Donald Trump considers himself the best president in history, saying things like:
“A lot of good things are happening. Really good things. We’re very proud of the job we’ve done.” (Washington Examiner)
“I think we’ve done more than perhaps any president in the first 100 days.” (Washington Examiner)
“I’d give us an A.” (Washington Examiner)
“We have had tremendous success, but we don’t talk about it.” (AP)
“I’ve passed a lot of legislative bills that people don’t even know about.” (Washington Examiner)
With big projects failing, from the travel ban to health care reform, and hundreds of government positions unfilled, many disagree with this sentiment. Because of the ideas in which he believes, Trump’s narcissism is hardly a surprise, but points to a bigger problem.
Why does Donald Trump overemphasize his success as a president?
“Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest — and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure. It’s not your fault.” Donald Trump on Twitter
The reason why Donald Trump, the East German leaders, and every other destructive government in history overestimated their goodness is a well-documented psychological effect called the self-serving bias. The self-serving bias tricks us into interpreting the world in our favor. We overemphasize our skills, talents, and contributions while underemphasizing our failures, problems, and mistakes.
Studies have proven the self-serving bias many times. In one study, 86 percent of the subjects considered their job performance as above average and only 1 percent as below average. In another test, the majority of all subjects assessed themselves as above average on 38 of 40 questions, for example regarding their driving skills or their qualities as a partner. Both results are unrealistic. We can’t all be above average – the numbers of people who are above and below average are roughly the same. Many respondents in these surveys overvalued their skills.
As we experience the world around us, every new experience causes inner chatter in our minds, modifying the experience, distorting our sense of what is going on. We constantly interpret and reinterpret the world, changing our definitions of good and bad, remodeling every situation multiple times, adding new layers of meaning and interpretation that were nonexistent in the original situation. This type of self-talk creates the world we experience. Our final conception of reality, including the challenges we face and the best way to deal with them, is self-made and highly subjective; it is filtered not only through our opinions, desires, and hopes, but also our prejudices, misconceptions, and fears.
We can find self-serving biases in all areas of our lives. We think that our friends, beliefs, values, etc. are inherently better than the friends, beliefs, values, etc. of others. This bias causes such strange effects as the mere ownership effect — test subjects evaluated the worth of an object higher once they owned it. We also prefer products, stocks, and cities that resemble our names. People named Chris are more likely to prefer Coca-Cola over Pepsi than the average person, and people named Paul are more likely to live in St.Paul.
The self-serving bias threatens to divide any society into multiple groups that each overvalue what is associated with them and devalue everything else. Each group wants to use the government to force its beliefs on others, which leads to destructive consequences. To prevent this development, the government must have a built-in mechanism that keeps it constructive despite the self-serving bias’s tendency to create rivaling groups.
|Stage 1: Factual statement
|Stage 2: Self-serving bias
|Stage 3: In-group/out-group bias, adaption to macro level
|Stage 4: Result
|Stage 5: Action
|I associate this moral with me.
|Because I associate this moral with me, it is better than all other morals.
|Everybody who associates with the same moral as me must be superior to those who do not associate with this moral.
|If they do not associate with our moral, they must be evil.
|Because they are evil, we must fight them.
The self-serving bias also influences the politicians in a government. They, too, believe that their values and ideas are the only tools that solve problems. Destructive governments institutionalize the self-serving bias, motivating politicians to strive for more and more unchecked power to enforce their personal beliefs on the people. While their actions are driven by the desire to do good, they cause division and increasing resentment.
The self-serving bias leads to more biases that affect the thought process of destructive governments. Here are the ten most significant. For a detailed list with longer explanations on every bias and study examples, see chapter 4 in my book The Theory of Moral Duality.
1. The in-group/out-group bias
The in-group/out-group bias causes us to overvalue everyone and everything that belongs to our group and undervalue everyone and everything that belongs to another group. To test the in-group/out-group bias, researchers at the California Institute of Technology divided a random selection of people into two groups. They then asked each person to distribute different goods. Even though the subjects knew nothing about each other and had no logical reason to favor some subjects over others, most awarded people from their group more goods than people from the other group. They favored other members of their group solely because they were in the same group.
A destructive government enables the in-group/out-group to unleash its full negative potential by empowering it with an army, a legal system, and a police force. First, the elevation of a moral goal forces the people to divide the world into us, who abide by this moral and them, who do not. Then, the self-serving bias tricks the people into thinking that their moral is superior to any other moral, and, consequently, that they are superior to anyone else because they have declared this moral to be their society’s guiding principle. This institutionalized self-serving bias leads to domestic and international conflicts.
