Trump’s Psychology: Blame it on the Locker Room

By: Matthew Winslow, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology for EKU Online

On Friday, October 7, 2016 a video tape was released of Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump speaking with a television personality on a bus on his way to a taping of a guest appearance on a soap opera in 2005. On the tape Mr. Trump is heard stating how he can kiss and grope women without their consent. This story dominated several news cycles, and when Mr. Trump spoke about the tape several days later, he apologized saying he was wrong. He also said that “anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am.” Later he described his comments as “locker-room talk”.

Putting aside for the moment the issues of sexual assault, attitudes towards women, and male privilege, basically putting aside what Mr. Trump said on the bus and the implications of those words, I would like to look at how Mr. Trump spoke about those words in the days following the release of the tape.

First, Mr. Trump said that the words did not reflect who he was or is. In social psychology we might say this is a rejection of an internal attribution for his behavior: internal attributions place the cause of behavior squarely on a person’s internal attributes or characteristics. So Mr. Trump is rejecting the conclusion that those words reflect him as a person. The further explanation that this was “locker-room talk” goes beyond rejecting an internal attribution to provide an alternate explanation. Mr. Trump is asserting that the situation he was in (while not in an actual locker room but on a bus instead) played some role in his behavior. We would call that an external attribution; he’s saying that his words were caused by being in an environment where that type of discourse is not only appropriate but perhaps even called for.

Again, I want to leave aside the veracity of that assertion (and many athletes have come forward to deny that discourse of this type exists in locker rooms or would be tolerated). Instead I want to point out that making external attributions for embarrassing or immoral behavior is quite common and completely understandable. In fact, we have a term for it in social psychology: self-serving bias. This is when we take personal credit for success but blame our failures on the situation. Mr. Trump’s explanation for his words on that bus were completely predictable, and in one sense quite normal, meaning that many people act in similar ways in similar circumstances. What would have been surprising would have been Mr. Trump accepting his embarrassing words as reflective of his true self. To a social psychologist, that would have been surprising. It remains to be seen how the public will respond to Mr. Trump’s self-serving attribution.

Published on October 14, 2016