That’s what a reader asked me recently.
Searching my site, I found four commentaries in the last four months: Running on Empty (June 19); The Ethical Take (July 23); Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtuoso of Ignorance) (Sept. 8); The Scorpion and the Frog (Oct. 1); and a Let’s Be Honest graphic, “The Many Ethical Faces of Donald Trump” from June 24.
Why am I so fixated on Donald Trump?
There’s a rational explanation, and it comes from a new web site called Hidden Systems, deftly written by Jamie O’Boyle. O’Boyle is a senior analyst at Cultural Studies & Analysis, a think tank “that decodes how consumers determine value in products, concepts, and ideas.”
Seems my “fixation” on Trump has to do with a little thing called, “transactional reality.”
“…humans are social primates,” O’Boyle writes. “We don’t just want to be around other people, we need to be with other people.
“Because of this compulsion to mingle we enjoy thousands of years of evolutionary experience in reading the signals others send. These signals, we constantly monitor—dress, body language, family interaction, voice tone, eye contact, familiarity level—are the cultural cues that fix our position relative to the group and our environment.”
As a result, O’Boyle says, “We live in a Transactional Reality: the steady but invisible exchange of information. It’s why we behave differently in groups than as individuals. Far from isolated units, we are born, raised, and live our lives within a shared cultural matrix. Just as the ‘empty’ space between the particles of an atom is alive with forces (such as gravity) that shape its behavior, the space between people is a dynamic cultural communications network.
“We can do this because the human brain is essentially a pattern-seeking device. Among the leading patterns our brain searches out is human intention, based on repeated patterns of emotions, body language, context, and a myriad other variables.
“Certain emotions are universals – every culture shares them and expresses them in the same recognizable way. Basic emotions are so easily profiled that we can mimic them with a few strokes of a computer keyboard to create emoticons that our brain will instantly recognize even if it is sideways. :-)”
This is my brain on Donald Trump: <(x x)>
“All this happens in the service of the Hidden System,” O’Boyle writes, “that enables complex social relationships that are the hallmark of human societies. This skill set is understanding the mental state of others. It’s called Theory of Mind: the conscious understanding that we each have mental states expressed as beliefs, intents, perspectives, knowledge, experience, motives, and desires.”
Therefore, O’Boyle posits, “Your brain lives in a transactional reality – and it can read minds. …
“The most astonishing fact is that we don’t think of this as astonishing at all. We just proceed to play our part in this vast transfer of subconscious information without ever realizing we are mind reading. But we are constantly projecting ourselves into other people’s minds, deciding what they are thinking and feeling (and why). Even more boldly, we predict what they will do in the immediate future. The incredible reality is that our predictions so often prove correct.
“Or, rather, it would be incredible if we actually thought about it – which we don’t. We aren’t born with this ability; it’s an outcome of that pattern-seeking brain of ours. What takes us awhile to learn is that other people may have knowledge, feelings, motivations, and desires separate and distinct from our own.
“The outcome is empathy – the ability to understand the emotional state of others. And that’s exactly where our little mind-reading act can go all pear-shaped. Emotion-reading makes you powerful, but at the same time, it also makes you vulnerable. Not everyone has your best interests at heart. Some people are more empathetic than others. Besides highly empathetic people, there are two other groups who score just as high on reading emotions. Want to guess who?
“Narcissists and sociopaths.”
Bingo! I knew you’d get around to Trump, sooner or later.
“People who score high on the type of narcissism called exploitativeness find it easy to manipulate people into doing what they want.”
“Where empathetic people can see caution and thoughtfulness,” O’Boyle says, “exploiters read uncertainty and low confidence. That makes those people targets.
“Empathy is a powerful weapon in the wrong hands. The world is full of manipulative types: emotional abusers, self-declared psychics, hucksters, pitchmen, and other skilled empaths, all trying to sell you something, from a new household appliance to investments to a belief system.
“We can also fool ourselves. Our brains are designed to read faces for key information such as emotional state, possible intention, and potential threat. … our brain is so primed to detect and interpret faces that we see them everywhere, a phenomenon called “pareidolia.” This means we see faces in clouds, rocks, trees, and flowers, and we assign precise emotions to those faces. We post their pictures on the internet.
“A quick search will find grumpy cookies, astonished electric sockets, happy household appliances, and hundreds – if not thousands – of other anthropomorphous objects. …
“Complicating the problem is that vision doesn’t work as we think it does… we don’t always see what’s actually there. Instead, we see what we expect to see.
“There is speculation that empathy plays a part in human spirituality. The thinking is that since the brain is programmed to find meaning and intention in people’s behavior, it also can find intention in everything else … There are well-documented reports of Christians seeing images of The Virgin Mary in a window of a bank in Clearwater, Florida… and burned into a piece of toast. But Christians never see Buddha in a cloud bank or a piece of toast because they don’t expect to.
“Neither do Buddhists. Buddha was not divine but simply a man who had found enlightenment and taught others the way. He didn’t do miracles; therefore Buddhists don’t expect to see him in a vision. And they don’t.
“We see what we expect to see. For American Christians, that includes Jesus, Mary, and occasionally Elvis, but we never see Henry Ford or Isaac Newton. It wouldn’t even occur to us. …
“Empathy drives our emotions. And our emotions drive our choices, our judgments, our buying habits, and our public policy. And we can get empathy very wrong.”
That not only explains my fixation on Trump, but the “divine” jackpot plate of English muffins this morning, Jamie!