2. The confirmation bias
“Fox treats me well; it’s that Fox is the most accurate.” (AP)
In any political discussion, all sides are usually absolutely convinced that the evidence supports their point of view. This conviction is a result of the confirmation bias — the tendency to seek and find evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirming evidence.
3. The hindsight bias
The hindsight bias defines the human tendency to reconstruct the past to fit with new found knowledge. Destructive governments introduce the hindsight bias into politics. Whenever there is a problem in the society, the hindsight bias will cause leaders to think that they once had the perfect solution. Blind to their biases, the politicians’ subconscious minds invent a reason to explain why they allowed a problem to occur even though they (falsely) believe that they could have prevented it. The subconscious will point to a person or a group that sabotaged the government’s perfect plan.
4. The self-justification bias
“Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.”
The self-justification bias describes “the tendency to rationalize decisions after the fact to convince ourselves that what we did was the best thing that could have been done.” After we make a decision, we selectively focus on the information that confirms our decision as the best possible way of action and ignore everything else. The hindsight bias causes the government to attribute all of society’s problems to a select group or multiple groups of people. The self-justification bias causes the government to think too highly of its actions. This combination widens the perceived gap between the goodness of the government and the threat of the groups that it holds responsible for society’s problems.
5. The attribution bias
“Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly.”
The attribution bias defines our “tendency to attribute different causes for our own beliefs and actions than that of others.” When someone we like acts well, we attribute their actions to who they are; when they act in a way we of which we disapprove, we attribute their actions to circumstances. Vice versa, when someone we dislike acts well, we are sure that this action is the result of circumstances, but when their actions meet our disapproval, we are quick to attribute this to a deep personal flaw. Destructive governments do the same thing. As soon as they have convinced themselves that a certain group is responsible for society’s problems, this group is incapable of escaping its fate as the villain. Whatever this group does, it will always be a confirmation of their bad character and inherently evil nature. Positive action will be attributed to circumstance, negative actions to who these people are. Over time, the attribution bias will convince the government that these people are inherently bad and evil. The government will act more and more repressively and eventually use violence against this group.
6. The false consensus bias
“It’s great when everybody can agree.” (Washington Examiner)
The false consensus bias defines “the tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with their beliefs or will go along with them in a behavior.” The false consensus bias tricks a Hobbesian government into thinking that more people agree with its decisions and goals than actually do. Consequently, the government underestimates the negative effects of imposing its decisions on all people. When large groups disagree with the government, it will be honestly surprised and unable to reasonably explain this disagreement, suspecting sabotage and the influence of an evil group. Spurred on by its biases, the government will invent a villain to hold responsible for the lack of absolute consensus. Equipped with unlimited power, the government will act against its people and become the real villain.
7. The illusion of control
“It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles. … I think I know most of it anyway.”
“The tendency for people to believe that they can control or at least influence outcomes that most people can’t control or influence.” The illusion of control will cause a Hobbesian government to pursue unachievable goals. When it fails, the other mental biases will trick it into believing that it has been sabotaged and must act against the group of people it holds responsible.
8. The not-invented-here bias
“I’m speaking with myself, No. 1, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things. … My primary consultant is myself.”
“The tendency to discount the value of a belief or source of information that does not come from within.” The not-invented-here bias will cause a Hobbesian government to discard all possible solutions that come from outside the government, which inevitably will lead to conflict with the people who propose these solutions.
9. The generalization bias
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists… And some, I assume, are good people.”
“The tendency to assume that a member of a group will have certain characteristics believed to be representative of the group without having actual information about the particular member.” Once a Hobbesian government considers a single person evil, it will quickly expand this assessment to all other people whom it considers to be in the same group. It will then act against every single member of this group. By creating groups, the generalization bias delivers the basis for the in-group/out-group bias. It also ensures that a Hobbesian government continues to commit human rights violations once it has eliminated the people it originally considered a threat.
10. The bias blind spot
The bias blind spot is a consequence of all our other biases: we are quick to see how someone else’s opinion is influenced by mental biases but are blind to our own. We overestimate the purity of our beliefs and think we are entitled to force them on others. The bias blind spot will cause a Hobbesian government to think that it can force its own, presumably pure beliefs on those who disagree.
Why is the overblown self-confidence of destructive governments dangerous?
“I think we’ve set some incredible foundations going onward, with relationships, with other countries, etcetera, etcetera.” (Washington Examiner)
What happens when destructive leaders and governments believe to be white knights fighting infinitely evil threats? This way of thinking changes how they approach politics, handle critics, and think of the people.
Because of their mental biases, destructive governments do two things:
- Destructive governments are blind to the bad they do, and
- Destructive governments overestimate they good they do.
