President Donald Trump is an interesting study for psychologists. His self-absorption, constant need for attention and inability to express empathy makes for a wonderful case-study in personality development, and narcissism in particular.

Trump’s long-term obsession with Time magazine, which surfaced again last week, highlights his debilitating need for attention and praise. On Friday, Trump claimed that Time had called him to say he would “probably” be named Person of the Year, but that he had declined the honor. Time responded that the President was incorrect, as it does not comment on its choice before publication. This episode echoed the Washington Post’s reporting, this past summer, that a fake Time cover dated March 1, 2009 and featuring Trump’s photo had been displayed in several of his golf clubs.


As the author of a textbook on behavior management in children, I believe too little attention has been given to social influences on Trump’s behavior. Some people believe Trump deliberately uses his tweets and inappropriate behavior to distract us from other news, such as how the Russian government helped him win the presidential election. I don’t think so. His behavior is too basic and impulsive. Strategic tweeting would require a level of thoughtfulness of which Trump seems incapable.

It is important to understand that appropriate and inappropriate behaviors are learned the same way. The social consequences of a person’s behavior largely shape which behaviors continue and which ones do not. One of the most powerful consequences is attention from other people, which can reinforce both appropriate and inappropriate behaviors.

Teaching parents and teachers how to respond to inappropriate behavior — without reinforcing it with attention — is an important element of a classroom management or parenting lesson. A classic example of the power of consequences is the temper tantrum. Children (and adults) have temper tantrums because they work. That is, the tantrum behavior gets the person what they wanted. When temper tantrums stop working because the people in the environment stop giving in to the child's demands, the tantrums stop occurring.

Over time, children learn what works and what does not work, depending on how parents, teachers and peers respond to the behavior. For many children who display inappropriate behaviors, it is likely that these behaviors are reinforced by others, while appropriate behaviors have either not been taught or have been ignored when they occur. If a child receives attention following inappropriate behavior but not after socially appropriate behavior, she will act accordingly.

Trump has learned throughout his 71 years that inappropriate behavior, such as bullying, name-calling and getting into fights with people, earns him attention. Many people wonder why Trump continues his inappropriate tweeting behavior even after so many people, including his supporters, condemn the behavior as immature and beneath the dignity of the presidency. The answer is simple: Trump’s tweets earn him the attention he seeks. Thus, his tweets will continue.

Over the years, the media has taught Trump that inappropriate behavior gets him more attention than appropriate behavior. This is frequently the case within the entertainment business: the more outrageous the behavior, the greater the media coverage. In the same way, a student may learn that being the class clown gets him a lot of attention, even though it also gets him in trouble. If the student is not strong academically or has not learned how to win attention by being socially appropriate, being the clown is easy and, more important, effective in getting the attention he seeks.

Trump’s inappropriate social skills have brought him significant media attention, which he seems to enjoy. Like the class clown, Trump does not have the social skills or self-control to earn attention through socially appropriate interactions, like being an effective comforter-in-chief after a national tragedy. Instead, against the advice of those around him, Trump typically gives in to his impulsive temptations, much like a child who has not learned self-control.

Even during serious occasions, such as a memorial service, Trump can’t help but talk about himself and his perceived accomplishments. When he talks to, or about, the family of a fallen soldier, he can’t empathize with their pain or circumstances. And if they fail to express their appreciation to him, at a level which he thinks he deserves, he attacks them, even as they grieve. It is, at least in his mind, always about him.

Effective parents and teachers decrease or eliminate inappropriate behavior by systematically changing how they and others respond to the behaviors. A good instructor can teach these skills to parents and teachers. But how do you change a worldwide audience and a national media ready and able to reinforce all the wrong behaviors in a president who is simply hungry for more attention? It is a challenge with significant implications.