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How is a politician different from a 4-year-old?

A few days ago I shared my reactions to an op-ed by developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik.

Gopnik replied:

As a regular reader of your blog, I thought you and your readers might be interested in a response to your very fair comments. In the original draft I had an extra few paragraphs (below) that speak to that point but that I left out for space and aesthetic unity reasons. One way to put it is this, the distribution of traits and behaviors across development suggests that there are differences in the underlying psychological causal structure of children and adults. The claim of Douthat and Brooks etc. is that Trump’s distinctively awful features reflect the fact that he shares more of that causal structure with children than the average adult does. My claim is that they reflect the fact that he shares LESS of the typical causal structure with children than the average adult, instead he is an outlier on dimensions that typically characterize adults and not children (such as the desire for power and exploitation over knowledge and exploration). In particular, I chose the examples in the piece because they exemplify two rather distinctive underlying dimensions of preschool children – their epistemic motivation – that is the fact that they are so interested in and motivated by learning, and their initial identification with other people – just the opposite of egocentrism. Those are still features of most adults at least some of the time, but they become less important than other motivations and attitudes, and they certainly aren’t characteristic of Trump. But even in this time of nerd exaltation this might be too wonky for a Sunday op-ed!

Now, all this is not to say that a four-year-old would make a good chief executive. The genuine differences between children and adults reflect a kind of evolutionary division of labor, and being President is certainly a grown-up job.

Children are designed to explore. They focus on learning about the world, especially learning about other people, and imagining alternative ways the world could be. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, the whole point of childhood is to provide human beings with a protected learning period. Young children don’t have to worry about acting to get the resources they need, or about power or status – their caregivers deal with all that. They can just learn instead.

Adults are designed to exploit, they take what they’ve learned as children and put it to use, for good or ill, to accomplish adult goals. Trump does lack some of the adult skills that allow grown ups to act effectively, like impulse control and long term planning. But those deficiencies just make him incompetent, not dangerous. The real dangers of Trump’s character are uniquely adult ones.

As we grow up, our focus and experience necessarily narrow, and we inevitably develop a more egotistical concentration on our own needs, goals and plans. That’s a natural consequence of the grown-up responsibility to act and achieve, including the responsibility to care for the next generation of hungry, exploratory children. We all trudge along on “the hedonic treadmill”, chasing new rewards as soon as we’ve attained the old ones. Still, most adults, even most Presidents, and certainly the best Presidents, manage to retain some of their child-like traits – curiosity, openness to experience, intuitive sensitivity to others.

But Trump has spent a lifetime single-mindedly pursuing the uniquely adult goals of power, status and domination, financially, sexually, and politically, and has done so with remarkable success. Time and again, from Shakespearean kings like Macbeth and Richard III to the 20th centuries’ strongmen, grown-ups with that temperament and history become trapped in the narrow, never-ending, unslakeable thirst for adulation and reward. They lose the child’s desire to learn and so gradually lose touch with the greater reality outside themselves – sometimes to the point of delusion and megalomania. We’d all be better off if Trump were more, not less, like a four-year-old.

Gopnik also sends along this paper with Thomas Griffiths and Christopher Lucas, which begins:

We describe a surprising developmental pattern we found in studies involving three different kinds of problems and age ranges. Younger learners are better than older ones at learning unusual abstract causal principles from evidence. We explore two factors that might contribute to this counterintuitive result. The first is that as our knowledge grows, we become less open to new ideas. The second is that younger minds and brains are intrinsically more flexible and exploratory, although they are also less efficient as a result.

This is interesting, thinking of differences between children and adults through the lens of the exploration-exploitation tradeoff in statistics (also, for convoluted reasons, called the “bandit” problem). The idea is that in the early stages of an experiment, you should explore, making decisions that are probably suboptimal for the purpose of gathering data; but then, later on, once you know more, you can exploit your information and move rapidly toward an (approximately) optimal solution. There are lots of examples of this tradeoff, but I hadn’t thought of it in the context of children and adults.

