Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial

Gut Feeling

When do you trust your intuition?

Posted Jan 11, 2017

Neuroscience shows that much of our mental life is unconscious. Even when we’re thinking things through, we’re usually influenced by unconscious input. I was reminded of this by Meryl Streep’s personal statement at the Golden Globes. She described how disturbed she felt when Donald Trump mocked Serge Kovaleski, who was covering a campaign rally in South Carolina. The reporter’s arm is disabled by arthrogryposis. Here’s Lawrence Downes’ account:

“You ought to see this guy,” Mr. Trump told his audience, flailing his own right arm and hand in the air, making spastic movements, disgracing himself. The act was contemptible, and in a way unbelievable: A future president showing the maturity and schoolyard viciousness of an 8-year-old.

“I still can’t get it out of my head,” Ms. Streep said, “because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”

Mr. Trump’s cruelty triggered gut reactions. His supporters approved, whereas Meryl Streep felt “it sank its hooks in my heart.”

By speaking up, Ms. Streep was confirming a moral principle: A powerful figure with a crowd of followers should not trash someone in order to make himself feel superior. It feels wrong in some gut sense, but also it “gives permission for other people to do the same thing.” That is, the followers could gang up on the target, as in hysterical wars and lynching. She wasn’t just protesting victimization. She understands that “violence incites violence.”

Let’s be clear: This isn’t about political disagreements—we’re talking about behavior. Her reaction reminded me of the security consultant Gavin DeBecker’s book, The Gift of Fear. Often we unconsciously register danger before we recognize and can act on it. We think of it as subliminal or intuition. In slang, someone or something gave you bad vibes. DeBecker’s book coaches readers to sharpen awareness of gut instincts in order to take advantage of that early warning system.

The problem with gut feelings is that you can overreact to false alarms or stall out in paralyzing self-doubt. The problem is acute if your culture works to miseducate you. US media and the NRA goose the cash register by pumping up fantasies of thrilling violence and narrow escape from death. Lifelong exposure to such messages can confuse your gut instincts.

DeBecker wants to train readers to evaluate threats and their own reactions. That means studying what makes interpretation realistic. It needs to be said that realistic interpretation is a crucial skill that often gets scanted. Journalists and lawyers need the skill, but so do parents. So does a public suckered by fake news. In assessing criminals, de Becker works with some familiar social science premises: that violence correlates with poverty, childhood abuse, and threats to self-esteem. As a critic, he works to demystify misunderstanding or denial of those basic premises.

Sometimes he relies on self-help book conventions such as catchy lists and anecdotes about celebrities he's protected from stalkers and kidnappers. But he also marshals substantial theories of violence, drawing on Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death as well as criminologists, feminists, media critics, and child psychologists. 

And what about Meryl Streep? Was her gut reaction realistic? Mr. Trump’s actions and words are well-documented. But what do they mean?

Interpretation looks for patterns and motive as evidence. Some patterns are in plain sight. Mr. Trump is famous for tweeting insults. His reaction to Ms. Streep’s criticism was to trash her as “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood. She is a Hillary flunky who lost big.”

What’s alarming about such insults is that he ignores the problem. Ms. Streep was shocked that he bullied a defenseless target. If Mr. Trump got carried away pleasing his followers, that makes his cruelty even more dangerous. Like the self-defense in his tweeted attack on Ms. Streep, his cruelty aims to hurt, not to rebut an argument. He imagines a fight: he won, she "lost big."

More alarming still, I haven’t found one instance where Mr. Trump has taken responsibility for a mistake. When caught in lies, he brazens it out. His staff and followers insist that he “didn’t mean” what he said. Who knows? What you see over and over is self-serving denial. And as Ms. Streep pointed out, he’s performing. He hides his real values, his business, and tax returns. He attacks, but he keeps himself invisible. When his secretiveness triggers lawful investigations, he howls, "“Fake news – a total political witch hunt!” 

What motivates this vindictive pattern?

Growing up, says Karen Horney, we want to be bigger and more important than we are. If you start inflating your self—believing you’re the flawless top dog—the falsified ideal self may come to crowd out your real self. As it shapes your gut instincts, you can grow up with no sympathy for others, believing that you deserve to dominate or violate them. What's sad and also troubling about such personalities is that the false solutions make them driven but not happy.

When Ms. Streep says that “violence incites violence,” she implies that vindictiveness can infect others like flu. Mocking the disabled reporter, the candidate sounded like the rant broadcasters who pump up followers by attacking political “enemies.” He imitates—and models—a style of partisan thinking based on combat, not problem-solving. Like reality TV, rant style assumes that you can terminate losers and frustrating facts by dismissing them.

Was Meryl Streep right to speak out?

She’s right that the man has extraordinary power to harm others, and he’s been compulsive about it. Gut instinct is warning the majority of Americans who didn’t vote for him but depend on him in office. Even his followers have reason for anxiety since his winner-take-all search for glory can make them expendable too.

Will heartfelt criticism prompt Mr. Trump to change? Hard to tell. For now let’s give Ms. Streep a nod for her courage to be realistic.

Resources used in this essay:

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence (1997).

Lawrence Downes, “Trump, Trapped in His Lies, Keeps Lying. Sad!” NY Times (Jan. 9, 2017).

Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon (Leveller’s Press, 2015)

————, “Killing the Killer: Rampage and Gun Rights as a Syndrome,” in The Interdisciplinary Handbook of Trauma and Culture  (Springer, 2016)

Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth (Norton, 1945).

Amanda Taub, “The Real Story about Fake News Is Partisanship,” NY Times (Jan. 11, 2017).