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Jan 9, 2021

Trump syndrome or the assimilation bias

One may not think much of Donald Trump, but he seems to be sincere. Sincerity even that of an error is a major part of his appeal. His case is a spectacular example of a particular cognitive deficiency, the inability to accommodate. The basic distinction between assimilation and accommodation is one of fundamental Piaget’s ideas. Assimilation is fitting new knowledge into a pre-existing mental schema, while accommodation is changing the schema to explain the new knowledge. A paranoid mind creates a universal super-schema that is infinitely elastic and can accept almost any volume of conflicting information. To kill your ability to accommodate, accept the following model:

1. I have a unique ability to see the truth.

2. Those who disagree with me are either evil or stupid.

3. Any piece of evidence that contradicts my belief is created by mean people that want to harm me.

The assimilation bias is not unique to Trump, and it is not limited to small children or mentally impaired people. Unfortunately, it is widely spread. The ability to change one’s mind if forced by new evidence is not that common. Millions of Trump supporters are no doubt sincere in their adamant belief that the 2020 election was stolen from them. The reason for that is that assimilation is emotionally painless, while accommodation is never free of cost. Accepting a new cognitive schema almost always involves an admission that you were somewhat wrong before. That implies a certain loss of self-respect. Being right all the time, on the other hand, makes one feel whole. That is what the Trump syndrome is: the assimilation bias fueled by insecurity. Mind cannot be endlessly accommodating; we need schemata to think. But overly rigid schemata weaken our ability to reason and makes our behavior less adaptive.

The problem with the Trump syndrome is other people. A few people disagreeing with you can be easily explained – they just don’t like me and are doing it out of spite. However, when you have a lot of other people disagreeing and presenting conflicting facts, the schema demands more and more elaborate additions and extensions. The overblown rigid schema needs intricate superstructures explaining away the large evil, or large stupidity out there. You really need the notion of a massive conspiracy to hold the whole worldview together. And of course, there is no shortage of conspiracy theories. Without a conspiracy, how would you explain other people?

Thankfully, the assimilatory super-schema is not a stable cognitive construct. It must keep growing to include more and more contradicting pieces of evidence without bursting. The super-schema is powerful, but unstable. It tends to grow more and more absurd branches, like a completely secret conspiracy of tens of thousands of poll workers and country clerks, like the magic ability to create and throw in millions of ballots within hours, like Antifa activists infiltrating the trumpist mob, like over 60 judges, including known conservatives being in on the conspiracy, etc., etc. The more profound is the paranoia, the fewer people around you are willing to share it, and the more “traitors” you will see. Not just Lindsey Graham, or Mitt Romney; even Trump himself is becoming a traitor after his de-facto concession speech. Calling your messiah traitor kills the religion, eventually. The paranoiacs are terrible at building political coalitions.

Because cognition is a profoundly social phenomenon, it includes self-correcting mechanisms. At some point, most people can stop assimilating and start accommodating. They may not abandon their super-schema altogether but will shed some of the most outrageous extensions in order to maintain some socially accepted level of sanity. History shows that mass psychoses almost always recede. Some people believe that the era of social media may present a different situation. I do not think so. The echo chambers of splintered media may slow down the destruction of the Trump syndrome. However, the mechanisms of self-correction are much deeper, they have evolutionary roots. An intelligent species that would be completely susceptible to the assimilation bias would not survive. Well, sometimes it ends with a civil war, but not very often. This shall pass, too.

Instead of vaguely defined and immeasurable “critical thinking,” educators should focus on the assimilation bias. The ability to accept truth even if it is painful is a defining trait of an educated person.

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