Monday, January 15, 2018

When Trump Denies Lying, Could He Be Telling the Truth?

Mark Graber

[From Dr. Julia Frank, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry]

Like political analysts, psychiatrists are interested  in statements that do not conform to consensual reality, or to put it plainly, lying. Political thinkers parse lies  for their identifiable strategic purpose: to conceal wrongdoing (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman” ) (Clinton, 4/8/2012) or to advance an agenda (“The murder rate in our country is the highest it has been in 47 years” ) (Trump 2/8/1027). Exposing  the truth effectively counters strategic lies.

But how do we understand the reflexive lies, easily and readily disproven, that spew from our president’s itchy twitter finger? Even when the evidence is incontrovertible, he sticks to his version of reality, about everything from the size of his inauguration crowd to his recent denial that he said what he said about Haiti and countries in Africa in front of an audience of US senators.

The question of why people from senators on down so readily accept, forgive and rationalize a leader’s lies is another legitimate focus of political analysis. As someone with professional license to think about non-rational motives for behavior, I am more interested in the question of whether Trump even knows he is lying.

Trump’s behavior is at least consistent with deficient capacity for mentalization. Mentalization is a newish concept in the psychotherapy literature, with implications for understanding socially undesirable and self-defeating behavior of many kinds. Moreover, high status strains the capacity for mentalization, even in those who showed no impairment before being elevated to positions of leadership.

Influential psychologists and psychiatrists define mentalization as the capacity to perceive and understand the difference between inner experience and the experiences of another person. The opposite is belief in an exact correspondence between one’s own mind and the world outside. None of us could live in the world if we did not reflexively credit our perception most of the time, but when experience contradicts perception, mentally healthy people adjust their inner reality to absorb new facts. By contrast, the ability to recognize when material or social reality contradicts perception or belief may be seriously deficient in people across a wide spectrum of mental disorders.

Irony, humility, and self-awareness flourish in the cracks between belief and outside reality. When no space exists, these qualities wither and die.  People with schizophrenia often lack a sense of humor. Therapists know not to try to make jokes when treating someone with a severe personality disorder. Famously unable to display humility, Donald Trump also seems to suffer from a serious irony deficiency, suggesting his capacity for mentalization falls well outside the range of normal.

Diminished capacity for mentalization may help explain how and why Trump lies so shamelessly.  People who cannot perceive the difference between what they believe and the world as it is lie without awareness that they doing so. Even while propounding wild untruths, this lack of awareness makes them seem authentic and sincere. People capable of doubting their own views, by contrast, risk appearing inconsistent or hypocritical. Deficient capacity for mentalization thus fosters a world of principled hypocrites and plausible liars.

Like every other mental quality, the capacity for mentalization presumably results from genetic endowment, modified by experience. Also like every other mental capacity, current circumstances will magnify or suppress whatever traits a person brings to the political arena. Trump’s current role as a leader may reinforce his presumed earlier deficiencies.

When a complex organism, human or otherwise, is threatened or traumatized, a basic, evolutionarily conserved, hard wired neural process narrows attention to focus on cues related to threat.  This process excludes awareness of the context of the threat, or signs of support and security. Arguably, being a leader in and of itself stresses even well evolved capacities for mentalization. High level  leaders, like alpha primates, may be exquisitely attuned to threats to their dominance. In response, they choose their associates to avoid contact with those who might challenge them. Politicians at the highest level even have some capacity to influence reality, at least media representations of reality. Controlling interactions and the flow of information creates a reverberating circuit, in which the leaders’ distorted views come back to them as outside influence, making their distortions ever more inflexible. Understood in this way, Trump may not be lying, at least in the strategic sense, when he denies the truth.

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