State of (Trump’s) Mind examines the psychology behind statements and actions by the president.
It has been 24 days since President Trump tweeted the incendiary assertion that President Obama “was tapping my phones” before Election Day. Although neither Trump nor his aides has provided evidence of that, and officials from the Obama administration and others have flat-out denied it, Trump has not retracted the allegation. As a Wall Street Journal editorial said last week, “the President clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle.”
What explains the president’s stubborness? Both research and experience with patients have taught psychologists something about what makes people unwilling or unable to concede error. By “concede,” we don’t mean apologize, as for an unethical or hurtful action. We mean something along the lines of That thing I said? It’s factually incorrect — even without an apology.
At the most fundamental level, “clinging to a statement that has been shown to be false indicates that the person needs to be right, or believes that being wrong is a catastrophe,” said Dr. Lance Dodes, a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, Calif., and retired Harvard Medical School professor. For such an individual, acknowledging a mistake is a “fundamental disturbance of self-worth,” he said.
Conceding error therefore takes a psychological toll — even if you admit it only to yourself. Acknowledging error in public exacts an additional toll: It erodes the public’s sense of your savvy and power. If you feed off public adulation, then knowing (or worrying) that that adulation might dim is a huge impediment to admitting error.
Refusing to apologize actually pays emotional dividends, and so does failing to even acknowledge what psychologist Tyler Okimoto of Australia’s University of Queensland calls “competence errors.” (Okimoto led a 2013 study that found that non-apologizers feel more powerful and more in control than people who apologize to those they have wronged.) To someone who thinks of himself as exceptionally smart and savvy, and for whom those qualities are core elements of his self-image, acknowledging a factual error feels deeply threatening to that self-concept.
To be sure, Trump’s refusal to acknowledge error could also be strategic, since his future success depends on his supporters’ trusting his honesty and intelligence, but psychologists say he fits the description of someone to whom acknowledging error would be psychological torture. In 2013 he tweeted, “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest.” During the 2016 campaign, he repeatedly uttered versions of, “I’m, like, a really smart person.”
“Some people may have a particularly sensitive self-concept, and thus may be more likely to refuse to acknowledge their mistakes” if that self-concept revolves around intellectual superiority, Okimoto said.
Although there is almost no research on which personalities correlate with reluctance to acknowledge error, “narcissists often react in this way because they outwardly convey confidence, but that confidence is fragile,” Okimoto added. “As a result, narcissists are more likely to blame others for their own errors, more likely to claim that they have been victimized, and more likely to refuse to apologize for their mistakes.” Narcissists, in their own eyes, are never wrong.
Numerous psychologists and psychiatrists say Trump appears to be a narcissist, with some saying his narcissism is extreme enough to qualify as narcissistic personality disorder, but they acknowledge that it is not possible to diagnose someone from afar.
Mistakes become more weighty, Okimoto said, “if you are already on thin ice.” Trump has not had a good month since the wiretap tweets, what with a court blocking his latest travel ban and his high-profile failure to “close the deal” on a health care bill replacing Obamacare. The more other actions cast doubt on your competence or intelligence or grasp of a complicated situation, the “more defensive and vigilant [you become] against new threats that might further tip the scales against you,” Okimoto said. “It takes a self-assured, self-confident person to own up to their mistakes and take responsibility for their errors.”
The act of conceding error also recalibrates the balance of power. If Trump said he got the wiretapping wrong, his opponents would gain an edge, one they might be able to leverage the next time a Trumpian claim seems debatable, including on assertions that are less black-and-white — claims of job creation, terrorism victories, trade successes, and the like.
Someone who feels he must avoid even the perception of weakness or lack of superiority is unlikely to concede, or even recognize, error. The refusal reflects “the need to hold onto an existing position of power, which the person fears would be lost if he is found to be wrong,” Dodes said. “It’s the same issue of severely unstable self-worth, but here it’s associated with [a] position which gives the person the sense of superiority or greatness he requires.”
Those who have worked with or observed Trump for many years describe him as simultaneously narcissistic and filled with a deep sense of persecution, even paranoia. Someone who sees enemies everywhere is desperate not to give them even the tiniest opening. Trump’s pugilistic image — and pugilistic self-image — also act as a psychological barrier to acknowledging error: Fighters don’t back down.
In an interview last week with Time magazine, Trump made numerous assertions that are factually incorrect. These were not differences in interpretations: Contrary to his claims, people did not die in riots in Sweden after a statement by Trump, and the husband of a top aide to Hillary Clinton did not have all of Clinton’s emails on his laptop. Asked about such discrepancies, Trump said, “Hey look … I can’t be doing so badly, because I’m president, and you’re not.”
Which underlines the realpolitik explanation for refusing to acknowledge error: You can get away with it, at least for a while.