How psychology makes sense of Trump’s conspiracy theories

State of (Trump’s) Mind examines the psychology behind statements and actions by the president.

In a now-infamous tweet burst on Saturday morning, President Trump accused former President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower in New York City, where Trump lives and where the Trump Organization is headquartered.

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The spark:

Trump didn’t explain what prompted his tweet storm, but late last week, a conservative radio program and Breitbart News claimed that Obama had wiretapped Trump, without citing any real evidence for the claim. Obama, his former aides, and FBI Director James Comey have denied that any wiretapping took place.

The science:

The president’s embrace of this unsubstantiated idea fits with his history of promoting conspiracy theories unsupported by evidence: His claim that millions of undocumented immigrants voted in the November election, for example, or that Obama was born outside the United States. An extensive body of research has examined the psychological traits of people who believe in conspiracy theories, such as that the CIA caused the AIDS epidemic or that the 2012 Newtown, Conn., school massacre was staged.

“People at the political extremes are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories,” said psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen, of VU Amsterdam in the Netherlands, who has studied such beliefs. “They generally have a high level of distrust of the government and what the powerful are doing.” Like the others experts STAT interviewed, he hasn’t examined Trump and spoke generally about what behaviors such as the president’s might, according to published studies, reveal about the thoughts and emotions driving a person.

Read more: ‘Crazy like a fox’: Mental health experts try to get inside Trump’s mind

Research has also found that conspiracy beliefs are more common among people with certain personality traits. “Agreeableness,” for instance, is defined as being considerate, trusting, willing to compromise, and caring about getting along with others. People who score low on measures of this trait tend to pick fights and see enemies everywhere.

A fragile sense of self-worth also drives people to find causes for their problems outside of their own actions, including in nefarious cabals. When people feel that events are beyond their control and do not have a strong “sense of agency,” meaning the feeling that they are in control of their own fate and can make things happen, conspiracy theories offer appealing explanations for why. One way to restore feelings of agency is to assert that you know what’s going on and others don’t.


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Although it might seem paradoxical for the most powerful man in the world to doubt his ability to make things happen, Trump was infuriated by courts blocking his original immigration ban and reportedly flew into a rage when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation into ties between Trump campaign officials and Russia. A feeling of frustrated powerlessness and a sense that events are spiraling out of control breed conspiracist beliefs, research has found.

“One of the things Mr. Trump finds disquieting about the office of the presidency is that he can’t control it,” said psychologist Dan McAdams of Northwestern University. “It’s not like being CEO of a private, family-controlled company. It drives him crazy that he can’t just lift his hand and say, ‘make this happen.'”

Conspiracist beliefs in the face of setbacks are particularly likely in people who are high in narcissism, the trait that psychologists most commonly see in Trump. When a narcissist’s feelings of personal superiority “are undermined” van Prooijen said, “he looks for a scapegoat.” With someone who “needs to constantly feel that he’s superior to others,” said psychiatrist Dr. Lance Dodes, who is retired from Harvard Medical School and practices in Beverly Hills, Calif., “any challenge will be met with a furious rage reaction. In that state he may very well believe that people are conspiring against him because his emotional experience is that he is being attacked.”

Negative attitudes toward authority make people more likely to believe the worst of the powerful. So does greater cynicism about politics, such as that it is a “swamp” that must be “drained” — as Trump has said — and “exaggerated pride in their country, the idea that theirs is better than all others,” van Prooijen said.

Or, crazy like a fox:

No outsider can know whether Trump’s behavior stems from the psychological factors that researchers infer or from a calculated strategy. In this case, the president had just suffered setbacks such as Sessions’s recusal and continuing obstacles toward the promised repeal of Obamacare. A reportedly infuriated Trump may simply have wanted to redirect the conversation.

And it worked: The Sunday talk shows were filled with discussion of Trump’s wiretapping accusations, not developments in the Russia story.