It is easy to look at other people and see their “Inner Trumps.” When I flip through Facebook and find a headline such as “Liberal Snowflakes Cancel Another Play,” I can tell that the person is acting in a divisive and generally unhelpful way.
Of course, the meme about how entitled baby boomers are is simply funny, not alienating. And the “Maybe we should add pumpkin spice to racism so white women will care” sign I saw was so clever! It’s an issue of free speech, not divisiveness.
I tried to draw attention to some double standards in my last column and I’m doing that again. We all hold ourselves and our own beliefs to different standards than we do the beliefs of people we don’t identify with. As another example, entire nations, including ours, were bystanders to the Holocaust. But I would never do that. If I had been in that situation, I would have done something about it. A nation of people were bystanders to the horrors of U.S. slavery. If I were alive at that time, I would have been one of the few people who risked my life for that cause. There’s no way I could ever be complicit in a horrible injustice like that . . . could I? I don’t have it in me . . . do I?
Psychology says yes, I do. We all do.
In 1963, Stanley Milgram recruited 40 normal people and told them to deliver electric shocks to a participant. The shocks increased from “0” to “Danger” to “XXX,” and the other participant, who was in on the experiment, gave out shouts of pain and eventually fell silent as if seriously hurt. At the prompting of an authority figure, all of those normal people delivered the “Danger” level of shock, and 65 percent of them delivered the “XXX.”
In the famous Stanford Prison Experiment which began in 1971, Philip Zimbardo gave 11 normal college students nearly unrestricted authority over 10 others in a mock prison environment. The students in the “guard” role started harassing the students in the “prisoner” role on the first day, and by the sixth day several “prisoners” had broken down crying from humiliation and harassment. The “guards” and Zimbardo assumed their roles completely and an outsider had to threaten to call the police to stop the experiment.
Professor of Psychology Frank McAndrew — don’t worry, he hasn’t done any intensely unethical experiments that I know of — once gave me a comment on the selfishness of human nature. McAndrew is an evolutionary psychologist, which means he studies how natural selection has shaped the person via the brain. In a social psychology class, he pointed out that most of what I think of as “virtues” are maladaptive traits, or at least they have been for most of animal history. If I forgive someone, especially if I do it quietly in my heart even though they’re not sorry, they are likely to harm me again. If I am generous with my resources, I risk going hungry myself. Helpfulness is only adaptive if the organism I help is in my in-group where they are likely to help me in the future.
Most of the human brain is similar to that of other animals, concerned with the survival needs of the individual organism. Only a small, evolutionarily recent portion of the brain processes the abstract concept of morality. This reflects what Sigmund Freud originally theorized about the id, ego and superego. The id, which is most of the person in Freud’s psychodynamic model, is monstrous and cares only for its own pleasure. The ego is little better, caring for the individual’s survival. Only the superego cares about what the society needs to survive.
From this perspective, the divisive and selfish thing inside is not just powerful. It is natural, backed by millennia of ancestors who survived because they protected themselves and those in their in-group at the expense of others if necessary.
If Milgram, Zimbardo, Freud and Frank have not convinced you of the pervasive nature of the Inner Trump, it might be more worthwhile to examine the countless wars and genocides in human history. No group is immune to strife because no individual is immune to the Inner Trump.
So, then, what does overcoming the Inner Trump look like? Is it even possible? Maybe. I’ll write more on that later. For now, just know, everyone has an Inner Trump.