The Gullibility of a President-Elect

Factors That Make Donald Trump Easily Duped

Posted Jan 16, 2017

If you asked the average person why public education was created, he or she would likely say “to make it possible for people to work.” But the actual reason was to make people less gullible. The first educational legislation in North America, the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s “Old Deluder Satan Act,” mandated creation of schools in order that citizens could read scripture and thus see through the tempting lies of that great manipulator, the Devil. Today, the emphasis is more likely to be on preparing students to participate as voters in a democracy than to be religious congregants, but gullibility prevention still plays a central role, as being an effective citizen requires, to paraphrase a saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln, that citizens become “people who cannot be fooled all of the time.”

In discussing Donald Trump in relation to gullibility, the emphasis has usually been on him as the duper, as in his campaign’s successfully portraying Hillary Clinton as a person of defective, even criminal, character, when compared to himself. But people who tell lies also can believe lies, and the telling of lies can be even more effective when the liar believes the literal truth of the lies that he or she is telling. Much has been made of Donald Trump’s penchant for lying, and this is usually pointed to as a sign of a flawed character. That certainly is a big part of the equation (a need to be always truthful—a need the new president seems to lack-- is a universally-cited virtue), but an overlooked aspect of Donald Trump’s make-up is that he strikes me as unusually credulous (unable to tell truth from fiction) and gullible (ease with which one can be duped).  

One of the best examples of Trump’s credulity and gullibility can be found in his continuing to assert for a long time that the Russians had nothing to do with the hacking or leaking of the emails of the Democratic National Committee and of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, even after substantial evidence—and the unanimous assurances of US intelligence agencies—strongly indicated otherwise. Finally, after much criticism from prominent members of his own party, and being shown evidence by intelligence agency heads, Trump made a begrudging admission of some Russian involvement, while continuing to put much of the blame on the Democrats, to take shots at intelligence agencies, to assert (without citing any evidence) that others likely also did some of the hacking, and to point out—as if it constituted evidence—that Putin continued to assert his government’s innocence. Using the four causative factors in my model of gullibility (and the broader model of foolish [risk-unaware] action), I shall attempt to explain how it is that the leader of the Free World can be so easily duped on a matter where the truth seems overwhelmingly to be other than what he claims it to be. For space reasons, I shall focus only on the Russian hacking example, but it is an example of a more general (and troubling) tendency.  

Situational Factors Contributing to Trump’s Gullibility  

Gullibility almost always starts with a lie told by one or more people with an agenda, and what makes the dupe gullible is his or her being taken in by the duper(s). In the case of Donald Trump, it is possible that such situational pressures play a role less in inculcating a belief and more in reinforcing an already held or expressed belief. Knowing the role of others in the forming or reinforcing of Trump’s beliefs about the Russians is, of course, complicated by the fact that any conversations with advisers or others who might have a pro-Putin agenda were held in private and likely will never be divulged. We know, however, that Trump is close to several individuals with strong business ties to Russia and that some of his overseas projects have received funding from Russian financiers. It is very possible, therefore, that Trump’s belief in the truth of Putin’s denial of the hacking allegations is due in part to the opinions expressed by others in his inner circle. An August 2016 op-ed in the Washington Post (washingtonpost/is-trump-being-duped) listed the names of eight close Trump advisers (including incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn) with strong Russia ties, and raised the possibility that “they are leading their candidate, repeatedly revealed to be a foreign policy ignoramus, around by the nose to adopt a pro-Russia policy …”  Nevertheless, situational factors likely play a smaller role in explaining Trump’s gullibility (at least in the hacking example) than is the case with most other gullibility scenarios and gullible individuals.     

Cognitive Factors Contributing to Trump’s Gullibility  

In his best-seller “Thinking Fast and Slow,” psychologist Daniel Kahneman (winner of a Nobel Prize in Economics for work done with his late colleague Amos Tversky) described two modes of thinking: “system 1,” which is fast and intuitive, and “system 2” which is slower, deliberative and more logical. System 1 thinking is much more likely to result in invalid judgments and bad decision-making, while system 2 thinking is much more likely to result in valid judgments and good decision-making. Donald Trump is someone who operates most of the time in the realm of system 1 thinking. Such thinking is influenced by cognitive biases, which are algorithms (cognitive short-cuts, driven both by laziness and emotion) that result in faulty beliefs and irrational (i.e., unfounded) judgments of reality.

