If you wonder how Donald Trump constantly gets away with destroying the line between fact and falsehood, you are not alone . But if you learn how the president has inadvertently harnessed powerful principles of behavioral science, you'll understand how we are all participating in his alternate reality.
This story begins in the 1890's when Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov noted a curious phenomenon while studying the digestive process in dogs. That dogs salivate at the sight of food was well known--it's a natural (unconditioned) response wired into the dog's physiology.
Something else, though, struck Pavlov that would have far-reaching implications. He observed that his laboratory dogs would also salivate at the sight of the lab assistants who brought them food. This led to his hypothesis that a neutral stimulus (lab assistants) can acquire through association (conditioning) the power to produce the same salivation response as the original unconditioned stimulus (food). This process of shaping and controlling behavior came to be known as classical conditioning.
Pavlov demonstrated how classical conditioning works with his famous experiment in which dogs were conditioned to salivate to the sound of a bell alone after a period of associating the bell ringing with the presentation of food.
Little did Pavlov suspect that his astute observation and simple experiment would launch a new field of behavioral psychology.
But there would have to be more developments in that field to get us to Donald Trump's brainwashing or "mind control" technique.
In the 1920's American psychologist John Watson saw in Pavlov's work the key principle that he believed explained all human behavior. He boldly proclaimed that at birth humans are more or less the same "globs of protoplasm" with no inborn traits or personalities--just empty "globs" waiting to be shaped by parents, society, and other influences in accord with Pavlov's principle of classical conditioning.
"It's nurture, not nature that determines human behavior," Watson declared in a sweeping behavioral manifesto: "Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select -- doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes,even beggar-man and thief."
Watson's theory proved too simplistic to explain all of human behavior. But other behavioral psychologists, including the early pioneers Clark Hull andB. F. Skinner, built on Watson's work and developed more nuanced and complex forms of conditioning that built the field of behavioral and cognitive psychology. Today "cognitive behavior therapy" is among the leading treatments for psychological disorders.
One of the most effective methods behavioral psychologists use to treat fears and phobias is "desensitization." When a psychologist subjects a fearful patient to systematic prolonged and increasingly intense exposure to the object of his fear the person will eventually become "desensitized" to the terrifying experience. Prominent cognitive behavior therapist Dr. Barry Lubetkin offers the example of a person who is afraid of snakes:
"At first, you would introduce the person to superficial non-threatening experiences, like just talking about snakes. Then slowly you might show pictures of snakes followed by some videos that are more graphic and alive. At some point, you would introduce actual snakes and finally inundation with snake experiences resulting in habituation and indifference--eventually, the person stops reacting."
Of course, snake phobia is not an everyday problem that we need to be overly concerned with. More common ones like fear of flying, of public speaking, elevators (a "big one" according to Lubetkin) can impair a person's quality of life. Behavior therapists address these fears with the same principles as illustrated in treating the snake phobia.
So how much does this have to do with Donald Trump? A lot, it turns out. The more I have observed the president's behavior, the more I have concluded that just as psychologists use desensitization to diminish pathological behavior, President Trump has applied the method to normalize pathological behavior. For example, his barrage of "alternative facts" and his constant charges of "fake news" have become so relentless that many no longer react with anger or disbelief. Whether he is doing this unwittingly or intentionally isn't clear, but the results are the same.
To explore this insight further I talked to Dr. Barry Lubetkin, director and founder of The Institute for Behavior Therapy in New York City and author of two important books on treating psychological problems.
I asked Dr. Lubetkin if Donald Trump's propensity to lie, as documented by news media, and his brutal denigration of those who oppose him has harnessed desensitization to normalize these behaviors.
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