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Blaming mental illness for Trump's actions excuses their structural causes

Psychologically deconstructing our president distracts from the need for investment in social and political change.

by Rebecca Seligman /
President Donald Trump on November 15, 2017 in Washington.Joshua Roberts / Reuters
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A year after the election, many of us are still trying to explain how Trump got elected, while also searching for explanations of his often erratic, dangerous and un-presidential behavior. Many have diagnosed Trump from afar with various mental disorders, including antisocial personality, paranoia, sadism, hypomania and especially narcissistic personality disorder.

But as a psychological anthropologist, I know that explaining Trump requires that we look beyond the vagaries of his brain chemistry or socialization, to the social and political structures around him. And though we systematically ignore structural causes for people's behavior in favor of personal ones, I would argue that our current crisis in government has as much to do with how we allow people like Trump to view themselves vis-à-vis the rest of the world as it does with his mental health.

As Americans, we tend to look for causes inside of individuals — meaning that we look for psychological (and more recently neurological factors) to explain people’s behavior, health and illness. The assignment of inner causes for human conduct has a long history in western philosophical thought dating back as far as Plato. That history has contributed to the vast influence of psychological science in our culture and our reliance on psychological explanations and interventions into peoples’ behavior.

There is no question that mental health is a real concern for millions of Americans or that, for some, mental illness is a result of psychological traits and other internal causes, including neuro-genetic predispositions. Yet there is also strong evidence to support the idea that psychological distress can frequently be the result of situational factors like poverty and discrimination, rather than individual traits.

Still, the psycho-centric idea that we can explain, predict, and influence human conduct by focusing exclusively on internal factors rests on a particular understanding of selfhood — one that sees selves as composed of stable, internal characteristics that are predictably linked to behavior regardless of context.

But research by anthropologists suggests that people’s behaviors are actually a result of complex interactions between individual characteristics and context. Anthropologist Claudia Strauss’ classic study with white, working-class American men revealed, for instance, that these men identified strongly with their role as breadwinners for their families — and their decisions and behaviors were strongly motivated by their identification with this social and economic role.

The late psychologist Jerome Bruner argued that we maintain a sense of ourselves as driven by stable inner causes by highlighting the consistencies in our characteristics when we reflect on and tell stories about ourselves. So even though people often feel and behave differently in different settings and in response to changes in social cues, roles and relationships, we continue to believe that we are the same across time and place — which helps us minimize the importance of situational factors in driving our thoughts and behaviors.

And my research, plus that of others, in the field of psychological anthropology shows that this belief in individual, internal characteristics as the primary driver of behavior is particular to American and other western cultures. People from different cultural backgrounds often understand self and personhood more in terms of relationships and situations. A flagship study by psychological anthropologist Rick Shweder of the University of Chicago, for example, demonstrated that the way the Oriya people of India describe one another depends on the particular situation or context: Instead of saying “she is generous,” they say “she gives my family cake on the holidays.”

Our emphasis on inner causes reinforces the idea that what really matters in a person's behavior and choices is individual level factors, rather than the social and political contexts that shape and constrain people’s opportunities. In this respect, psychologically oriented models of selfhood align neatly with neoliberal ideologies, which emphasize personal responsibility for achievement rather than political and economic factors and power dynamics.

So, while psychologically deconstructing our president may be an almost irresistible pastime, it may also have the effect of distracting our attention from other kinds of causes — including an underlying worldview that allows many people to believe that one man could fix our country better than any investment in structural change.

Rebecca Seligman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Anthropology and Global Health at Northwestern University, a faculty fellow at Institute for Policy Research, and a Public Voices Fellow.

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