Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are set to face off tonight in the third and final presidential debate of the 2016 election.
In August, The New York Times reported that Clinton’s campaign brought in psychology experts to help her prepare for her first debate with Donald Trump – which is weird, because that’s not really what psychologists do.
Here is the relevant part of The Times’ article (emphasis mine):
“Hillary Clinton’s advisers are … seeking insights about Mr. Trump’s deepest insecurities as they devise strategies to needle and undermine him … at the first presidential debate … Her team is also getting advice from psychology experts to help create a personality profile of Mr. Trump to gauge how he may respond to attacks and deal with a woman as his sole adversary on the debate stage. They are undertaking a forensic-style analysis of Mr. Trump’s performances in the Republican primary debates, cataloging strengths and weaknesses as well as trigger points that caused him to lash out in less-than-presidential ways.”
There’s not a tremendous amount of information here, but it’s enough to work from if we want to find research relevant to the work these psychologists (or “psychology experts”) are reportedly doing. The strange part is that there isn’t much to find.
If you have somebody who’s narcissistic, you want to threaten their ego. But I guess you and my grandmother probably knew that, right?
Psychology has long been interested in the nature and structure of personality. But as for studies of “trigger points,” strategies for needling and undermining people, or systems for predicting how a man with a misogynistic past might betray his true feelings in the future – there isn’t much to be found.
David Silber, a professor emeritus of psychology at George Washington University, told Business Insider that while he considers Trump a “narcissist,” he’s not aware of any particular science that might help Clinton take advantage of any personality disorder the Republican candidate could have.
(The American Psychiatric Association has a rule, known as “the Goldwater rule,” that prohibits psychiatrists from offering any diagnoses or opinions about the mental health of public figures whom they have not personally examined. I have not asked any researchers – psychologists in this case, not psychiatrists – to break it. All three whom I spoke to for this story used the word “narcissist” unprompted.)
Another researcher, Scott Lilienfeld, who studies and teaches the psychology of personality at Emory University, told Business Insider he also could not point to any particular advice psychologists could offer Clinton in taking on Trump beyond what he called “the obvious thing.”
“If you have somebody who’s narcissistic, you want to threaten their ego,” he said. “But I guess you and my grandmother probably knew that, right? You find out what they’re insecure about and you hound them on that. You go for the person’s weakness.”
Brent Roberts, who studies and teaches personality psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, broadly agreed – though he suggested some clinicians might have enough less-than-empirical clinical experience with narcissists to offer more specific suggestions.
Lilienfeld was less optimistic that there might be a cohort out there with the skills to dismantle Trump.
“If they did, I would have thought that they’d have been able to stop Donald Trump by now,” Lilienfeld said.
He said it’s worrying to hear that psychologists might be consulting the Clinton campaign.
“I say this without knowing what these experts are saying – it’s possible they’re working some magic I’m not aware of,” he said. “But I worry a little bit about psychologists overclaiming expertise as though there’s some well-established body of psychological science that says, ‘Oh, you should really do X as a candidate.’ I’m just not aware of any along those lines.”
If I can talk to you, why wouldn’t I be able to talk to a presidential candidate?
If politics were within the domain of psychology, he said, there’d have to be controlled trials and peer-reviewed studies before anyone was qualified to offer advice. Those people would have to show that Trump voters or independents presented with a particular kind of message were significantly more likely to vote for Clinton three months later.
As for research into how to induce bad behavior on a debate stage? Both Roberts and Lilienfeld offered that it might be difficult to get an institutional ethical review board to approve that kind of work.
Lilienfeld also said that he thinks there are dangers to psychologists consulting with politicians.
“I think our job as psychologists is to better inform and educate the public, and I think there’s a real danger in allowing ourselves to get too entangled in politics,” he said. “I think it can tarnish the reputation of psychologists.”
Roberts was less concerned.
“If I can talk to you, why wouldn’t I be able to talk to a presidential candidate?” he said.
He said there are no specific ethical guidelines to prevent psychologists from offering bad advice, and that psychological consultants do so all the time – noting the example of personality questionnaires offered to businesses to help evaluate their employees.
That said, he allowed that there are “questions” about the validity of any claims purported to emerge from empirical findings about how Trump might behave.
Lilienfeld said he wishes psychologists would just stay out of it.
“I would prefer psychologists better help the public to evaluate information, and become better critical thinkers, and learn how to become more resistant to misleading, false persuasion on the part of political candidates. That, I think, would be a much better use of psychologists’ time.”
Clinton’s campaign did not return a request for comment.