Opinion | What the Science of Addiction Tells Us About Trump



Although these are new findings and the research in this area is not yet settled, what this suggests is that similar to the way people become addicted to drugs or gambling, people may also become addicted to seeking retribution against their enemies—revenge addiction. This may help explain why some people just can’t let go of their grievances long after others feel they should have moved on—and why some people resort to violence.

It’s worth asking whether this helps explain Trump’s fixation on his grievances and ways of exacting retribution for them. The hallmark of addiction is compulsive behavior despite harmful consequences. Trump’s unrelenting efforts to retaliate against those he believes have treated him unjustly (including, now, American voters) appear to be compulsive and uncontrollable. The harm this causes to himself and others is obvious but seems to have no deterrent effect. Reports suggest he has been doing this for much of his life. He seems powerless to stop. He also seems to derive a great deal of pleasure from it.

The science of addiction provides another cautionary insight: Trump’s revenge habit hurts not only himself and the targets of his retaliatory wrath, but the rest of us, too.

Like substance addiction, revenge addiction appears to spread from person to person. For instance, inner-city gun violence spreads in neighborhoods like a social contagion, with one person’s grievances infecting others with a desire to seek vengeance. Because of his unique position and use of the media and social networks, Trump is able to spread his grievances to thousands or millions of others through Twitter, TV and rallies. His demand for retribution becomes their demand, causing his supporters to crave retaliation—and, in a vicious cycle, this in turn causes Trump’s targets and their supporters to feel aggrieved and want to retaliate, too.

What can be done? When a friend or family member has an addiction, the first priority is to take care of yourself, and the next step is to encourage the addict to seek help. This gets complicated when we’re talking about a president and an entire nation, but we’re already on our way. We’ve recently held a nationwide electoral intervention with Trump, which has the dual benefit of helping to protect the country from further damage and shows him that his retaliatory behavior is no longer acceptable and needs to change. But addiction interventions are often risky and can backfire. That appears to be happening with Trump, who now seems even more aggrieved and more determined to use retaliation, raising the stakes.

There are no quick fixes with addiction. We’re in for a long haul. Our society, and Trump, would seem to have little chance of healing until we (and he) realize how the politics of grievance is damaging us. Political parties and interest groups have come to rely upon inflaming grievances and stoking vindictiveness to generate donations and motivate voters. Media, entertainment and social networking giants also rely upon grievance and revenge-based content to attract viewers and users and increase advertising and sales. More people need to become savvy about how, why and for whose benefit they are being made to feel aggrieved and must decide to stop dealing in the drug of their own destruction.

We must also increase public education, from school age through adulthood, about healthy ways to process feelings of hurt or humiliation. The risk is not only political. The brains of millions of Americans have spent the past few years essentially being primed for revenge-seeking, and it can manifest in areas other than politics. Retaliation in response to grievances is the primary motive in intimate partner violence, youth violence and bullying, street violence, lone-actor attacks, police brutality, and terrorism. People and agencies interested in reducing murder rates, mass shootings, domestic terrorism, and other forms of violence should be focusing on revenge addiction.

Developing innovative prevention and treatment strategies for revenge addiction is essential. At Yale, we are studying a promising “motive control” (in contrast to gun control) method for preventing violence that allows people with grievances to put those who have hurt or offended them through imaginary but highly realistic criminal trials. We have found that this mental process, which we call the “Nonjustice System,” is actually a safe and satisfying way of controlling revenge cravings that works like a kind of methadone for revenge addicts. This method is not only for preventing violence; anybody struggling with grievances, even Trump, can benefit from it. It can be utilized in group settings, too, and we’re hoping to develop an app so more people can access it.

Assuming Trump does not seek help, what can we expect from him going forward? Tragically, more of the same. People suffering from addiction tend to experience relationship problems and conflicts, display periods of euphoria followed by depression and restlessness, and fail to meet their responsibilities or fulfill their professional obligations. They spend long periods of time obsessing over and planning ways to gratify their cravings, and engage in the addictive behavior despite the physical or psychological harm it causes. Although I have no idea what Trump’s life is really like, from outside observation many of these indicators appear to be present.

Which is why there also must be compassion for Trump. One of the lessons learned with substance addiction is that it is a disease, a brain and behavioral disorder, not a moral failure, and shaming and punishment do not work. Attacking Trump for his retaliatory behavior only fuels it by making him feel more aggrieved.

Firm steps are necessary to limit the damage Trump’s grievances are inflicting on this country. We all have a role to play in halting the cycle of grievance and retaliation. But in the end, he is a human being who needs help. It should be offered with the same care, compassion, and, yes, forgiveness, offered to anybody else whose life—or nation—is being torn apart by addiction.


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