There’s a reason why so many of the political commentators and activists who are pushing back against the Trump administration’s many executive orders and scandals are strenuously insisting that we "don't normalize Trump" and that we must not accept the administration's actions as “the new normal.” They’re not just shouting political catchphrases — they're fighting against humanity’s astonishing ability to acclimatize, a recognizable psychological phenomenon that is often the enemy of activist efforts.
Humans, as a species, are masters at adapting to our circumstances immediately and with imperceptible ease — and this applies to all arenas of life, including politics. A great recent example is former president George W. Bush, who had very low approval ratings while in office, but is now being lauded by many — including people who condemned him during his own presidency — for his criticism of the Trump administration. If you currently feel as if you’ve somehow always been watching news shows in which Putin’s face looms large, or that scrolling through endless editorials about problematic intelligence is not as shocking as it was even a few weeks ago, it's not because you're weird or not fighting back hard enough. You’re simply encountering a psychological fact of human existence — one that has serious political consequences.
Evolution Prizes The Ability To Adapt
REMINDER FOR DAY 44 OF TRUMP PRESIDENCY: THIS IS NOT NORMAL.— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) March 4, 2017
The adaptation strategy is an important one in the history of human evolution. "Survival of the fittest," if you remember your Darwin, is not just about adaptation to fit the particular elements of a given situation, but to adapt with it when it changes. This is why evolution is a process — as life throws new challenges, we and other organisms respond with an attempt to fit into them and make them work for us. In addition to physical changes, this strategy can also involve psychological acceptance.
How do we know about our acceptance levels? Through something called the hedonic treadmill, a famous theory about human adaptation to heightened levels of pleasure or pain. Basically, the theory goes, after our initial response to shifts in circumstances ("yay!" or "auuugh!" depending on the situation), the intensity of our reactions gradually tails off. It’s why people who live luxurious lifestyles aren’t satisfied with goods that people of lower income would kill for; even a gold-plated jet or a pet leopard eventually starts to lose its hedonic charm and become a normal part of life. (The limit for human happiness linked to income, for instance, seems to be $75,000 yearly; beyond that, there aren't significant increases in happiness.)
And that appears to apply to pain, too. Things that shock or upset us lose their hurt with repeated viewings or continued presence. The spider we so loathed when it first turned up in our bathroom is, after a month, given a pet name ("Jerry") and an affectionate wave as we head to the shower.
In a sense, this is related to the logic behind exposure therapy for severe phobias and PTSD, though the point of exposure therapy is to slowly expose people to things that aren't actually threatening and acclimatize their fear reactions; in ordinary life, our emotional responses may be "blunted" after repeat exposures to new environments and situations, because it's psychologically sensible for us to adapt to our new normal.
Various elements of the hedonic treadmill theory are up for debate. One is that not everybody seems to have the same happiness "baseline" that they drift back towards, for instance. And mood disorders such as depression obviously mess with our ability to adapt to and understand situations from a fundamentally normal emotional place; situations that exacerbate depression and anxiety, therefore, are likely to have less hedonic adaptation among people who experience those disorders or are vulnerable to developing them.
However, this overall logic may explain why, a mere few weeks into the Trump presidency, people seem to be less outraged and astonished than they were at the start. We've adapted.
Our Brains' Ability Adjust To New Situations May Be Why Humanity Has Flourished
The human ability to adapt to new scenarios is actually pretty astonishing, and scientists believe it's partially the cause of our huge success as a species. To survive and flourish over the course of human history as climates shifted and environments became volatile, we had to learn to assimilate new information and come up with new strategies — quickly. It was, from a survival standpoint, much better for us to put our heads down and figure out how to work with a new problem (dealing with an Ice Age, for instance) rather than spending our time shaken by how different it was from the old system. "The ability to think creatively, to imagine novel solutions to survival threats," Rick Potts of the Human Origins Program told Scientific American, "proved to be a major asset" in humanity's flourishing over millennia.
It's even been proposed that this adaptive capacity is what gave the genus Homo an advantage in a fluctuating world. Scientific research published in 2014 by Potts and other authors seems to indicate that adaptability to environmental challenges in East Africa nearly 2 millions years ago was what drove the Homo genus to develop, evolve new strategies and characteristics, and ultimately be so successful.
We Know How Our Brains Adapt To Political Change
What we're talking about in the current political situation, of course, is political adaptation — and we actually know the brain processes through which that happens. A 2010 study from Brown University showed that the brain's frontal lobe, and a complex series of interactions within it, are responsible for the abstract thinking that goes into absorbing new information and translating it into new actions and interpretations. When we're up against something new, we run it against multiple abstract models at once involving our own past experience and what we've just learned. It's what allows us to change our behavior to fit.
Why Adaptability Can Be Politically Dangerous
Adaptability has its own psychological vogue, and it's easy to understand why; being able to acclimatize fast to new situations is a valuable trait, professionally and socially. But it becomes a more intriguing question when it comes to our reactions to potentially dangerous new environments (like, for instance, a president who suggests, in the excellent words of Margaret Carlson for the Daily Beast, that "Obama is Nixon and up is down"). Human capacity to adapt to new challenges in everyday life can sometimes lead us to accept circumstances that should not, in any way, be accepted.
Dr Martina Klicperova-Baker, an expert on the psychology of democracy and governance, wrote in 1999 about psychological adaptation to life under totalitarian governments: "Totalitarian societies produce totalitarian minds.... a specific pattern of cognitions, attitudes and behaviors developed in order to adapt to life under totalitarian circumstances". The pressure of intensely dangerous and transformative political situations can lead us to adapt in ways that fundamentally challenge who we really are.
Since it's inevitable that humans will adapt, because it's in our nature, it is perhaps worth keeping the difference between adapting and accepting at the forefront of our minds. We may well adapt to a scenario in which the New York Times isn't allowed into White House briefings and the administration is full of people with hidden ties to Russia. Adaptation, in this sense, means finding new strategies to deal with this unprecedented weirdness, in ways that correspond to our long-held values about the function of political power. But it does not mean that our only option is accepting things and giving up on pushing back on them. Adjusting to the "new normal" until it's our regular normal may be our tendency — but that doesn't mean that it's our destiny.