Which Five Powerful Self-Beliefs Motivate Donald Trump?

You love him or hate him, but do you know what motivates billionaire Trump?

Posted Aug 24, 2015

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Donald Trump
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Understanding motivated behavior minimally requires a conscious awareness of our self-beliefs. These beliefs are not political or religious sentiments and don’t include things such as how you like your eggs cooked, or if you think reading is a more effective learning strategy than watching television. Instead, self-beliefs drive our judgments of personal ability and form the benchmarks we use to assess the quality of the outcomes we achieve.

People have dozens of self-beliefs including appraisal of their overall competency, attributions concerning the reasons for success or failure, and how they see themselves in relation to the external world. Self-beliefs influence the goals we set, the tasks we embrace, the strategies we use, and ultimately what we accomplish.

Billionaire Donald Trump embodies controversy. Some people passionately support him likely because his espoused views closely align with their own beliefs, cultural values, and expectations of a presidential candidate. Others hold Trump in contempt and criticize his brazen statements because they conflict with their ideology and their perception of behavior incumbent of a world leader. I neither endorse nor reject Trump’s qualifications and candidacy. Instead, as an educational psychologist and researcher specializing in motivation, I seek to understand which self-beliefs account for the direction and intensity of Trump’s motivation and political ambition.

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Analyzing beliefs starts with accurate measurement of each belief.  However, measuring self-beliefs is a slippery slope for at least three reasons.  First, many self-beliefs operate automatically, below our direct level of consciousness.  Second, people, even those with a keen sense of self-awareness, often struggle describing the precise meaning of their own beliefs.  Third, many individuals who accurately identify their beliefs are biased by the perceived need to be politically correct and display socially desirable behaviors (excluding  Donald Trump).  Considering the interpretive liabilities of self-reported beliefs, psychologists often turn to observation and lexical analysis as a reliable means to identify the importance, meaning, and intention of written and spoken words. I use this approach below to examine and interpret comments by Mr. Trump during his recent speeches and television appearances.

Trump has elevated, internally-focused control beliefs

The most dominant self-belief is the degree of control we presume to have over the external world. Control beliefs do not imply control over others, but instead describe perceptions of personal agency to produce desired outcomes. Elevated control beliefs are internally focused and infer the individual can reach their desired goals or avoid those goals undesired. Additionally, an internal focus implies personal accountability for achieved outcomes. Diminished control beliefs are externally directed and reflect doubt concerning a person’s ability to reach their desired destiny. Externally-nuanced beliefs often lead people rebuke personal responsibility by ascribing life events and accomplishments to fate, luck, or to factors beyond personal control. 

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When announcing his presidential bid on June 16, 2015, Mr. Trump indicated, “We need — we need somebody — we need somebody that literally will take this country and make it great again. We can do that.”  This remark suggests that Mr. Trump believes that the direction and intensity of his leadership efforts can and will be instrumental in the country achieving “greatness.” While we don’t know precisely how Trump’s definition of greatness aligns with our own, we do know that Trump feels that he is in control of his external world and he believes that he can orchestrate the future success of the U.S.  Trump resonated similar beliefs during an interview with Fox News on July 5, 2015 when he declared “I can never apologize for the truth.”  The use of absolutes such as  the word “never” emphasize the degree of internal regulation demonstrated by Mr. Trump.  While conceptions of truth vary among individuals, Trump has little doubt and strong control over his own ideological convictions.    

Trump displays strong, positive competency beliefs

Competency beliefs include assessments of our overall ability to achieve desired outcomes, and also reflect micro-level assessments of perceived skills and abilities needed to be successful performing a specific task, such as winning a presidential debate.  Individuals will tend to appraise their degree of competence not entirely based upon actual ability and knowledge but will, instead, make personal evaluations based upon presumed competency including the perception of the individual by others.  When individuals believe in their ability they will seek out challenging tasks and show resilience, while doubt instills task avoidance or deferral. 

During his campaign announcement Trump declared when referring to his competitors and President Obama, “This is going to be an election that’s based on competence, because people are tired of these nice people.” Despite Trump’s lack of political experience there is little doubt in Trump’s mind that his prior international business success will be instrumental as an effective world leader. On August 2, 2015 during and interview with Tom Llamas of ABC news Trump was questioned about his debating ability.  He replied, “As far as preparing for the debates, I am who I am. I don't know. I've never debated before. I'm not a debater. I get things done.” Lack of experience does not discourage Mr. Trump because he likely does not believe leadership ability differs based upon job title.  He often accentuates the skill-based nature of competency by making remarks like “I do know what I'm doing, and I don't say that in a braggadocios way." As he did during an August 21, 2015 stadium rally in Mobile, Alabama.

Trump values the motives of fairness and loyalty

Value assessments are grounded in a series of psychological estimations ascribing relative worth to potential outcomes while simultaneously calculating the benefits of avoiding a negative result. Value calculations consider the relative importance a person places on a task, how much an individual subjectively enjoys doing and completing the task, and the perceived usefulness of finishing or mastering the task. By example, if one does not value the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, or finds exercise overly effortful, the person will not consistently exercise.   

