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Will We All Just Get Used to Trump?

Habituation, apathy, and America’s future

The White House, public domain.
Source: The White House, public domain.

There’s no doubt that Donald Trump’s first two weeks in office have been eventful. His rapid-fire signing of executive orders has ignited outrage among many. The president temporarily froze immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries and halted incoming refugees, authorized a U.S.-Mexico border wall, and revived the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, among many other actions. He fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates and pushed the nomination of her proposed replacement, Jeff Sessions, through the Senate Judiciary Committee. He even had a heated phone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a refugee policy President Obama had agreed to with that country, where, according to some reports, Trump ended the call abruptly.

In the midst of these actions, the Gallup Organization reported Tuesday that Trump’s disapproval rating has risen to 52 percent, with his approval rating only arriving at 43 percent.

All of this has led many liberally-minded writers to opine that Trump’s days in office are numbered and to predict that the American public will grow increasingly sick of him. Calls for impeachment abound, with some predicting that the president’s eventual ousting is inevitable.

All of this assumes that people will become increasingly sensitized to Trump’s actions—that his barrage of executive orders, controversial appointments, and inflammatory statements will somehow psychologically build up, making people more and more angry and likely to resist his actions.

But the human brain may not work that way.

One of the oldest and most predictable phenomena observed by psychologists is habituation. Noted by scientists since at least the early 1900s, habituation is the tendency of almost all organisms—from amoebas to human beings—to cease to respond to a stimulus after it has been repeated over and over. This is why we become inured to violence on TV. Gruesome scenes simply become less frightening over time. It’s also why we become bored of jokes when they’re told repeatedly.

This tendency makes sense when examined from an evolutionary standpoint. Human beings (and all other animals, for that matter) have a limited capacity to pay attention. If our attention is gripped by one thing, we’re likely to miss others, which wouldn’t have been very conducive to survival 200,000 years ago when our species emerged. An early human whose attention was distracted each and every day by the colorful flowers growing outside his or her cave would have been less likely to notice the added presence of an animal predator on one of those days. Even in our modern world, it’s good for us to habituate to repeated instances of the same (or nearly the same) thing. With the growing din of potential distractions around us, it would be impossible to focus otherwise.

But habituation is also the explanation for the old anecdote about boiling a frog. According to legend, if you throw a frog suddenly into a pot of boiling water, it will jump to safety. But, if you continuously turn up the temperature, the frog will allow you to cook it to death. It simply gets used to the increasing heat.

In a recent tweet occasioned by the political heat generated by Trump’s first days in office, his counselor Kellyanne Conway wrote, "Get used to it.”

That’s exactly what might happen.

Unlike past administrations that took controversial actions occasionally, with enough time between for the public to recover, the current White House does so continuously, on a seemingly minute-to-minute basis. Such repeated events create the perfect conditions for habituation to occur. Many of us have already heard friends say that they tune out the news rather than become overloaded or agitated. Regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum, most of us can agree that, when large numbers of people "tune out,” this is detrimental to the goal of an informed citizenry that a thriving democracy requires.

Though it's considered one of the most reliable phenomena in the field of psychology, habituation is far from inevitable. That’s because we’re not frogs. It’s true that habituation exerts a large and often unconscious force upon human behavior. We become inured, numb, and apathetic awfully easily. But, as creatures with big brains and sophisticated cognitive capacities, habituation is only one of many countervailing forces occupying our cranium.

Unlike frogs, we have values, convictions, and ideals that, although too often easily set aside, we’re capable of using to animate and enliven our behavior. But values are conscious in a way that habituation is not. In order to act according to our deepest beliefs, we have to do so intentionally. This involves consciously resisting our genetically programmed urge to tune out, to hunker down, and to ignore the prevailing political discourse.

Taking issue with the ease of boiling a frog, Harvard biology professor Douglas Melton once said, "If you put it in cold water, it will jump before it gets hot—they don't sit still for you.” In a democracy, engaged citizens may not sit still either.