There's something really bizarre about how Clinton prepared to debate Trump

Tonight, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are set to face off in the third and final presidential debate of the 2016 election.

Back in August, The New York Times reported that Hillary Clinton's campaign brought in psychology experts to help her prepare for her first debate with Donald Trump. Which is weird, because that's not really what psychologists do.

Clinton and Trump on key issues

Trump vs. Clinton on hot button issues
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Trump vs. Clinton on hot button issues
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Here is the relevant part of the Times' article (emphasis mine):

Hillary Clinton's advisers are ... seeking insights about Mr. Trump's deepest insecurities as they devise strategies to needle and undermine him ... at the first presidential debate ... Her team is also getting advice from psychology experts to help create a personality profile of Mr. Trump to gauge how he may respond to attacks and deal with a woman as his sole adversary on the debate stage. They are undertaking a forensic-style analysis of Mr. Trump's performances in the Republican primary debates, cataloging strengths and weaknesses as well as trigger points that caused him to lash out in less-than-presidential ways.

There's not a tremendous amount of information here, but it's enough to work from if we want to find research relevant to the work these psychologists (or "psychology experts") are reportedly doing. The strange part is that there isn't much to find.

If you have somebody who's narcissistic you want to threaten their ego. But I guess you and my grandmother probably knew that, right?

Psychology has long been interested in the nature and structure of personality. But as for studies of "trigger points," strategies for needling and undermining people, or systems for predicting how a man with a misogynist past might betray his true feelings in the future — there isn't much to be found.

David Silber, a professor emeritus of psychology at George Washington University, told Business Insider that while he considers Trump a "narcissist," he's not aware of any particular science that might help Clinton take advantage of the Republican candidate's alleged personality disorder.

RELATED: What to watch out for during the last presidential debate:

(The American Psychiatric Association has a rule, known as "The Goldwater Rule," which prohibits psychiatrists from offering any diagnoses or opinions as to the mental of public figures who they have no personally examined. I have not asked any researchers — psychologists in this case, not psychiatrists — to break it. All three who I spoke to for this story used the word "narcissist" unprompted.)

Big name Republicans stand up to Trump

Republicans coming out against Donald Trump
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Republicans coming out against Donald Trump

Arizona Senator John McCain: "I will not vote for Donald Trump."

(Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush: "No apology can excuse away Donald Trump's reprehensible comments degrading women."

(Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

Texas Senator Ted Cruz: Trump's comments are "disturbing and inappropriate, there is simply no excuse for them."

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham: "I have never been comfortable with Donald Trump as our Republican nominee."

(Photo by Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: "Donald Trump should not be President."

(Photo by Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

South Dakota Senator John Thune: "Donald Trump should withdraw and Mike Pence should be our nominee effective immediately."

(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski: "I cannot and will not support Donald Trump for president."

(Photo by Matthew Busch/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse: Donald trump "is obviously not going to win [and should] step aside."

(Photo credit SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Idaho Senator Mike Crapo: Donald Trump should step aside due to "disrespectful, profane and demeaning" behavior.

(Photo by Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Utah Senator Mike Lee: Donald Trump is a "distraction.

(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Maine Senator Susan Collins: Donald Trump is "unsuitable for the presidency ... I [can] not support his candidacy."

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Texas Senator John Cornyn: "I am disgusted by Mr Trump's words about women."

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman: "The time has come for Governor Pence to lead the ticket."

(Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)

Utah Representative Mia Love: Stated she "cannot vote for" Donald Trump. 

(Photo credit SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Colorado Representative Mike Coffman: Donald Trump should withdraw "for the good of the country."

(Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Missouri Representative Ann Wagner: "I withdraw my endorsement and call for Governor Pence to take the lead" in the race.

(Photo via REUTERS/Gary Cameron)

Virginia Representative Barbara Comstock: Trump's remarks were "disgusting, vile, and disqualifying."

(Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan: "I will support Governor Mike Pence for President."

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Colorado Senator Cory Gardner: Donald Trump's flaws are "beyond mere moral shortcomings ... I cannot and will not support someone who brags about degrading and assaulting women."

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

New Jersey Representative Scott Garrett: Has stated he is "appalled" by Trump's actions.

(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Former New York Governor George Pataki: "Enough! [Trump] needs to step down."

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Michigan Representative Fred Upton: Donald Trump needs to "step down."

(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam: Trump should "step aside and let Gov. Mike Pence assume the role as the party's nominee."

(Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images)

Utah Governor Gary Herbert: "I will not vote for Trump."

(Photo by James MacDonald/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

California Representative Steve Knight: Trump's comments were "inexcusable."

(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)


Another researcher, Scott Lilienfeld, who studies and teaches the psychology of personality at Emory, told Business Insider he also could not point to any particular advice psychologists could offer Clinton in taking on Trump — beyond what he called "the obvious thing."

"If you have somebody who's narcissistic you want to threaten their ego," he said. "But I guess you and my grandmother probably knew that, right? You find out what they're insecure about and you hound them on that. You go for the person's weakness."

Brent Roberts, who studies and teaches personality psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, broadly agreed. Though he suggested some clinicians might have enough less-than-empirical, clinical experience with narcissists to offer more specific suggestions.

Lilienfeld was less optimistic that there might be a cohort out there with the skills to dismantle Trump.

"If they did, I would have thought that they'd have been able to stop Donald Trump by now," Lilienfeld said.

RELATED: What to watch for during the last presidential debate:

He said it's worrying to hear that psychologists might be consulting the Clinton campaign.

"I say this without knowing what these experts are saying — it's possible they're working some magic I'm not aware of," he said. "But I worry a little bit about psychologists over-claiming expertise as though there's some well-established body of psychological science that says, 'Oh you should really do X as a candidate.' I'm just not aware of any along those lines."

If I can talk to you, why wouldn't I be able to talk to a presidential candidate?

If politics was within the domain of psychology, he said, there'd have to be controlled trials and peer-reviewed studies before anyone was qualified to offer advice. They'd have to show that Trump voters or independents, presented with a particular kind of message, were significantly more likely to vote for Clinton three months later.

As for research into how to induce bad behavior on a debate stage? Both Roberts and Lilienfeld offered that it might be difficult to get an institutional ethical review board to approve that kind of work.

Lilienfeld also said that he thinks there are dangers to psychologists consulting with politicians.

"I think our job as psychologists is to better inform and educate the public, and I think there's a real danger in allowing ourselves to get too entangled in politics," he said. "I think it can tarnish the reputation of psychologists."

Roberts was less concerned.

"If I can talk to you, why wouldn't I be able to talk to a presidential candidate?"

He said there are no specific ethical guidelines to prevent psychologists from offering bad advice, and that psychological consultants do so all the time — noting the example of personality questionnaires offered to businesses to help evaluate their employees.

That said, he allowed that there are "questions" about the validity of any claims about how Trump might behave if they're purported to emerge from empirical findings.

Lilienfeld said he wishes psychologists would just stay out of it.

"I would prefer psychologists better help the public to evaluate information. And become better critical thinkers, and learn how to become more resistant to misleading, false persuasion on the part of political candidates. That I think would be a much better use of psychologists' time."

Hillary Clinton's campaign did not return a request for comment.

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