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Trump frequently repeats what he values, a process the media refers to as “doubling down,” whereby individuals articulate bold statements and repeat the belief even when criticized or given the opportunity to recant, such as Trump’s views on immigration. On August 18, 2015 on the Fox News show “The O’Reilly Factor” Trump declared “A nation without borders is not a nation, a nation without laws is not a nation, and a nation that does not serve its own citizens is not a nation.”  This statement reflects his strong belief in “nationalism,” meaning that the exclusive interests of the U.S. (not immigrants) should be the defining factor when determining immigration policy.  Trump’s comments also reflect that a closed border policy is integral to national security, which he assesses is of far greater value than providing open access to non-Americans.  Further, Trump values fairness.   On August 2, 2015 Tom Llamas asked Trump about his evaluation of Sarah Palin.  Trump responded “I think Sarah Palin has got the very unfair press. I think the press has treated her very unfairly.” While we don’t know how Trump evaluates Palin’s competency or what he considers fair, we can conclude his position reflects a staunch belief grounded in impartiality and personal equity.

Trump displays a mixed goal orientation

A fourth and highly influential self-belief is “goal orientation,” which represents the alleged purpose for engagement or the reasons why a particular goal is chosen. Typically situated as an explanation of how people approach learning, individuals may elect to pursue personal development goals for appearance purposes based upon favorable comparisons to others, or for the inherent satisfaction of mastering a skill or ability. Appearance goals are often sought as a protective strategy to conceal ability doubts while a mastery approach implies a goal striving grounded in the motive of gaining knowledge to satisfy intellectual curiosity. Goal orientations can be combined to optimize motivation by strategically shifting orientation to appease ego-driven appearance goals while simultaneously satisfying mastery orientations that are related to creativity and innovation.

Trump credits much of his personal style and approach to life to his father.  He indicated in his announcement speech that he “started off in a small office with my father in Brooklyn and Queens…I learned so much. He was a great negotiator. I learned so much just sitting at his feet playing with blocks listening to him negotiate with subcontractors. But I learned a lot.” This view suggest that Trump has pursued his goals with the intention to master whatever domain he encounters, perhaps applying the same logic to his pursuit of the presidency.  Trump is often referred to as the “brash billionaire” because of his gregarious personality and repeated overtures of superiority in comparison to his more experienced political rivals. Perhaps no other quote better represents the Trump enigma than his candidacy proclamation when he declared “Well, you need somebody, because politicians are all talk, no action.”

Trump believes in his ability to change and develop

People usually fall into one of two camps when it comes to evaluating whether or not a person’s intelligence and ability is fixed or changeable. People with simplified views of knowledge acquisition believe there is only one way to solve a problem, typically adhering to an inflexible dogma.  By example, most people are either pro-life or pro-choice, there is little room for a middle-ground position.  Other individuals operate under the presumption that we must evaluate the best available evidence and make informed decisions because knowledge evolves and our views change over time. Similar beliefs apply to intelligence, with people adapting a flexible "incremental" view or, contrariwise, a view that intelligence, like height, is a reality that must be accepted, thus adopting an "entity" perspective.  These types of beliefs are highly revealing of motives because when a person believes that ability is fixed little effort is invested in change because the reality of their existence is accepted.

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Trump has often been chastised for his seemingly unabated criticism of the current administration.  Statements during his campaign launch such as “We have all the cards, but we don’t know how to use them. We don’t even know that we have the cards, because our leaders don’t understand the game” and “one of the early things I would do, probably before I even got in — and I wouldn’t even use — you know, I have — I know the smartest negotiators in the world. I know the good ones. I know the bad ones. I know the overrated ones” clearly suggest the categorization of individuals based upon skill, but also imply a self-belief in the ability to change.  Although these statements are externally directed, Trump displays a conviction that his approach as well as the orientation of others can be modified. Ironically, when commenting upon his own lack of debate experience to Tom Llamas he indicated “I have no idea how I'll do. Maybe I'll do terribly. Maybe I'll do great.”

While the list of beliefs and supporting analysis here is limited, a confluence of evidence from educational, social, developmental, consumer, and marketing psychology suggests that through the examination of self-beliefs, future behavior can be reliably predicted.  Variations in self-beliefs are useful tools to determine the rigor of goal-setting, which strategies are used to achieve goals and how an individual, if at all, will revise their preferred methods upon reflection.  While the business of predicting political behavior is highly risky due to the historical ease of ideological shifts, one thing we do know is that core self-beliefs develop over a life time and are highly resistant to change.  Ask Mr. Trump, I am sure he would be happy to share his opinion!

Dr. Bobby Hoffman is an Associate Professor at the University of Central Florida, specializing in motivation, cognition and learning. If you liked this article follow me on Twitter @ifoundmo and check out the #1 new book in Cogntive Psychology on Amazon "Motivation for Learning and Performance."  Go ahead find your MO!


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