Gopnik’s response is a useful answer to the questions in my earlier post. She wasn’t just making the (trivial) point that Trump is different from the average four-year-old, or even that he was different from most four-year-olds. Rather, she has a conceptual scale in which the distribution of American four-year-olds is in one place, and the distributions of American adults is in another place, and she’s saying that, in certain dimensions, Trump is particularly far from the average four-year-olds, that he’s too much of an optimizer and not enough of an explorer. Or, more generally, and that he’s trapped in the “narrow, never-ending, unslakeable thirst for adulation and reward” that is characteristic of some adults but not, apparently, of most four-year-olds. Yes, four-year-olds throw tantrums but I guess that’s a bit different.

As I wrote in my original post, I’m not so clear this all applies to Trump. Sure, the unslakeable thirst etc., that could be: I don’t know the guy personally, but it’s possible. The exploration-exploitation tradeoff, though: that’s one where Trump seems much more of an explorer, at least compared to the average elderly politician. Trump tries all sorts of things—he’s notorious for saying things he doesn’t believe (or, perhaps, talking himself into believing things that he should know are not true), just to get people’s reactions. That’s exploration, right? He’s also an improviser, as we saw during the campaign and during the new administration too. Indeed, one common criticism of Trump is that he just says and does things without working through the consequences. This is not necessarily a good thing but I don’t know how it fits into the story that Trump lacks curiosity etc.

In short, I remain skeptical of the application of these ideas to Donald Trump (or, for that matter, to Hillary Clinton, or Paul Ryan, or other political figures). But the psychology stuff, that’s great. I like the idea of comparing how kids and adults think, by stepping back and looking not just at how we perform specific tasks, but about our goals as learners. This seems to me a big deal, a way of linking Piagetian stages of development to problems of adult decision making.

P.S. Carsten Allefeld provided the above picture of a cat basking in adulation.


  1. Speaking of average adults and average children, Michael Betancourt filled me in on the concept of an “Asimov data set”, based on the sci-fi author’s short story Franchise, in which a costly system of individual voting is replaced by finding one average person to vote. Apparently, it’s a real method in physics.

    • Ethan Bolker says:

      Related: In mathematics the easiest proofs to understand are often those that work out a “typical special case” – the numbers are such that it’s clear there’s no coincidence making things work, but you can check the argument without negotiating a morass of (perhaps)) summations over multiple indices. Unfortunately, you can’t usually publish those easy to understand proofs.

  2. Bill Harris says:

    I’ve read that Vygotsky categorized learning as patterning or puzzling, which seems somewhat related to exploiting and exploring. In /Human Error/ (as I recall), James Reason noted that patterning was faster and more accurate up to the limits of available, pertinent patterns. Puzzling was more flexible and broadly applicable, but, despite our egos, we were slower and less accurate in learning by puzzling. I sense there’s a stream of thought from people such as Reason and Gary Klein (“recognition-primed decision making”) and probably Dietrich Doerner (/The Logic of Failure/) who think that we can do well at reducing human error by using puzzling offline to expand our repertoire of effect patterns which we then practice to have available for real-time use.

  3. Peter says:

    Andrew wrote: “Trump seems much more of an explorer, at least compared to the average elderly politician. Trump tries all sorts of things—he’s notorious for saying things he doesn’t believe (or, perhaps, talking himself into believing things that he should know are not true), just to get people’s reactions.”
    Yeah, Trump can be seen as more of an outside-of-the-box thinker. But it seems to me his exploration is not so much driven by curiosity than by self-enhancement. His typical pattern is: existing policy was put in place by stupid or corrupt people (e.g., people were inept at negotiating NAFTA). Let me show you how this can be done much better! And then, well, …, we all know that he is not getting anything done because his policy ideas are terrible (often contra the interest of people who elected him) or because he does not have the patience and skills to build a political coalition to get them enacted.

  4. I find this post interesting for Gopnik’s informative response and Andrew’s reassessment of the previous post.

    Much depends on how one defines exploration. As I see it, exploration involves continuity. You look into something without confining yourself to a particular goal–but also without changing tack prematurely.

    Example of exploration: Let’s see where this road goes. It might be a shortcut home, it might be a detour, but in any case I’d like to try it out. (The person follows it to the end or to an intersection–and then decides from there whether to backtrack, continue on unfamiliar roads, or switch to a familiar course.)

    Example of non-exploration: Let’s see where this road goes. (Three steps later) Actually, it seems boring. I’ll take that other one instead. (In this case, the person learns close to nothing from the first experiment; after switching roads, he or she essentially starts again from scratch.)

