It’s extremely hard to explain President Donald Trump. In so many ways, he doesn’t behave like a normal adult, let alone like a normal president. The theory that much of what he says and does is driven by sky-high levels of narcissism helps, sure, but it doesn’t tell the full story.
Maybe another piece of the puzzle is that Trump doesn’t have a very well-developed theory of mind. That is, he isn’t good at predicting how other people will react to a given piece of information. David Brooks raises this point in a column in today’s New York Times, where he lays out, rather searingly, the many ways in which Donald Trump resembles a child. “[M]ost adults have learned to sit still,” for example, but Trump seems to have no attention span, which makes it hard for him to master basic facts and to gain expertise. He also “seems to need perpetual outside approval to stabilize his sense of self, so he is perpetually desperate for approval, telling heroic fabulist tales about himself.”
But what really jumps out is when Brooks notes, “By adulthood most people can perceive how others are thinking. For example, they learn subtle arts such as false modesty so they won’t be perceived as obnoxious.” Trump, on the other hand, “seems to have not yet developed a theory of mind. Other people are black boxes that supply either affirmation or disapproval. As a result, he is weirdly transparent. He wants people to love him, so he is constantly telling interviewers that he is widely loved. In Trump’s telling, every meeting was scheduled for 15 minutes but his guests stayed two hours because they liked him so much.”
This is the exact concept I’ve been using to try to understand our inexplicable president. It really fits Trump and helps explain how he acts. A bit of background: By age 2 or 3, explains a British government website on child development, children “have a fairly clear understanding of basic emotions and can differentiate between happiness and sadness in themselves and others. Discerning positive from negative emotional responses is an important development in theory of mind. Kids can alert others to the emotional state of family members or peers, possibly saying, ‘Mummy is sad.’” As you get older, of course, your theory of mind grows more sophisticated. Adults have a nuanced ability to imagine how other people might react to a given event, can attune their own words accordingly, and so forth.
Obviously Trump has some ability to at least attempt to discern what others are feeling — he’s definitely aware of the concept of other people liking or disliking him. But what calls the depth of his theory of mind into question is the manner in which he lies. Last August, I noted that Trump appears to often fabricate interactions with others, which inevitably, as a result of how easily these interactions are fact-checked, causes him to look like a brazen and terrible liar. This is the sort of thing that could happen if you’re not doing a good job of thinking about how other people might react to your words. Not thinking through how your subordinates might react to your behavior can also lead to leaks:
Trump’s theory of mind is either so impoverished, or so easily swamped by short-term desires — wanting people to like him, wanting to appear successful, or wanting to lash out at his enemies — that over and over and over again, he seems unable to realize that when he makes a claim that involves other people, those other people are going to form opinions about that claim and react accordingly.
How else to explain — and here I’m plucking one example from dozens — his decision to say this about James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence, in a tweet on Friday?
Later that very day, Clapper was on MSNBC explaining that no, it was not a fair summary of his past views to claim he had said there was no evidence of collusion. Which is exactly what happens when you put inaccurate words in other people’s mouths! They tend to want to quickly set the record straight. And someone with a solid theory of mind would know that — they would say to themselves not just How will this claim help me out in the short term, but How will the other people this claim involves react to it, possibly bringing me benefits or trouble down the road? Trump seems very limited in his ability to engage in this sort of strategic thinking, which is quite odd for someone chosen to run the most powerful country in the world.
This should no more be taken as a “diagnosis” of Trump’s problems than the narcissism talk — all any of us can do is speculate. But in terms of building a model of who Trump is and how he is likely to respond to both true crises and to the everyday drudgery of being president, the concept of theory of mind, like the concept of narcissism, can be a useful signpost in what feels like a confusing and never-ending blizzard.