Trump Has Pushed America Past Its Psychological Limit For Chaos

The brain can only handle so much madness, after all.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

Did you wake up this morning wondering and worrying about how Donald Trump had turned the world upside down again? Though scientists haven’t yet figured out why Trump does what he does, they are revealing why we react to him the way we do.

As Jeb Bush said back during the campaign, Trump “is a chaos candidate and he’d be a chaos president.” True to Jeb’s word, the last couple of weeks have made the White House look like a six-car pileup: Trump fires Comey, threatens him on Twitter, then gives confidential info to a Russian ambassador. Then the New York Times breaks a story where, according to Comey’s memos, it sure does look like Trump tried to block the FBI’s investigation into Michael Flynn, his former National National Security advisor. Wednesday night Reuters reported that the Trump campaign repeatedly contacted Russia, and it’s very likely that something else went up in flames while you’ve been reading this.

If all this makes you wish that the world made more sense, you’re not alone. Indeed, according to University of Maryland psychologist Arie Kruglanski, it’s human nature. Over the course of decades, he’s pioneered a literature around the “need for cognitive closure,” which he defines as “individuals’ desire for a firm answer to a question and an aversion toward ambiguity.” Your brain can only handle so much instability at once, so if Trump is driving you crazy, you’ll try to make the rest of your life extra sane. The more unpredictable things are, the more you’ll be drawn to certainty.

Some degree of certainty is needed to get through the day, Kruglanski says — you need it to make decisions, take actions, eventually decide whether to get the gala or fuji apple (get the fuji). And your need for certainty — and consequential intolerance of ambiguity — has its handprints all over the way you act and what you believe, from the ideas you come up with to the politics you’re attracted to. Recent research indicates that there’s a genetic component — at a biological level, some people need closure more than others — but it’s contextual as well.

When you feel really stressed, your need for closure — for clear, direct explanations and the like — goes up. Kruglanski says that “war, economic turmoil, a barrage of conflicting information on Twitter,” all of these things can drive up a need for closure. For that matter, so can an incoherent presidential interview transcript. Crises and disasters do much of the same, too: experiment participants shown a slideshow of the 9/11 attacks had a higher need for closure than those shown a slideshow about what it’s like to work at Google. After the 2005 terror attacks in London, Kruglanski and colleagues recruited more than one hundred participants and gave them need for closure tests, and there again their need for certainty was high. The more chaos you feel, the more order you need.

That instability, in turn, has a way of hamstringing your decision making. People who are high in need for closure — whether by personality or by context — tend to “latch onto information” that’s accessible to them, Kruglanski says, and the kind of information they’ll seek is the clear-cut, unambiguous sort. Rather than complex explanations, we want simple reasons, since neat, possibly reductive narratives rid you of the mental itchiness that comes along with ambiguity.

Inventiveness and innovation take a hit, too. Being creative requires you to “deviate from everyone’s truisms and shared realities,” Kruglanski says. “It means venturing into the territory of the uncertain and ambiguous.” The most creative people, then, have a low need for closure, and they tend to work in places that do the same — like Google and its legendary emphasis on flexibility. That’s also the danger for a company whose leader is certainty-centric: when employees are only entitled to the boss’s opinion, they’re not generating much in the way of innovation. It’s situational, too: experiments indicate that when people feel a high need for closure — like if they’re under a tight deadline — then they come up with less creative ideas.

Being high in need for closure means that you identify highly with groups, and want everyone to think in the same way and share the same reality. (Consider how conservatives are routinely better at coordinating action than liberals, Kruglanski says.) With their distaste for difference, people high in need for closure tend to reject diversity and the tensions that come with it. Modern history provides chilling examples of high need for closure taken to its toxic, pathological end: when a country experiences existential dread, it creates an opportunity for leaders that give them neat explanations, like Germany after World War II and the rise of Hitler. (Now 78, Kruglanski was a three-year-old boy when the Nazis came to Poland — you can read his story here.) There’s a similar pattern in the rise of populism across world today, he says, from Marine le Pen in France to Jarosław Kaczynski in Poland.

Which brings us back to Trump. Kruglanski sees the intersecting instabilities of Americans contributing to the rise of Trump and Trumpism. The decline in blue collar jobs, the rise of temp work, the teetering of health care, the looming specter of automation, feeling like a stranger in America — all contribute to a generalized feeling of uncertainty for a swathe of the population. Things feel unpredictable, Kruglanski says, and that “privileges ways of thinking that are categoric, black and white, us versus them.” When people are tossed around by uncertainty, his research indicates, they “seize” and then “freeze”: they look for someone who can give them a neat narrative for their woes (it’s the immigrants!) and then fixate on their goodness. You can become completely impervious to conflicting information.

That’s why even with all the chaos Trump’s creating, he’s still got a base of support. “The voters for Trump seem to be completely unflappable and undisrupted by all kinds of inconsistencies and outright falsehoods that seem to be happening in his administration, because they’ve frozen on this point of view, and they brush off whatever information appears to be inconsistent with them,” he says. “His voters remain committed no matter what — that’s a very interesting psychological state, this frozen mind. It’s resistant to information once you’ve congealed this opinion.”

With the wide-ranging effects of uncertainty, Kruglanski says it’s important to be mindful of where the uncertainty lies in your life. If there are parts of life that don’t need much creativity — like, say, washing the dishes — then make that process as regular as possible, so that all that uncertainty might be placed where it’s most useful. To paraphrase Gustave Flaubert, you want to be orderly in your life so you can be original in your work. It suits Kruglanski: “I try to keep my desk very neat,” he says, “in order to be creative in my research.” If that doesn’t do the trick, you could maybe try unfollowing Trump’s Twitter account.

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