Explaining the Distrust of Trump with Human Operant Research


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

As Special Council Robert Mueller’s investigation heats up, with recent court filings and sentencings,recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll found that 59% of Americans do not trust President Trump.  More specifically, “most Americans don’t believe his denials that his campaign colluded with Russians in the 2016 campaign” according to USA Today.

However, for those respondents who are the closest followers of the news, the percentage of distrust grew to 66%. Interestingly, those who more closely follow the news tend to be more Democratic, while those who do not follow the news tend to support Trump, according to those involved in the research.

But how can we understand the phenomenon of trust from a basic behavioral process level? For this, we can turn to a classic study published in 1981 in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior.

The study, titled “Acquisition and Maintenance of Trusting Behavior” was conducted by Don Hake and Tom Schmid in a highly controlled laboratory setting with two-person dyads.  The purpose for such a controlled setting was to more clearly untangle basic processes involved in how people come to trust or distrust one another and, most importantly, how that impacts overt behavior.

Participants in each dyad solved simple match-to-sample problems in exchange for monetary incentives.  On each trial, a problem was presented and each member of the group had to decide who would solve the problem.  A member could “give” the problem to the other (in which the other would earn the money), “take” the problem from the other (in which they would earn the money themselves), or do nothing and the person who solved the last problem would get the new problem.

Hake and Schmid wanted to see if interpersonal trust would naturally develop between the members, or if external contingencies would be needed.  For the purposes of this study, the researchers defined “trust” as one temporarily forgoing money by allowing his/her partner to solve the problem, while ultimately ending the study in an equitable distribution.  They noted “simply, trust was a temporary deviation from equity”.  By trusting the other person, each person would work less yet each would come out with a similar amount of money.

In short, the team found that “the aversiveness of the inequity involved in trusting appears to necessitate a contingency for acquisition”.  In other words, people were afraid to take a risk that meant the other person could earn more money, unless external contingencies were put in place.  When “giving” and “taking” required little effort, equity and trust emerged but only minimally (alternating every other problem).  When “giving” and “taking” responses required much more effort, prolonged periods of trust over 10-15 consecutive problems emerged.  When trust was high, it occurred mainly through passively letting the person who solved the previous problem continue to work, while “trusting” that they would have the opportunity to work and earn money later.

So what can this tell us about the public distrust of Trump?

First of all, forget about the money and what trust “looked like” in the study – those aren’t so important.  The important things to take away from a basic study like Hake and Schmid’s are the behavioral processes involved – people were afraid to risk inequity unless it was incentivized.  In other words, participants had to be ok thinking “I’ll give the other person control because I know they have our best interests as a group in mind.”

What the poll found was that the majority of Americans don’t trust Trump’s denials of collusion with Russia.  In other words, they believe he worked with Russia in some fashion to win the election – to put himself first at the expense of the democratic process upon which the United States was founded.  The American people believe he was putting his personal interests first above all others and now they don’t trust his power as President.

What do you think of Hake and Schmid’s study?  Do you think it shed’s light on American’s distrust of Trump?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles in your mailbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which owns the top behavior analytic media outlet in the world, bSci21.org.  bSci21Media aims to disseminate behavior analysis to the world and to support ABA companies around the globe through the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century blog and its subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurial, bSciWebDesign, bSciWriting, and the ABA Outside the Box CEU series.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  Dr. Ward has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward is passionate about disseminating behavior analysis to the world and growing the field through entrepreneurship. Todd can be reached at todd.ward@bsci21.org

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