On Donald Trump and cognitive dissonance

by Paul Warwick

In his most recent Oracy Cambridge blog, Neil Mercer considers the language used by Donald Trump, and its contribution to his influence over nearly half of all American voters. In this piece, I will consider why a great many of those supporters are now likely not simply to continue their support, but to see Donald Trump’s demise, and any manifest evidence of improper behaviour on his part, as a confirmation of their ‘just cause’. I will also consider why others, on the other hand, are likely to become more circumspect about their support, as we have already seen with some Republican politicians. In so doing, I draw heavily on ideas of cognitive dissonance, self-justification and confirmation bias, articulated and elaborated by the psychologists Leon Festinger, Elliot Aronson and others working in this field since the 1950s. In particular, I was prompted to write this blog after reading ‘Mistakes were made, but not by me’, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (2019), which provides an illuminating and highly readable account of these theories and which has made me profoundly question the basis of my own thinking on many issues.

At the heart of this blog is the idea of cognitive dissonance – ‘a state that occurs when a person holds two…. ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions that are psychologically inconsistent’ (Tavris & Aronson, p17, 2019). For example, ‘It’s important, as I get older, to manage my diet so that I stay healthy’ and ‘I always like to have a biscuit with my cup of tea’; or ‘I believe it’s really important not to see people as undifferentiated groups’ and ‘I don’t like cat owners’. These examples seem trivial, but they illuminate something about us all – we hold dissonant ideas but we strive for consonance.

The question, then, is: what happens when we hold dissonant ideas? Do we examine the facts, weigh the evidence, temper what is irrational, challenge our own prejudices and arrive at a balanced and logical view? Sadly, the evidence of countless studies suggests that, in most cases, we don’t (and yes, I’m talking about me and about you). Having adopted an idea or point of view, our most likely next steps are to rapidly become less receptive to alternative viewpoints, instead embarking on a road of self-justification. And within this, we employ confirmation bias, judging all that we see, read or hear that is consonant with our viewpoint to be manifestly sensible, whilst those perspectives that are dissonant are less ‘worthy’, or are dismissed out of hand. And the more firmly entrenched we become, the more likely we are to reject any dissonant facts, evidence or arguments. Hence the desperation of the climate change activist who cries ‘But why can’t they just look at the evidence? It’s so overwhelming.’ And the response of the climate change sceptic – ‘The so-called evidence is rigged; everybody knows that these scientists are part of a self-serving cartel.’

These ideas are particularly relevant to the field of politics, where many voters ‘took sides’ long ago. The problem with dissonant information coming in is that we have to do something with it, and the easiest thing to do to restore consonance is to reject it. In the UK, the Conservatives could have the best argument imaginable, with supporting evidence, for a particular course of action; but the reaction of a Labour supporter is likely to be rejection, rather than consideration of the idea. The same is true, of course, if Labour were to present a great idea to a Conservative audience. Do you do this kind of thing? Be honest… if you do, there are 7 and a half billion of us with you!

Which brings us to a few ideas about Donald Trump, and particularly about some of his supporters. It is important to understand that extreme ideas or ideologies do not just arise in our minds. We take small steps toward a set of opinions that are likely to be impervious to argument, building self-justification as we go – ‘I accept this, so it’s alright to accept that’. We forget that we once held a different point of view, were once more persuaded by argument; now we are sure that we have, in fact, always held this view, and the reason is… that it is manifestly correct! As Neil points out in his blog, language has much to do with whether groups cohere around bad (and good) ideas; but so does the pull of just being in a group, and so does the deep psychological need for individuals to avoid dissonance.

I was particularly struck by one piece of research cited by Tavris and Aronson, as it speaks to the possible enduring appeal, for some of his supporters, of Donald Trump’s ‘vision’. They cite the case of a doomsday cult in 1950s America, the members of which met on the day the Earth was to end. Some followers had sold their houses and dispersed the money – it was going to be the end of the world after all. Psychologists had infiltrated the group and predicted that these followers, with the most to lose, would become even more fervent supporters of the cult if the end of the world did not happen. They further predicted that less heavily invested supporters would withdraw.

The time came, but the end of the world didn’t. After an uncomfortable period, the cult leader stated that the group’s prayers had saved the world. Those who had invested heavily in the doomsday idea rejoiced and promised to proselytise, going on to do so in subsequent weeks; those less heavily invested, as predicted, disappeared. For those most heavily invested in the idea of the doomsday cult, the dissonance between their view of themselves as rational, intelligent people and the fact that they had followed seemingly crazy ideas was enormous. As Tavris and Aronson (p39) state: ‘To reduce the dissonance, her followers could either modify their opinion of their intelligence or justify the incredibly stupid thing that they had just done. It’s not a close contest; justification wins by three lengths.’

This story is both encouraging and alarming. Many ordinary supporters of Donald Trump will take this moment to question the depth of their support, perhaps leading to a post-hoc denial of involvement in questionable actions or in the stating of questionable ‘truths’. But many more heavily invested will experience dissonance forcibly. Given the choice between their chosen political identity, extremely professed for four years or more, and any evidence that their choices may have been problematic (to say the least), they are likely to follow the path of self-justification and strengthen their support. Here, they are likely to be supported by confirmation bias, only seeing things that confirm their own view as legitimate, and seeing all other perspectives as illegitimate. And lest we laugh or jeer, this is us. As we have seen too often, when humans are set on a path, the way soon becomes clear for more and more extreme acts, supported by the need to avoid dissonance and to self-justify.

Why am I discussing this in a blog that focuses on oracy? Because it seems that we need two things if we are to hope to counter a world in which opposing perspectives can only be shouted into an inattentive void. We need an understanding of ourselves, and of the psychological effects of dissonance that tend to make us reject rather than consider alternative viewpoints, and that drive self-justification and confirmation bias. We won’t succeed in eradicating our bias, but we can at least be aware of it. And we need an education system – for all and not just the few – that gives appropriate attention to the need for future citizens to be able to engage in courteous debate, consider evidence reasonably and dispassionately no matter what the source, present arguments, ask questions and, above all, listen to others. Perhaps it’s trite, perhaps it’s clichéd, but it seems to me that one essential in surviving an uncertain future is oracy education.

References

Tavris, C. & Aronson, E. (2019) Mistakes were made, but not by me. London: Pinter & Martin

1 thought on “On Donald Trump and cognitive dissonance”

  1. An education system that values different perspectives and doesn’t insist on there being a right way of doing something but that acknowledges that there are often many ways and encourages learners to understand how they are linked. Hear, hear!

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