The Psychology of Credibility
This article from Talking Philosophy discusses Donald Trump and the psychology of credibility. What do you think about our new President?
During a discussion of Trump’s untruths, a friend of mine expressed the view that all politicians are the same in that they all lie. While it is true that politicians do lie (as does everyone else), there are degrees of dishonesty. To fail to distinguish between these degrees is rather like saying that all criminals commit crimes and that they (and their crimes) are all the same. While there have been other speakers of untruth like Trump, he seems to be unique among the presidents.
While the Bush administration engaged in a campaign of falsehoods to sell the Iraq war, Trump started his presidency by making false claims about the attendance at his inauguration. In what would be regarded as a pathological level of dysfunctionality in a normal person, Trump also made untrue claims about the weather—something that everyone present could observe and something that is an objective feature of reality. Politicians lying to advance an agenda is normal, albeit immoral, political behavior. Lying about crowd size and weather in the face of objective evidence is something new and terrifying.
It could be countered that Trump is not actually lying. After all, lying is different from making an untrue claim. For a claim to be a lie, person must believe the claim they are making is untrue and make that claim with the intention that people will believe it. While there are some benign lies, lies also tend to have a malicious intent behind them. As such, there are various ways Trump could be saying these untrue things without lying. One possibility, which is scarier than his being a liar, is that he believes these untrue things and is thus divorced from basic reality. In other people, this would be regarded as a mental illness. In many other jobs, the inability to recognize what is real and what is not would make a person unfit (readers should feel free to think snarky thoughts about philosophers at this point). Another possibility is that Trump is still operating as an entertainer: he is saying untrue things with a benign purpose, to amuse and entertain the crowd. If so, he is playing the role of the nation’s buffoon, telling outrageous tales in the hopes of a laugh. While there are other alternatives, the main explanations seem to be these three: he is a liar, he is mentally ill, or he is a buffoon. I am, of course, not claiming that any of these are true—these are mere hypothesis presented as a matter of academic speculation. I will leave the analyses to experts in each area.
Whatever the explanation, it is evident that Trump is relentless in his untruths. He and his minions have also engaged in a sustained attack on truth, even going so far as to create the concept of “alternative facts.” While it is tempting to dismiss the lot of them as con artists or victims trapped in the shadows of madness, the fact is that Trump is the president and his people have great influence now. As such, it is impossible to ignore them. However, this does not entail that people need to believe them.
In my critical thinking class, I do a section on assessing claims and credibility. The basic idea is that a claim is assessed in terms of the claim’s content as well as the source of the claim. Assessing a claim’s content involves running it against one’s own observations and checking it against one’s background information. While these checks are fallible, they do generate an assessment of initial plausibility for the claim. Obviously, the more a person knows and the better they are at being critical of their own observations, the better will be their assessments. To use an example, people who were present at the inauguration can check Trump’s untruth against their own observations (as well as recordings of the event) and determine that Trump’s untruth was just that.
Assessing the source of a claim is also an important part of the process, which leads to the question of whether Trump should be considered a credible source or not. One factor in assessing credibility is whether the source is biased or not in regards to the claims being made. While being biased does not prove that a claim is false (this inference would be fallacious), a biased source is more likely to lie because of their bias. In regards to bias, Trump is nothing new: all politicians are biased sources when making claims about their policies and plans. As such, Trump’s claims about matters in which he is biased should be regarded with skepticism. Just like claims from any biased source.
When Trump makes claims about areas that fall under fields of expertise, assessing his credibility is obviously a matter of considering his expertise in the area. This would involve considering the usual factors such as his education, his experience, his accomplishments, his reputation among experts, and his positions.
Trump has a degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, so he is as qualified as others who hold a comparable degree. However, this does not give him much in the way of expertise in other areas, but this could be offset by his experience in his business and being a reality TV show star. However, as he likes to brag, he has no real experience in political office. He also has no experience in other relevant areas, but perhaps he can learn on the job.
He has accomplished various things and certainly made the Trump name into a valuable commodity. However, these do not seem relevant to making claims about such things as immigration, abortion, combating terrorism and so on. But, perhaps he will be able to accomplish things here and thus increase his expertise. In terms of his reputation, he is widely regarded as a non-expert by actual experts in the relevant fields. In terms of positions, this is his first political office—as such, he is rather lacking here.
While previous presidents, like Obama, also started out with deficits in expertise, Trump is the first president to have no experience at all in holding any political office or serving in the military. As such, it is reasonable to regard him as a non-expert when it comes to his current job. While he can make use of the same business expertise that brought the world Trump University and Trump Steaks, government is not the same thing as business, despite this being a beloved talking point. As such, any claims Trump makes about matters outside his expertise (that is, most of his current job) should be regarded as lacking in credibility. At least until he can prove his competence and expertise.
What is most telling against Trump’s credibility is, of course, his relentless spewing of untrue claims. While it would be a fallacious ad hominem to infer that any specific claim he makes is untrue because Trump lies so regularly, his routine embrace of the untrue casts the shadow of doubt over everything he says. As such, any claim Trump makes should be regarded with skepticism and not accepted until adequate evidence is available. After all, a person who lies about something as easy to check as the weather is likely to lie about everything. This lack of credibility fundamentally undermines his moral authority as president: if a leader cannot be trusted to be honest about minor and basic facts, then they certainly cannot be trusted in regards to far more serious matters. And a person that cannot be trusted is not a person fit to be a leader.