Let’s further develop each of these points.
Destructive governments are blind to the bad they do
“Have you seen the tremendous success? … That’s another thing that nobody talks about. Have you seen the tremendous success we’ve had in the Middle East with the ISIS?” (AP)
The self-serving bias causes destructive governments to ignore the bad they do or reevaluate it as a necessary evil that creates more good than bad.
In the GDR, politicians ignored that they imprisoned political opponents, secretly surveilled their entire population, denied their people the right to freely travel, even to meet their family in the West. In their minds, all these actions were necessary defenses against an infinitely evil threat that only hurt a few misguided people while helping the good majority to stay on the right path.
When Donald Trump talks about laws that would rob millions of people of their health insurance, children of illegal immigrants of their future, and Muslim mothers of the right to stay with their children at the airport, he is similarly blind to the negative consequences of his actions. Because he believes to be the white knight fighting an infinitely evil threat, he considers everything he does just.
Destructive governments overestimate the good they do
“Not since Harry Truman has anybody done so much. That’s a long time ago.” (Washington Examiner)
The self-serving bias causes destructive governments to consider every positive development as their own great victory over the infinitely evil threat. Since they believe that there is something that wants to destroy their society, all that remains intact must be their accomplishment.
In East Germany, the newspapers were filled with positive news. Even though the economy was decades behind Western standards, every day allegedly brought the victory of socialism closer, if you believed the papers. Politicians were quick to congratulate each other on small victories while losing focus on the bigger dynamic – the decline of the East German economy, the low standard of living, and the suffering of the people. Since politicians attributed all problems to Western sabotage, they took immense pride in providing the people with a few bananas every year along with an outdated car for which they had to wait two decades. Compared to the infinitely evil threat the politicians believed they fought, even a life of deprivation seemed like a good thing. Those people who captured reality without the heavy distortion of a destructive idea recognized the insanity of this worldview and eventually peacefully overthrew the government.
When Donald Trump claims that every company that opens a factory in the U.S. did so because of him, he makes a similar mistake. In his view, China is an infinitely evil threat that wants to steal all American jobs, Muslims want to kill all Americans, and even the American allies only want our money. When reality turns out even slightly better than this prediction, Trump must believe that his actions were responsible for the supposed great victory.
How can we avoid the destructive effects of our mental biases?
We are incapable of completely overcoming our mental limitations. Biases such as the self-serving bias or the confirmation bias affect every one of us, and there is nothing we can do to eliminate them. We can only limit their influences on our lives. Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, writes:
“Perhaps the best we can do is to practice attributional clarity by assuming that other people are generally just as accurate and honest as we (…) and that our perceptions are as likely to be distorted as theirs. In this way, we can live more easily with the fact that we may disagree with other people in our interpretations of events without necessarily assuming that we are right and they are wrong.”
Leary’s point is that there is no single right set of beliefs. Our tendency to elevate our beliefs, ideas, and morals over all alternatives is the result of the self-serving bias and not an accurate assessment of reality. Unfortunately, there is no sense in relying on politicians to honor this maxim. Equipped with sufficient power, their mental biases drive even the most amiable of them to force their will on others.
The responsibility for preventing politicians from extending their power too far lies with the people. Proponents of destructive ideas always develop narcissistic traits, calling for more and more unchecked power to fight their perceived infinitely evil threats. The first step to avoiding these ideas is to not take the bait.
Democracies provide us with the tools to elect politicians who have ideas that will avoid the destructive dynamics that erode a government. The Theory of Moral Duality helps to distinguish these ideas from the destructive counterparts. That is all we need to make good voting decisions.
- Our mental process is flawed and error-prone. The most notorious mistake is the self-serving bias, a mental error that causes us to interpret reality in a way that confirms our beliefs and enhances our qualities and contributions. The self-serving bias leads to many more biases that affect how we interpret reality.
- Politicians suffer from the same biases as everyone else. Those who believe in destructive ideas will consider themselves white knights that can do no wrong in the fight against an infinitely evil threat, which inevitably leads to a narcissistic attitude. Equipped with too much power, they will act against their own people, considering many of them part of the evil threat and trying to eliminate them.
- To prevent the self-serving bias from infecting a government, the people must limit the government’s power. Destructive ideas always demand more power and fewer checks and balances, and we must resist these calls.
 Michael Shermer: The Believing Brain (2016), p. 305.
 Shermer: The Believing Brain, p. 309.
 Shermer: The Believing Brain, p. 311.
 Shermer: The Believing Brain, p. 324.
 Shermer: The Believing Brain, p. 324.
 Shermer: The Believing Brain, p. 324.
 Shermer: The Believing Brain, p. 325.