Bahador Bahrami: In the course of Donald Trump’s rise to pow­er, peo­ple have repeat­ed­ly been ask­ing, Why did he tweet that? What was he think­ing about?” Our fas­ci­na­tion with his men­tal states high­lights a very impor­tant ques­tion for us: What hap­pens in our minds and brains when we try to influ­ence oth­ers?

This is a very com­mon prob­lem. Imagine Granny Smith and her two grand­chil­dren Max and Moritz. Granny is look­ing for a new phone, and Max and Moritz know that who­ev­er makes a bet­ter impres­sion will have a bet­ter chance in the granny’s will.

But, just like in life, Max and Moritz are not equal. Max is the favorite, and Moritz is the under­dog. So our ques­tion, we can rephrase it in terms of, giv­en their dif­fer­ences, how would they go about per­suad­ing the granny?

So one pos­si­ble strat­e­gy for Moritz is to be com­pet­i­tive. That means we might be rad­i­cal and offer very strong opin­ions when we think we are the under­dog. We have noth­ing to lose, and we might as well risk every­thing. In such a sit­u­a­tion, what Max has to do on the oth­er hand is to main­tain the sta­tus quo.

The alter­na­tive strat­e­gy is to be defen­sive. We ran a study in our lab to com­pare these. Groups of three peo­ple came to our lab and were stud­ied in the course of a client/advisor game. The client is look­ing for buy­ing a lot­tery tick­et but doesn’t know which one to buy. And the advi­sors have pri­vate infor­ma­tion and can advise the client.

But they go into three sep­a­rate rooms. And they believe that each one has been giv­en the role of the advi­sor and the oth­ers, one of them is the client and the oth­er one is the rival. But all three of them are actu­al­ly advi­sors play­ing against a com­put­er.

The results showed that peo­ple indeed do fol­low the com­pet­i­tive strat­e­gy. Every time they are in the posi­tion of Max they offer a con­ser­v­a­tive opin­ion, which is the blue line. And every time they are in Moritz’ posi­tion they offer strong advice. They go rad­i­cal.

But we also found that anoth­er impor­tant fac­tor plays a very impor­tant role, and that is social com­par­i­son with your rival. What we found in the results is that peo­ple real­ly care about how well they are doing com­pared to their rival and not just how much influ­ence they have over their client. What the next slide will show is that peo­ple are dis­tinc­tive­ly vocal when they think they have done bet­ter than their rival but they have been unfair­ly ignored by the client. And that’s that tri­an­gle up there.

So, in order to see what hap­pens in the brain, we con­duct­ed the same exper­i­ment in an fMRI scan­ner in order to see if we could trace the sig­na­tures of sim­i­lar psy­cho­log­i­cal process­es in the brain response.

What we found was that the human pari­etal cor­tex on the right hemi­sphere, which many peo­ple believe tracks oth­er peo­ples’ point of view, active­ly tracked people’s posi­tion in rela­tion to their client, and their influ­ence was cor­re­lat­ed strong­ly with the brain sig­nal that we got from this brain area.

Another part of the brain, the ven­tro­me­di­al pre­frontal cor­tex, was also found in this study. This brain area is an area that a lot of peo­ple believe is involved in value‐based deci­sion­mak­ing. And we found that this area is the area that fol­lows and tracks the moment‐to‐moment com­par­isons with the rival.

So, putting these togeth­er, what our stud­ies show is that peo­ple com­bine the infor­ma­tion about their influ­ence over their clients, and com­par­i­son with their rivals, in how they come about try­ing to influ­ence oth­ers to make dif­fer­ent deci­sions. We found both of these both in behav­ior and in the brain response.

Well, at this point we can come back to our orig­i­nal ques­tion and say, Are we any wis­er about what Trump thinks about?” Given our data and our find­ings, we believe that Trump fol­lows a strict­ly com­pet­i­tive strat­e­gy. It seems like he con­stant­ly believes he’s bet­ter than his rivals. But at the same time, it seems like he con­stant­ly feels that he’s ignored by his clients, the American pub­lic. Thank you.


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