Updated at 11:44 a.m. ET on April 13, 2020.
The American people have done Donald Trump a giant favor. By telling pollsters they want to extend social-distancing restrictions, they’ve persuaded him—for the moment—to act in his own political self-interest. Trump has great difficulty accepting short-term pain in exchange for long-term gain—even though in the case of COVID-19, doing so is his best reelection strategy. Luckily for him, ordinary Americans are demanding that he do exactly that.
Until this week, Trump had spent most of the year downplaying the threat from COVID-19. As The Washington Post noted in a timeline of Trump’s statements, he had minimized the coronavirus threat until mid-March. Then, after briefly announcing that the United States was at war with the virus, he minimized the danger again late last month when he demanded that the U.S. economy reopen by Easter. But this week his tone changed dramatically. Trump—who had previously said the coronavirus would soon “disappear”—on Tuesday indicated that, even under the administration’s “goals of community mitigation,” it would kill 100,000 to 240,000 Americans.
Before Trump’s about-face, some commentators rightly noticed that, politically, he was making a mistake by downplaying the virus. “The strangest part” of Trump’s initial refusal to take the virus more seriously, the New York Times columnist David Leonhardt observed, was “that it’s almost certainly damaging his chances of re-election.” Leonhardt’s point was that what Trump should care about most is not his approval rating now but his approval rating when Americans vote in November. From the moment scientists started warning about the COVID-19 threat, Trump should have called for extensive measures to contain it. Yes, those measures might have hurt the economy—and his popularity—in the short term. But they would have increased the chances that America will have tamed the virus by summer, thus allowing an economic rebound in the fall, as Americans go to the polls.
Why didn’t Trump do that? The answer may lie in an insight from behavioral economics called hyperbolic discounting. The insight is that people overvalue the present and undervalue the future. Some overvaluing is reasonable: Better to get $10 today than $10 in a week, because there’s always some uncertainty about whether a promise will come true. But people choose what researchers call the smaller-sooner reward over the larger-later reward to an irrational degree.
Some people, however, overvalue the here and now more than others do. A 2014 study in the journal NeuroImage examined the effect of the “big five” personality traits on hyperbolic discounting. Two traits stood out. The first was conscientiousness: a person’s diligence, self-discipline, and efficiency. The second was neuroticism, which is often linked to emotional instability. The researchers found that conscientious people were less prone to hyperbolic discounting—less likely to discount the future in favor of the present. Neurotic or emotionally unstable people, by contrast, were more susceptible to hyperbolic discounting. They were more likely to overvalue what happens right now. “The highly neurotic person will choose the $8 now,” the researchers wrote, “while the highly conscientious person will choose the $10 in five days.”
To understand what this has to do with Donald Trump and COVID-19, it’s worth looking at what we know about his personality. Last year, three political scientists—Alessandro Nai, Jürgen Maier, and Ferran Martínez Coma—asked 60 scholars to evaluate Trump’s personality using the same “big five” categories used in the 2014 NeuroImage study.* (Although mental-health professionals, in what’s called the Goldwater rule, have historically avoided diagnosing subjects they can’t observe up close, a growing number have proposed revising that in response to Trump.)
The scholars rated Trump “extremely low” on conscientiousness and emotional stability—which is to say, extremely high on neuroticism. In other words, they rated him as lacking the very qualities needed to avoid hyperbolic discounting and defer gratification in the present in order to gain greater benefits in the future. Tony Schwartz, who co-wrote The Art of the Deal with Trump, has noticed the same tendency. In a 2016 New Yorker profile, Jane Mayer reported that Schwartz considered Trump to be “pathologically impulsive.”
For Trump, prioritizing the short term over the long term has at times proved politically beneficial. In 2016, when he demanded that Mexico pay for a border wall, he was prioritizing the slogan’s short-term appeal to nationalistic voters over its negative long-term consequences to the U.S.-Mexico relationship. In 2017, when he signed a massive tax bill, he was mildly stimulating the economy—thus boosting his reelection chances—while massively increasing the budget deficit, which can be left to his successors.
What makes COVID-19 different is that the politician who would pay the greatest long-term political price for prioritizing the short-term is Trump himself. By minimizing the threat posed by the virus in an attempt to prop up the economy and his own approval ratings this spring, he increased the chances that the economy will remain moribund this fall—thus hurting his chances of reelection. In this case, Trump’s hyperbolic discounting was politically obtuse.
But the American people may be coming to his political aid. In explaining why Trump this week abandoned his call for reopening the economy, Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times reported, “Political advisers described for him polling that showed that voters overwhelmingly preferred to keep containment measures in place over sending people back to work prematurely.” Trump didn’t stop prioritizing the instantaneous approval he craves. He just realized that a majority of Americans want to accept painful consequences now—in the form of social distancing and an economic downturn—to limit COVID-19’s long-term effects. Because most Americans are prioritizing the future, Trump—who prioritizes the present—can acquiesce to their current wishes and benefit his reelection chances at the same time.
All this may change; Trump is famously erratic. For now, however, he has gotten lucky. He may be unusually prone to hyperbolic discounting. But the American people are not.
* This article previously omitted the name of a political scientist, Alessandro Nai, who was involved in the 2019 personality research.