Donald Trump and the Use of Psychology

In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning wrote a paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” The paper provided, with unparalleled accuracy, an explanation for Donald Trump’s temperament and behavior.

What is known since then as the Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. Because of this bias, they have a sense of superiority which is illusory and unrelated to their real capacity and are unable to recognize their own incompetence and shortcomings.

This cognitive bias was evident in the criminal case of McArthur Wheeler. On April 19, 1995, Wheeler robbed two banks with his face covered with lemon juice. He misunderstood its properties, and believed that because of its chemical properties, the lemon juice would make him invisible to the surveillance cameras in the bank. When the police told him how they had used the surveillance tapes to identify him he mumbled, “But I wore the juice…”

Although an exaggerated estimation of their own importance and knowledge can have a minor consequence for a bad contestant on a show like “American Idol”, it can have disastrous consequences in the case of the President of the United States. Trump’s exaggeration of his own knowledge and on the importance of the coronavirus pandemic has already cost tens of thousands of lives.

Donald Trump’s refusal to take precautions in the face of the pandemic continues to pose a significant danger to the population at large, who see in the President’s behavior a justification for their own refusal to be mindful of catching and spreading the infection. “Because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low,” he said, even as now there are almost 4 million infected people and well over 140,000 deaths in the country.

Of course, for a person of his tremendous achievements, a single psychological entity is unable to explain all his actions. Some uncharitable psychiatrists and psychologists have labeled him a narcissist, a sociopath, a paranoid and a pathological liar. According to The Washington Post, as of July 13, 2020, President Trump had made over 20,000 false statements. Because several of his statements are related to the coronavirus pandemic, they only exacerbate an already serious situation.

This capacity to overestimate their accomplishments and to ignore their limitations leads people with the Dunning-Kruger effect to overvalue their actions. Trump continues to insist that the U.S. has the lowest rates of coronavirus infection despite facts to the contrary, which show the U.S. among the countries with the most infected people. This doesn’t stop him from saying, “And again, we’ve had tremendous success –tremendous success beyond what people would have thought.”

On July 2, 2020, Trump said that the pandemic is “getting under control” as the country’s daily cases doubled to about 50,000 and continues to rise. Minimizing the risk of the infection can be counterproductive, leading people to be careless about taking precautions. On July 4, 2020 Trump asserted that “99% of COVID-19 cases are totally harmless.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, his own scientific adviser, says that the evidence shows that the virus “can make you seriously ill” even if it doesn’t kill you.

In the meantime, the U.S. continues to be behind many other developed countries in its handling of the infection. On July 6, 2020, Trump claimed, “We now have the lowest fatality rate in the world.” However, statistics show that as of July 13, 2020, the rate of deaths per confirmed COVID-19 cases was 41.33 deaths for 100,000 people, which is the world’s ninth-worst mortality rate, according to Johns Hopkins University.

What we now have is a world leader with serious psychological deficits. Although the Dunning-Kruger effect explains some of the President’s actions, they need a broader interpretation. We are at a moment in history when a person with these characteristics does serious damage not only to people’s health but to the future of democracy in the country.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”