    An exploration might include some giving up along the way; for instance, if you are trying a new kind of writing, you might have a few false starts in places. But the writing persists and builds on itself.

    If this is correct–if exploration involves continuity–then it seems that Trump is doing something other than exploring.

  5. Jonathan says:

    I spend a lot of time around 4 year olds. You seem to misunderstand the concept of exploration, which is an adult word meant to convey the underlying reality that they develop their faculties of speech, language, social conversation and behavior, etc. and literally the way they do that, pretty much the only way it’s possible to do that, is by some form of ‘exploration’ of the world in which they exist. In that sense, a child and a puppy are similar

    • Peter says:

      So Jonathan are you saying that what looks like exploration in the case of Trump is really “preening” defined as
      – devoting effort to making oneself look attractive and then admire one’s appearance
      – congratulate or pride oneself ?

    • Jonathan says:

      I hit post by accident while cleaning off the keyboard. Adults who continue down the path of exploration in a child’s sense are not common; intellectual curiosity drops (though it sometimes revives in seniors as they give up other things), social exploration stops (though again, seniors who have time may start to explore the world), and so on. Trump isn’t different from anyone else. I have no idea how curious he is about the world or about his interests. I have no idea how he compares to other men of his age and experiences, even if we delete from consideration the vast numbers of people who sit in front of the TV every night and eat crappy food and never go anywhere but the same places they always go.

      If Gopnick believes Trump is different because he single-mindedly has pursued a course, then what the heck does that make you with your lifelong affinities toward math and probability and your daily pursuit of statistical awareness? I don’t know what that makes of a violinist or a chef either. The last paragraph you quote – before the paper remark – is utter nonsense. Might as well say Midori has spent a lifetime pursuing her touch with the bow to the detriment of the rest of her senses in a kind of solipsistic sucking into herself. Or LeBron James has wasted his life stuffing a ball through a hoop. This kind of absurd value judgement is, well, absurd because it’s so obviously just one perspective about what’s valuable and that isn’t objective or scientifically valid in any rational sense except it does a really nice job of validating one’s own preconceptions. “Lose touch with the greater reality outside them”. Jesus. Talk about sticking your own persona into your work.

      As to the idea that one explores early and then narrows … isn’t that obvious? One problem is that we never able to explore out of a context, that we are influenced by our priors when we look at where we might be going and infer back what other paths or experimental designs we might have taken. You’ve talked about this many times, such as when you should use flat priors. And when we’re removed from a normal context, we don’t adapt fully because we’re incapable of doing that given how much prior context has developed. That’s a really deep argument in child development. It’s also obviously a problem in economics because there are fuzzy limits to reasonableness.

      • Peter says:

        As the recently deceased (political theorist) Russell Hardin would say:
        Exploration is knowledge acquisition which is an economic activity in the sense that it consumes resources. Hence knowledge acquisition has to trade-off against other activities (like, for instance, specializing in some pursuit to earn a living in a modern society, which is one with a fine-grained division of labor and with a correspondingly fine-grained division of knowledge).
        How Do You Know? The Economics of Ordinary Knowledge. 2012

  6. Terry says:

    What’s up with the cat picture?

    We can see 5 cat pictures. They are all the same cat, so we are seeing 5 pictures of the same cat.

    But, on closer examination, pic1, pic2, and pic3 are different, but pic3 = pic4 = pic5.

    A live camera feed to the monitor could explain the infinite regress of pic3-pic5. Simple enough.

    Then, I guess you could display the infinite regress of pic3-pic5 statically on the monitor and take a picture of the same cat in front of that display, which would give you an image showing pic2-pic5. Then, I guess you could go further down this rabbit-hole by taking another picture of the cat in front of the monitor displaying pic2-pic5, which would give you an image showing pic1-pic5.

    So, it is possible. But why mix the simultaneous infinite regress with the time-varying pictures? Was it planned that way from the beginning? Or, did the infinite regress come first, and then the later pictures were spur of the moment? (But pic2 is almost simultaneous with pic3, while pic1 is well after pic2.) Why does the result mess with your head so much? Does the cat spend a lot of time on the keyboard? Shouldn’t the photographer get the cat off the keyboard and do some useful work for a change?

  7. Brad Stiritz says:

    >Children are designed to explore.. Adults are designed to exploit..

