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.

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.