Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

President Donald Trump

Does Donald Trump Have Free Will?

Neuroscience shows us that Trump's actions may not be choices at all

Forget about obligations and promises to donors, constituents, and special interest groups — there may be a more fundamental, neuroscience-based reason why Donald Trump can’t exercise free will when handling personal choices …or answering debate questions, or making the crucial decisions that will impact our country and shape our future.

Neuroscience shows that we are born with a vast network of synaptic connections which are then eliminated one by one as they lie unused. The pathways that have been activated — one to think of heavier women as “pigs,” for example, or one to think that what people want more than truth is “hyperbole” — are strengthened and remain.

This means that Donald Trump is, to some degree, operating on autopilot from a lifetime of habits and routines.

CC0 Public Domain/pixabay
Source: CC0 Public Domain/pixabay

I don’t say this to excuse his behavior. Only to explain it. Anyone who’s spent time in a kindergarten classroom over the last five years has increasingly heard kids praised for “making good choices,” as teachers shift from enforcing hard-and-fast rules to teaching how to make decisions. But if you follow scientific research, the old philosophical idea that we have free will, promoted by Rene Descartes, has vanished like a mirage in the wake of modern neuroscience.

For example, neuronal recording experiments that map brain activity can detect simple actions, such as pressing a button, before subjects are even conscious that they’ve decided to press it. Those doing neuroscience research are learning that if we can trace brain circuits, we can predict behavior with nearly 100% accuracy.

Yes, you can read that again: 100%

And if the neural pathways that govern our actions aren’t accessible by consciousness, then our choices may not be governed by true free will at all.

There’s been much discussion about Trump attempting to style himself as more presidential in his demeanor, leading up to the election, to ease concerns that he is rash and impulsive in his decision making. Some on the right are hoping that, if elected, Trump will somehow become more measured and dignified once he is elected president. Yet emerging research in neuroscience shows that genetic proclivities, environmental triggers, and past behavior mean Trump’s future choices, should he become president, are already largely predetermined.

Doing the same thing over and over and over again enhances synaptic strength. If, for example, one chooses and is rewarded for racial slurs, sexist comments, and offering verbal abuse in response to perceived slights — even if that reward is mere attention — the impulse will become faster and stronger as more information flows through the circuit.

And this will predispose that circuit to being used in the same way in the future — in other words, the neurophysiology changes and future behavioral choices unconsciously narrow.

The implication is that although we may think of free will as a grocery store full of life choices, in reality, free will is a vending machine, where the most probable choices are ones that have been preselected for us.

With a host of looming domestic and international issues and our country on the verge of the most polarizing election in US history, it seems more important than ever that our next president be able to look at all sides objectively, consider all options, and make the best possible decisions without their personal biases getting in the way. Neuroscience research shows that with Trump, this is unlikely to happen.

In the end, the principles of neuroplasticity suggest Donald Trump does not have much free will. But perhaps we’d do well to recognize that, even as we head out to the polls to cast our vote, neither do the rest of us.

More from Erin Clabough Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today