What You Can Learn From Trump (Yes, Really)

Close your eyes and imagine Donald Trump. I know, for some of you I ruined your day already. But just try. I promise it won’t hurt too much. And stop scrunching your face as though your mother just told you to eat your brussel sprouts.

Imagine Donald Trump in his Trumpiest glory. Spouting off about armies of Mexican rapists. Ranting against the “Fake news media” anytime they report him in an unfavorable light. Calling people names whenever they disagree with him. Giving one of his typical speeches about how right and glorious he is and how wrong and pig-headed anyone who thinks otherwise must be. Referring to himself in the third person. Slapping his name on everything until we’re forced to say Trump more often than the word “the.” Praising dictators and getting lovey-dovey with tyrants. The over-the-top narcissism that, if you didn’t know any better, you’d swear was just a caricature, because nobody could ever possibly be that self-absorbed. You know, the Donald we’ve all come to know and, uh-hmm, ‘love.’

Now I want you to envision a news conference that probably won’t ever happen: Imagine Donald Trump came to the podium and poured his heart out in front of the camera. Instead of acting righteous and confident and full of himself, he actually made himself vulnerable. He admitted that he doesn’t actually know it all. Confessed that he often doesn’t choose his words correctly. Admitted that he’s often insecure. That the reason he so frequently attacks others is because he feels like he’s constantly being attacked himself, or that he’s spent his life living in the family’s shadow, feeling as though he has to live up to the name. What if he admitted that he’s just winging his way through life like the rest of us, doing the best he can, and begged our mercy to cut him some slack.

Tell me: Which Donald Trump do you like better? The blow-hard or the vulnerable human version? Or perhaps more to the point, which one tends to evoke your compassion, and which is more inclined to provoke your hostility and aggression?

Most people would, hands-down, prefer the latter version of the Donald, especially when it comes to someone you’d want as a friend. We may be fascinated by narcissists in the abstract, but aren’t so keen on dealing with them in reality. Moreover, when it comes to provoking the nobler emotions in others – love, compassion, mercy, a desire to protect, and so forth – the Donald with a lower case d wins out every time. Studies repeatedly show that humility and vulnerability is more likely to promote favorable opinions and the affection and good will of others. Confidence and bravado provoke a certain type of harshness in others. Our meeker expressions bring out their softer side.

This means that when it comes to the type of treatment we desire from others – kindness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, affection – it isn’t confidence that wins people over but the willingness to expose our more vulnerable side.

Unfortunately, our instincts often lead us to do precisely the opposite. We’re afraid to make ourselves vulnerable for fear that others might exploit our weakness, and there’s certainly a bit of truth to this in our oh-so-judgy world. We dawn our exterior in a façade of armor, pretending to be tougher and more invincible than we really are. We’re reluctant to admit when we’re wrong, as if being a fallible human being were the most horrible thing in the world to be. We work overtime to try and portray an unbridled image of confidence and success. Hmm….does this description remind you of anybody?

For as much as many people like to say they can’t stand Donald Trump, we’re sure inclined to emulate him a lot when it comes to our personal lives. In social media, we try to act like Trump. We work hard trying to curate an image of complete success, photoshopping our idealized self and presenting it to the rest of the world. We name drop and build our “brand” and openly engage in narcissistic pursuits.

We act like Trump when it comes to dealing with others. We’re generally more interested in winning an argument than learning something new from somebody else’s perspective. We’re stubborn in our ways and quick to judgment. We jockey to establish superiority; to put ourselves up on others.

Our inner Trump comes out in our work life. We self-promote, gripe on our coworkers, and engage in a relentless pursuit to get ahead. The same goes for our academic pursuits. “Winning,” we are told, is how one leads a successful life.

But what if this philosophy is precisely what’s wrong in our lives? What if the key to social success and happiness were to do just the opposite, and humble ourselves while exposing our vulnerability? Social science seems to suggest as much. We could even start by giving that former character in the White House a break.

Just a thought. If it doesn’t work out, you can always revert back to that I, I, I, me, me, me, me, winning! philosophy that most of us have been drawn into. Just don’t forget whose company that puts you in.

Fighting Against the Good: Human Psychology In Politics

Too many people think of psychology as a quaint side point to their daily lives; an abstract science that has little bearing on how they live. In reality, it’s what guides life itself. As Carl Jung once pointed out, more people have died because of imagined beliefs and flaws in thinking than by all the plagues and natural disasters combined. If my flawed thinking leads me to imagine that you’re my enemy, and then I kill you because of this belief (or heaven forbid, launch nuclear weapons at you and your brethren), then you would be dead on account of mere imagination.

One area where flaws in thinking create disastrous consequences that we all must live with is in the area of politics. Decisions are made that have the power to either enrich or destroy people, and they are often made on the basis of classic flaws in human cognition. In a March 2015 Readers Digest article titled 13 Things Mayors Won’t Tell You, by Michelle Crouch, one mayor states that “It’s easier to pass a $20 million water-treatment project than it is to spend a few thousand dollars on new laptop computers for the police squad cars. People’s eyes tend to glaze over when you review the details of a big project. But small costs are a lot easier to grasp, so people jump all over them and the money.”

Another laments the stubbornness of his constituents in clinging to the status quo: “When it comes down to it, most people fear change. Many projects that people hate at first – the ones they complain loudest about-end up being much loved after they’re built. Some of the most controversial projects are now icons that everyone in the city is proud of.” The resistance to anything different mires society in molasses, keeping us stuck and preventing the type of change that might make everyone’s life better.

It’s an example of two classic thought flaws in action: the tendency to personalize the small while failing to grasp the large (as the famous saying goes: a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic), and the tendency to stubbornly cling to what’s familiar, even when it works against our own benefit. These two principles have been demonstrated in study time and time again. Yet when it comes time for people to make decisions and cast their votes, most have no clue that the calculations in their head are deeply flawed, and might even be leading them against what’s best.

When decisions are based on flawed thinking like this — as is happening every day all around you – what results is typically more problems. This is why we all live in such a messed up world. Sometimes a failure to understand ourselves can literally be a matter of life and death. So before putting your mind and its vote behind knee-jerk reactions, try challenging your assumptions and looking at things in a new way. Whether it’s the abolition of slavery, better human rights, or simply a better local government, progress always comes by changing (or going directly against) what’s familiar.