Last Thursday, Donald Trump said something that, on its face, seemed inexplicably self-defeating. Already under attack for having asked Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, he publicly asked China to do the same. This time there was no whistle-blower forcing Trump’s hand. Having already transgressed the once-sacrosanct principle that foreign powers shouldn’t meddle in American elections, Trump—for no apparent reason—brazenly violated it again.
And yet, Trump’s China remarks don’t appear to have hurt him much. The majority of Republican voters and politicians still oppose his impeachment. His China comments may even prove politically shrewd. Research into the psychology of secrecy and confidence helps explain why.
In January 2016, Trump infamously declared, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” The statement was widely interpreted as a commentary on the loyalty of Trump’s voters. But it can also be understood as a commentary on the value of brazenness—of acting publicly rather than furtively and confidently rather than bashfully. It’s a value academics have confirmed time and again.
In 2013, three researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder—Mark Travers, Leaf Van Boven, and Charles Judd—published a paper in the journal Political Psychology entitled “The Secrecy Heuristic.” They gave students two documents, one from the National Security Council and one from the State Department. Half the students were told that the NSC document was classified and that the State Department document was public. Half were told the reverse. And although the classified and nonclassified documents were exactly the same, the students gave more weight to the one they thought was secret. The researchers’ conclusion: There is a secrecy “heuristic”—a mental shortcut that helps people make judgments. “People weigh secret information more heavily than public information when making decisions,” they wrote. A 2004 dissertation on jury behavior found a similar tendency. When judges told jurors to disregard certain information—once it was deemed secret—the jurors gave it more weight.