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What Drives Trump's Tweets?

Conditioning principles shape and animate human behavior.

It might seem an odd occasion to distinguish the two key kinds of associative learning, but the recent war of words between Donald Trump and The Baltimore Sun provides a unique opportunity to do just that.

Let me set the stage. Maryland’s Rep. Elijah Cummings has been a vigorous critic of White House border policy. As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, he has launched several investigations into possible administration wrongdoing, and he has strongly condemned as racist Donald Trump’s repeated comments toward four first-term congresswomen of color.

As you must know by now, when you attack Mr. Trump, he will punch back hard. And so he did last July 27. Here, however, Mr. Trump went beyond personally attacking Rep. Cummings; he cast harsh aspersions on Rep. Cummings’ congressional district: “Rep, Elijah Cummings has been a brutal bully, shouting and screaming at the great men & women of Border Patrol about conditions at the Southern Border, when actually his Baltimore district is FAR WORSE and more dangerous. His district is considered the Worst in the USA. Cumming[s’] District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place. No human being would want to live there.”

The Baltimore Sun, Rep. Cummings’ hometown newspaper, wasted little time in returning fire. The same day, its editorial staff published a scathing rejoinder entitled, “Better to have a few rats than to be one.”

For our present purposes, this is the prime passage in their rejoinder: “[Because] “Fox & Friends” had recently aired a segment critical of the city, [Mr. Trump’s] slamming Baltimore must have been irresistible in a Pavlovian way. Fox News rang the bell, the president salivated and his thumbs moved across his cell phone into action.”

Brandon Weigle/The Baltimore Sun
The Baltimore Sun
Source: Brandon Weigle/The Baltimore Sun

Mr. Trump might have had a type of Pavlovian reaction to seeing and hearing the “Fox & Friends” segment. He might well have gotten angry. When you get angry, the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system becomes activated, which can cause your heart to pound, raise your blood pressure, and make your muscles contract; all of these reactions prepare your body to fight, flee, or freeze.

However, tapping the touchscreen of a cell phone is not a Pavlovian reaction at all. Externally-directed motor responses are not controlled by the autonomic nervous system, but by the skeletal nervous system. And, these responses result from a history of response-contingent reward. They are not produced by Pavlovian conditioning—as are anger and fear—but by operant conditioning.

Pavlovian and operant conditioning are readily distinguished by their establishing conditions, most clearly contrived and revealed in laboratory settings. Pavlovian conditioning results from a stimulus being followed by a biologically significant outcome, as when a tone is paired with an unpleasant electric shock. Operant conditioning results from a response being followed by a biologically significant outcome, as when pressing a lever is followed by a bite of food.

This analysis does not claim that Pavlovian and operant conditioning do not interact—they do. A rat that is pressing a lever and receiving food will dramatically decrease its responding if a tone is sounded that has previously been followed by shock. The fear that is elicited by the tone disrupts the chain pulling that is motivated by the food.

To return to the case of Trump’s tweeting, it is highly probable that the “Fox & Friends” segment stirred Trump’s ire. That motivation is likely to have encouraged him to reach for his cell phone and to tap out a retaliatory Tweet. But the television segment did not do so because of any irresistible Pavlovian reaction. Trump’s cell phone Tweet was operant in nature. It may have been impulsive, but so too are many of our own operant behaviors as they may be more strongly controlled by immediate than by delayed outcomes; such impulsivity has been dramatically demonstrated by Michelle’s famous marshmallow test.

All this goes to show that the principles of Pavlovian and operant conditioning are not limited to artificial laboratory conditions. They shape and animate everyday human behavior.

More from Edward A. Wasserman Ph.D.
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More from Edward A. Wasserman Ph.D.
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