979 Review of Educational Research study performed with impulsive children. The researchers found that when kindergarteners and first-graders were first shown how to work through a task in a logical and organised manner, and then instructed to talk themselves through those same steps aloud, they were able to complete the task with significantly fewer mistakes. So perhaps, before Trump’s next executive order, his advisors should ask their boss to slow down, and talk through the order out loud.
According to psychologists, narcissists also have a well-established lack of empathy. The good news is that traits associated with empathy like trust, interpersonal decision-making, and even morality can be manipulated on the sly by others.
When it comes to trust, studies have shown that whether you hold something cold or warm can influence how likely you are to trust a stranger. In a 2008 Science study, researchers found that holding a cup of hot coffee versus iced coffee made people more likely to judge another’s personality as warm, caring, and generous. In another study, holding something warm made people more likely to invest money with a stranger while playing an economic trust game. The effect of temperature on trust is thought to stem from the fact that both involve activity in the same brain area.
How you interact with others and make decisions can be influenced by your surroundings as well. Touching something rough rather than something smooth can affect whether you gauge a conversation as aggressive or not. A 2013 study showed that when participants touched a rough object before reviewing an ambiguous social interaction, they were more likely to judge it as difficult or adversarial. And in a 2009 study, researchers showed that holding a heavy clipboard can increase how valuable people think foreign currencies are, increase how important they consider fair decision-making procedures to be, and elicit more elaborate thinking.
While a person’s morality is often thought to be steadfast, morality-based decisions are subject to modification, too. In one study, participants were given either water, or a sweet or bitter beverage, and asked to judge how morally wrong various situations were. These included things like consensual incest, eating a dead pet, accepting a bribe, or shoplifting. The results showed that bitter tastes were more likely to make participants judge the morality of a decision more harshly, an effect that was more pronounced in those with conservative political views than liberal. Neutral odours, administered just below detectable levels, can also affect morality-based decisions, influencing whether you choose to actively sacrifice one person to save many, or do nothing and risk everyone’s lives.
But what if we want a deeper, more substantial change, not just momentary manipulations of Trump’s mood or reactions? Is there a way to tackle some of his bigger issues, like racism and xenophobia? Science says yes. Research shows that implicit biases, whether against other races, ethnic groups, genders or religions, can be trained away to some degree.
The first step toward tackling one’s implicit biases is to acknowledge them. Since 1998, scientists with Project Implicit have developed tests to inform the public about their hidden biases. For example, a racial implicit association test measures how much quicker you are at pairing positive words with pictures of white faces than with black faces. You can test yourself for various implicit social biases here, and you may be surprised.
One you’ve acknowledged your implicit biases, how do you start training them away? Some have tried to reverse social biases with limited success, but Ken Paller, a professor of Psychology at Northwestern University and the Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program, believes that memory is key. In a study published in 2015 in Science, Paller and his colleagues showed that implicit social biases can be reduced, at least temporarily, by tapping into what we know about how memory works.
For the study, Paller and his colleagues rounded up 20 white men and 20 white women between the ages of 19 and 32 who were confirmed to have implicit biases favouring white faces over black, and men over women. The participants then underwent counterbias training, instructed to only respond to face/word pairings that went against their bias. So, for instance, positive words with black or female faces. When they did this correctly, a specific sound was played. That sound was played again later, while the participants took a nap. According to Paller, memories are often reinforced during sleep, so playing the tone associated with the counterbias training during sleep could strengthen its effect.
The counterbias training reduced the participants’ implicit social biases by as much as 50 per cent. And when it was reinforced during sleep, it remained at reduced levels even a week later.
Though more research needs to be done to establish longer lasting effects, Paller’s study is a promising start. Unfortunately, Trump would have to submit to counterbias training in order for it to work, which seems unlikely. But if he did, it’s useful to note that much like his bigotry, implicit bias tests aren’t limited to race and gender. Project Implicit has tests for biases against age, religion, nationality, skin-tone, weight, disability, and sexual orientation. It stands to reason that similar counterbias training programs could be tailored for any of them.
If Trump’s first few weeks in office are any indicator, he’ll do little to curb his impulsivity, narcissism, and megalomania on his own. Clearly, the American public is going to have to rely on checks and balances, both within the government and outside of it, like never before. But maybe we can get a little help? Please, for all of our sake’s, folks in the White House, get rid of those iced teas and give Trump something warm to drink (and make it a little bitter). Line those baggy suits with soft fur, there’s clearly plenty of room for it. Put those briefs and executive orders on the heaviest clipboard you’ve got.
Mallory Locklear is a freelance science writer with a PhD in neuroscience.