Sunday, October 01, 2017

Why This Stupid Behaviour?

@NateSilver538 argues that the simple explanation for the US president's outbursts (that he has poor impulse control and/or is bigoted) is (sometimes, usually) right.

The alternative explanation generally references some positive outcome for Trump. Silver mentions a few popular theories.
  • shoring up his base
  • questioning bias and fairness
  • driving a wedge between the Trumpian and the Republican establishment
  • distracting the media from other, more serious issues 
Silver's argument is based on the fact that some of his outbursts don't appear to produce the desired result. But there are some further considerations to bear in mind.

Firstly, when Trump appears to do something stupid or selfish, this prompts a barrage of criticism from various quarters. Some voices are consistently anti-Trump, while others (including conservative media channels, members of the Republican establishment and his own administration) will firmly distance themselves from his more outrageous pronouncements. This helps to reassure Trump's base that he remains an anti-establishment champion and is not getting swamped by Washington.

Thus the desired effects may follow from the response to Trump rather than directly from Trump's own words and deeds. This suggests a delay before the effect is visible in Silver's data. This leads to my second point: there are always some effects cannot be reliably detected in real-time, and there may be some effects will never be detectable to Silver. That doesn't mean that the effects aren't real. Just because Silver can't detect a strategy doesn't mean there isn't a strategy. Maybe Trump isn't one step ahead of the media, maybe he's three steps ahead.

Thirdly, what matters is not the effect of a single outburst, or even a series of outbursts on a single topic, but the cumulative effect. Some say that being inconsistent, volatile, unpredictable is part of his shtick.

So what is the explanation for this inconsistency? Psychologists regard arbitrary and unpredictable inconsistency as a sign of emotional abuse, while mathematician Cathy O'Neil observes the similarity between Trump's behaviour and a machine learning algorithm.

Even if Silver is right about the intent and motivation of Trump's behaviour, that doesn't fully explain it. Just dismissing Trump as stupid or bigoted is not a sufficient explanation, because there are many stupid and bigoted people who do not behave quite like Trump. What is special in Trump's case is that there are some feedback loops that strongly reinforce these particular behaviour patterns, because they have produced the desired outcomes in the recent past.

Trump's worldview (Weltanschauung) causes him to pick up certain signals and ignore others. In terms of second-order cybernetics, we can view Trump as an autopoietic system (Maturana, Varela), within which the outcome-based theory and the impulse-base theory are not mutually incompatible after all, but are connected via closed feedback loops.

Cathy O'Neil, Donald Trump's Path-Independent Theory of Mind (Bloomberg, 21 May 2017)

Nate Silver, The Media Needs To Stop Rationalizing President Trump’s Behavior (FiveThirtyEight, 30 September 2017)

Wikipedia: Autopoiesis, Psychological Abuse


Ivo said...

Strictly speaking, the necessary and sufficient conditions for a system to be autopoietic are:
(a) it has a semi-permeable boundary,
(b) the boundary is produced from within the system, and
(c) it encompasses reactions that regenerate the components of the system.

As such, Trump as a human being satisfies them, but your assessment concerns Trump as a social phenomenon.

Another way to look is just as a dynamic network of emergent phenomena. There are certain memes and other social species that emerge and have "a mind of their own" and they influence the conditions for their viability for some time. There is indeed a network or communications and this network is probably closed confirming your observation about the structure of the feedback loops. But then we should leave out the question of "autopoiesis" and that would not harm your observation and conclusions.

A third approach would be to apply Luhmannian view. In this case, there is indeed a self-referential network of communications (understood as a synthesis between utterance, information and understanding) and it is indeed autopoietic but to apply this perspective it is important to strictly exclude people from the social system. In other words, we probably can talk about autopoetic social system "Trump", produced by communications communicating other communications about Trump and maintaining its identity, which is distinguished from, and only possible because it is coupled with people, that make and react on "announcements" about Trump, including the person Trum himself, and other social systems.

Aidan said...

The supposed autopoiesis gives an identity that is internally referenced. It concerns behaviour that responds to events happening in an environment.
But that environment is not a simple given that we can interpret because we (thank God) have a different identity and see things differently because we have a different relation to them. There cannot be any simple mapping between what I think is happening in the world and what Trump sees happening in the world.
By extension what Trump may be looking to achieve in his actions, how I might interpret those actions and their purpose and how the sort of self-referential feedback in the social world escalates or damps those actions is unknowable, though trying to guess before it is too late is not stupid.
The use of POSIWID to look for system invariants is smart. I read the Atlantic piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates showing that Trumps actions are those of a white supremacist for instance.