Trump, Putin, and Relational Frame Theory

Photo by Jomar on Unsplash

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

The world is abuzz today with news of President Trump’s recent comments during a news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  According to CNN, the trouble started when “Trump declined to endorse the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election over Putin’s denial.”

Among a sample of critics, John Brennan, former CIA chief, compared the comments to “high crimes & misdemeanors” and “treasonous.”  Chuck Hagel, former Secretary of Defense, said Trump “failed America.”  And James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, accused Trump of capitulating and being intimidated by Putin.

As behavioral scientists, we can look to the verbal content of the reactions to better understand the uproar from a basic behavioral process standpoint.  A clue as to the source of the uproar comes from the rest of Hagel’s quote – “This was not a golf outing.  This was not a real estate transactional kind of arrangement. Engagement must be connected to a strategic interest, a strategic purpose” and he didn’t see evidence of such a purpose in Trump’s interactions with the Russian President.

From a Relational Frame Theory perspective, President Trump’s language doesn’t appear attached to hierarchical relations, or verbal relations tied to larger, more encompassing concepts or categories. Hagel’s comments suggested that one’s language when President, as opposed to language used in other roles, should tie into hierarchical relations.  In this case, Hagel suggested that Trump’s verbiage should have a tighter relation to things that are larger than him – such as his role as President, the concept of “United States”, and the long-term strategic interests of the country.

Those relations were missing in Trump’s interactions with Putin.  To Hagel, and others in the international community, it would seem Trump was interacting with the Russian leader more as an “individual” and less as “President”.

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,  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 [email protected]

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  1. Correct. Many people assume a hierarchical frame that includes others for our President– POTUS. Interestingly, our President’s hierarchical frame of the Presidency appears to include only himself and maintaining the power he has stumbled into. If you view him as owing Russia money or getting loans for laundered money, this all makes more sense. He is interested in success for himself, but probably not for anyone else. It is even more interesting to me that when he is called on his main purpose, he simply lies (5-7 a day). It worked for him in business, and so far it appears to be working in government. He’s not going to change his plan. We need another election.

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