Here are some of the cognitive biases that are habitually exhibited by Donald Trump: “ambiguity effect” (a tendency to assume that any degree of ambiguity makes a phenomenon, no matter how probable, seem unsupported); “attentional bias” (a tendency for perception to be affected by recurring thoughts); “availability heuristic” (a tendency for estimation of likelihood to be influenced by what is most available in one’s memory and emotion) and “availability cascade” (a tendency for a belief to be strengthened if it is repeated a lot); “backfire effect” (a reaction to disconfirming evidence by strengthening one’s previous belief); “belief bias” (a tendency to evaluate the strength of an argument based on its congruence with what seems believable to oneself); “bias blind spot” (an inability to reflect on one’s own biases);  “conjunction fallacy” (a tendency to assume that specific conditions are more probable than general ones);  “confirmation bias” (a tendency to attach more importance to information that confirms one’s preconceptions); “focusing effect” (a tendency to place too much importance on one aspect of an event) and “Dunning–Kruger effect” (a tendency for unskilled individuals to overestimate their own ability). There are other cognitive biases that contribute to irrational thinking but the above biases seem especially characteristic of Donald Trump, and have obvious relevance in explaining his resistance to any information that contradicts his view of Russia and Putin. An additional cognitive contributor to gullibility is content ignorance, which in this case would be Trump's extremely limited background knowledge of international affairs and diplomatic history. In the absence of content knowledge, gullibility obviously has more room to operate.

Personality Factors Contributing to Trump’s Gullibility  

One useful way of thinking about personality is in terms of the 16 basic needs contained in the “Reiss profile,” developed by psychologist Steven Reiss. People differ in terms of the shape and intensity of their needs profiles. Donald Trump is very high on some of these needs (e.g., need for attention, need for vengeance, need to collect) and very low on some others (e.g., need to be nice, need to avoid risk, need for social justice, need for friends) but two needs are especially useful in explaining his gullibility: need to be curious (low) and need for independence (high). For a man who attended an elite university, Trump is unusually low in intellectual curiosity, which translates to a lack of motivation to seek the truth or falseness of assertions, including examining the possibility that his (or someone else’s) beliefs might be wrong. Ironically, Trump’s high need for independence, which in some circumstances might cause him to be non-gullible, in the context of the Russian hacking matter might cause him to be more gullible, such as in rejecting opportunities (as from intelligence briefings) intended to increase his knowledge. Believing that one knows more than experts who have spent years immersed in a topic is hardly a formula for non-gullibility. One striking sign of Trump’s need for independence is his apparent belief that his intuitive opinions alone provide a valid basis for approaching complex problems.  

Affective and State Factors Contributing to Trump’s Gullibility  

Optimal cognitive functioning, particularly system 2 (deliberative) thinking, is most likely to occur when one is in a calm, rested and attentive condition. Donald Trump has major difficulties in self-regulation (expressed in concerns expressed even by supporters about his “temperament”) and these undoubtedly contribute to gullibility and other “foolish” (risk-oblivious) behaviors. Former colleagues have attested to Trump’s extreme difficulty in maintaining an attentional focus, and mental health experts are almost unanimous in opining that he exhibits strong signs of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), a form of learning disability likely reflecting subtle brain impairment. Another contributor to problems of self-regulation likely stems from the fact that he claims to get by on only 3 to 4 hours of sleep per night, and exhibits many of the signs (irritability, perseveration, intemperate comments) of chronic sleep deprivation. This is reflected in the fact that most of Trump’s bizarre tweet storms typically occur very early in the morning when he likely is exhausted and has been ruminating for a while in bed. A major affective contributor to Trump’s gullibility is his tendency to have strong positive or negative feelings about a person or event based on whether it reflects well or poorly on his inflated and (more importantly) fragile self-esteem. Thus, Putin is someone to be praised and defended because he has said good things about Trump, while those who present opinions contradicting his own are viewed as enemies and are disparaged and disbelieved. Contributing to this position is Trump’s concrete belief that admitting to Russian hacking is equivalent to admitting that he did not really win the election.     


Effectiveness in a president, or any leader, requires an ability to determine truth based on objective reality rather than whether it conforms with a preferred view of reality. American and world history is replete with disastrous policies (an example is the invasion of Iraq) based on beliefs (Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction) that turned out to be untrue. The persistent belief by Donald Trump in Russian claims that they did not engage in electronic hacking of his opponent, even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence, can be considered an example of gullibility. External (situational) pressures likely played some role, but there is no doubt that three internal (cognitive, personality and affective/state) factors were the major contributors. These worked in combination, and it is not possible to know exactly how much weight to attach to any given factor or sub-factor. But there is no doubt that Donald Trump has a tendency towards credulity and gullibility, and that this tendency puts both the country and himself in peril.

Copyright Stephen Greenspan

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