Donald Trump and the psychology of blame

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Story highlights

  • Robert Klitzman: People want simple answers to help make sense of confusing reality
  • Donald Trump has given many that quick, easy narrative

Robert Klitzman is a professor of psychiatry and director of the Masters of Bioethics Program at Columbia University. He is author of "The Ethics Police?: The Struggle to Make Human Research Safe." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)In eighth grade, I ran for student council president. The candidates all had to speak in the auditorium to the entire student body. An opponent went first, and promised to have soda come out of the water fountains throughout the school. The audience applauded wildly. When I spoke, I argued that his plan would not work -- that the school administration would certainly oppose it.

It didn't matter. He won.
I learned: Politics is not mostly about logic or reality, but appearance and desire -- telling an emotionally appealing story, offering hope and making promises, even if you can't keep them.
Since the election, pundits have pondered why Donald Trump won, Hillary Clinton lost, and where the Trump presidency is headed. They have traced his win to Russian hacking, the Electoral College system, the media, James Comey, Bernie Sanders, and Clinton taking Midwestern blue collar voters for granted -- all of which clearly played roles. And they have repeatedly tried to understand and assess what Trump may now do.
Yet several additional critical issues have been ignored and deserve attention -- concerning the psychology of blame.
In a complex world, we look for causes and effects, and whom to blame. Most voters want simple answers. But the world is messy, defying easy solutions. Nonetheless, countless social media sites and messages seem to give answers, telling viewers who is at fault -- shaping attitudes and votes.
But while recent exposés have examined the mechanics of how particular fake news stories have gone viral, it is crucial to understand, too, why such stories prove so appealing -- how they assign blame.

'Fast thinking'

The Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman found that when confronting too much complex numerical information, people use mental shortcuts to process it -- so-called "fast" rather than "slow" thinking. Yet people also rely on "fast thinking" to process not only numbers, as he describes, but social and political problems and information as well.
We draw on prior beliefs, biases, and scripts -- familiar stories. These shortcuts generally involve narratives of blame -- helping us decide who or what caused the problem, and thus how we should solve it. People seek to fault others for problems because to hold ourselves accountable is too painful.
Blame serves several functions, assigning both physical cause and moral responsibility. It also involves complex cognitive, as well as social and emotional processing. Most complicated human events -- whether wars, recessions, diseases or elections -- result from multiple contributing factors. But we can't focus on all of them. Rather, we generally target our anger and frustration on only one.
I first became aware of the complex psychology of blame several years ago, when conducting research on women who had breast cancer and breast cancer mutations. "I always knew I shouldn't have stayed in that awful relationship all those years," the first woman I interviewed told me.
"Why is that?" I asked.
"Because that's why I have breast cancer."
"But you have the mutation," I said, cautiously.
"Yes, but what triggered it was the stress of that bad relationship -- that's when I got diagnosed." Repeatedly, women I surveyed blamed their disease on the stresses of bad bosses or companies' pollution, rather than the mutation, itself. Doctors emphasize genes, but these women didn't.
These patients weren't necessarily wrong. After all, only 50% percent of women who have the gene associated with breast cancer end up getting the disease. Other factors -- environmental or psychological -- can affect whether one develops the disease.
But, emotionally, these women all focused on these other factors, constructing narratives that made sense for them -- assigning blame subjectively, not based on science or all the facts.

Trump's simple narrative

These patients' stories may seem far afield from our new political realities, but offer key insights. Trump built a simple narrative that, for many voters, made sense of current national problems. He successfully faulted Clinton for all of our nation's difficulties, arguing that she had had 30 years to fix them, and had failed. She was the villain ("lock her up"). Blue collar workers were "victims" of an unfair system. He, uniquely, was the hero who would "make America great" again.
She consistently let him portray himself as "The Outsider" and paint her as representing all insiders -- Democrats and Republicans alike. She never contested these arguments. Presumably, she feared offending Republicans, whose support she sought.
Conventional political wisdom might say, "Don't waste time refuting your opponent -- let the press do it." But we no longer live in conventional political times; the press failed to do it sufficiently. She could instead have said, "Bipartisan politics is complicated. Many of us have tried to compromise. But not all elected officials have done so. In fact, Trump's party got us into the Iraq War, and helped create The Great Recession."
To assign, limit or escape blame, individuals employ various rhetorical strategies -- denying that certain events ever happened ("I didn't say that"), or giving justifications or excuses. But, to blame others and deny responsibility generally entails stretching the truth and minimizing accountability.
In the world of information overload, short attention spans, tweets and unvetted online "news," countless people lose track and become uncertain. The realities are far more complicated, but overly simplistic narratives stick -- partly because they mobilize rage.
Occasionally, we reevaluate and change our understanding -- when confronted by facts from trusted sources or when another storyline, based on this new information, feels more compelling, especially if the new explanation gives a sense of control.

More nuanced reality

Still, altering such perspectives can be hard. Some of the women with breast cancer whom I interviewed shifted their views of their disease, though doing so was not always easy. "I'm such a big environmentalist," one woman told me, "that it's hard for me to believe that genes also played a role in my cancer." She wrestled with the ambiguity of multiple factors contributing to her disease. Gradually, she came to appreciate this more nuanced reality, though it was less emotionally satisfying.
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Yet social science can help us determine how to successfully develop and disseminate accurate messages -- both the form and content -- articulating and galvanizing anger against the status quo. Historically, certain messages have conveyed liberty and justice instead of hate -- as in the Arab Spring.
Importantly, we need to pay more attention to how the psychology of blame operates -- how humans inherently seek to assign fault, how that quest can be misused by Trump or other politicians, and how much is at stake -- the pursuit of truth that is crucial for our democracy.
Otherwise, we will all be waiting for soda to flow from the water fountains.