    I’m sorry to have to nit-pick about something non-relevant to the main issue, but No and No. Children and adults are not *designed* differently in these ways, or for that matter in any particular ways.

    Humans *evolved* in such a way that children and adults have different prominent cognitive and behavioral traits. I understand that people and even scientists are careless sometimes with language, but in my experience, it is almost never a good choice to rephrase evolutionary thinking in “design” terms.

  8. Alex Gamma says:


    I agree with Brad. Evolution is not design. I know you might not have meant that literally, but it’s just as bad as a metaphor or analogy than it is in its literal meaning, because evolution (by natural selection) lacks the very key features of design: intention, planning and an intended goal state.

    In evolutionary parlance, what you say about adults and kids translates into “to exploit, [to] take what they’ve learned as children and put it to use…, to accomplish adult goals is an evolutionary adaptation in adults”, and “to explore [etc.]” is an evolutionary adaptation in kids. This means that adults who exploited and kids who explored, relative to conspecifics that didn’t do so or did less so, had more offspring *by virtue* of exploiting and exploring, respectively.

    Now there are two problems: First, we don’t know if that’s true. To make a claim about an evolutionary adaptation is to make a historical claim and it is virtually impossible to find out whether these (very broadly defined) activities specifically increased reproductive success in our ancestors. It seems to me it would hardly be feasible to test such a claim today!

    Second, let’s say we nevertheless knew that the claim was true. In the face of considerable human variability in all aspects of psychology and behavior, what does it explain? Obviously, both adults and kids can vary substantially in the extent to which they exploit or explore, respectively. Does that mean they don’t all have that adaptation? Or does the adaptation only explain some average tendency?

    I’m simply questioning what it is supposed to add to your explanations to refer to some speculative adaptations that can vary substantially across individuals.

    • Glen M. Sizemore says:

      “…evolution (by natural selection) lacks the very key features of design: intention, planning and an intended goal state.”

      GS: What is an “intention”? What is an “intended goal state”? I’m guessing that you are saying that “purpose” is not an explanation WRT evolution – but it is perfectly acceptable as an explanation of human behavior – or, at least, some of it. Right?

  9. A.G.McDowell says:

    I look forward to the psychologist who is able simultaneously to build a billion-dollar company and advance the skill of personnel selection by successfully applying psychology to the selection of individual people for one-off jobs – something that a number of people are now claiming they can do with reference to the job of President of the United States, but which I have not yet seen done routinely for other jobs with success. I currently give more credit to Google/Alphabet than the selectors of Presidents, because Google/Alphabet have had the honesty to admit that their earliest selection methods were ineffective.

  10. Feng says:

    Gopnik’s article would be totally fine, if she is just a journalist. Then the whole analysis would just be viewed as a narrative.

    But under the name of a developmental psychologist? Use your professional status for a political hack? This is just awful. It’s the same kind of behavior as those psychiatrists claim Trump has a mental health problem.

  11. Steve Sailer says:

    Tom Wolfe is the first person I can recall calling Trump’s egotism “childish.” I think he meant by this not that Trump was like children in general, but that children who are egomaniacal aren’t very subtle about: they aren’t very good at covering it up.

    Obama, for example, is pretty self-absorbed, judging by his authorial output (his third autobiography is now under contract). But he has a lot of adult sophistication at sanding the rough edges off his self-presentation. Trump doesn’t.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Here’s Wolfe on Trump:

      “I love the fact that he has a real childish side to him, saying things like: I am too worth ten billion! Most politicians would play that down, that they have all this money, but he is determined to let people know that. And he wants people to know that five billion of it comes from just his name—that you can start a hotel and call it Trump and it is going to be a success.

      TAS: Do you see him as a New York original?

      “Wolfe: He is a lovable megalomaniac. People get a big kick out of going to his office and behind his desk is this wall of pictures of himself in the news. The childishness makes him seem honest.”

      • Andrew says:


        Tom Wolfe is a genius but I have no sense if he believes any of what he wrote that he quoted above. Wolfe calling Trump “lovable” could well just be Wolfe doing a performance. For example, does Wolfe really think Trump was honest when he said, “I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering” as the World Trade Center collapsed? I doubt it. Could be, but I’m guessing that Wolfe just thinks it’s clever to say what he said.

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