Posts Tagged ‘theory of cognitive dissonance’

The Psychology That Binds Trump Fans to His Racism

July 23, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Kathleen D. Vohs in the Outlook section of the 21 July 2019 issue of the Washington Post. Vohs is writing about Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance. This theory will be returned to later in this post, but the article reminded HM that psychological theories can account for Trump and his supporters.

There have been many posts about Kahneman’s Two System view of cognition. There was a previous post titled Kahneman and Identity Based Politics that provides a large portion of the explanation for Trump and his followers. In Nobel Lauerate Daniel Kahneman’s Two System View of Cognition, System 1, intuition, is our normal mode of processing and requires little or no attention. System 2, commonly referred to as thinking, requires our attention. One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1. When we encounter something contradictory to what we believe, the brain sets off a distinct signal. It is easier to ignore this signal and to continue System 1 processing. To engage System 2 requires attentional resources to attempt to resolve the discrepancy and to seek further understanding.

Emotional processing is a System 1 process. System 1 is fast requiring minimal cognitive resources. Virtually all of Trump’s message is emotional and is processed on System 1. His MAGA message is one founded on hate and fear. Ironically, it seeks to turn the United States back to a time when it was much more racist and fearful of immigrants. There is nothing Great about what he wants to do to the United States.

Unfortunately, to rebuke these views requires System 2 processing. System 2 requires critical thinking, something which many find painful to do, and a recourse to facts and logic. Trump dislikes facts and tells his followers that he is the only source of truth. This is the hallmark of a demagogue, but his followers remain blind to his lies and contradictions.

Here is where Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance enters. Our minds do not like to confront dissonant ideas. So the tendency is to reduce the dissonance by shunning the truth. People refuse being called a racist, because racism is bad they, their families, and friends are certainly not racists.

Understand that we individuals cannot determine whether we are racists. We need to infer this from what we are called by others. “Strangers to Ourselves:  Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious”   by psychologist Timothy D. Wilson provides sound research showing that we need to understand ourselves from the reactions we receive from our fellow human beings. Unfortunately, many people remain unaware of this truth.

Perhaps the most prominent or well known example of this is Joe Biden. He has insulted people, but fails to apologize because he didn’t intend to insult them. There might be a problem with his brain, because this is not how it is supposed to function. Should you insult someone inadvertently, and HM has done this so many times that it is painful, apologize for insulting them and learn from this experience.
Many agree that Trump is not just a racist, but one of the world’s foremost racists. Unfortunately Trump’s base consists of Nazis and white supremacists. It is likely that Trump’s followers will deny this, but while they might not be Nazis, they are white supremacists. Indeed, Fox News has succeeded not from its fraudulent fair and balanced news, but by appealing to white supremacists. True they do not use the term, but the beliefs and the hatred of Obama stem from white supremacist beliefs.

Nazism and white supremacists are bad things, but people think of themselves as good people, not bad people. Similarly for their relatives and friends, they are good people, not bad people, so they cannot be white supremacists. But many, and it can be argued whether it’s a plurality or a majority, think that they are.

Trump voters express a variety of problems that are real and not racist. But still, how could they vote for Trump? Characterizing his behavior as boorish is being charitable. Clearly he is not presidential. He is an embarrassment for us regarding foreign nations. It is doubtful that he could pass a high school civics test. He embraces Putin and other totalitarian dictators. As was mentioned in a previous post, the paramount question is where did he get the money to make so many purchases since so many were in cash. He had been bankrupt and no respectable bank would lend him money. Trump’s son said that he got the money from Russia. So why won’t Trump release his financial data? The obvious reason is that he owes Putin and that Putin effectively owns him. All this was apparent before the election. Republicans recognized his faults and denounced him. But once he was elected, and many Healthymemory posts have outlined how Russia supported him, Republicans embraced him. It is clear that what they want is power, and the capability of profiting remuneratively from that power.

Expect Republicans to keep defending Trump. The Mueller report is not needed to impeach Trump. His behavior, which has worsened since he became President, is sufficient. Plus, how can the United States afford a president who is indebted to a hostile foreign power? Nevertheless, Republicans will ignore the facts and continue with the false narrative being advanced that Trump is the victim. This 1984 scenario is the only one that will save Trump.

Trump’s false claims about being the victim are clearly motivated out of desperation and are wrong, but to realize this it takes System 2 Processing, which requires mental effort and might be painful, so clearly Trump is a victim. Some people are for Trump for religious reasons, but religions that promote Trump have a political agenda. And for true Christians, they might want to switch to a Christian sect that is more in accordance with Christ’s teachings.

There is another dimension to consider, and that dimension is truly enormous. That is the social dimension. Although psychology provides an understanding of Trump’s support, unfortunately it provides little in the way of knowledge for changing people’s minds once they are firmly set. Usually this takes significant time. Abandoning Trump would likely produce frictions within families and among friends. So a thinking person needs to proceed carefully. One option would be to remain silent, but to use the ballot box to record one’s true and well reasoned opinions.

The Trump Cult

December 25, 2018

Regarding this post as a Christmas gift from HM. Actually this is actually a regift from a very good friend who sent me the link to this article by Alexander Hurst in the New Republic If you are a regular reader of the healthy memory blog you should know that HM has long been concerned about Donald Trump and his threat to American democracy. This article by Alexander Hurst in the New Republic presents a good frame for understanding Trump and his success, and also contains suggestions for dealing with this threat.

Although HM is grateful to his friend, he is also ashamed of himself as he has long known of the cited research, but failed to recognize its relevance to the Trump phenomenon.

The research in question began in 1954. Dorothy Martin and dozens of her followers crowded into her home in Chicago to await the apocalypse. They believed that Martin, a housewife, had received a message from a planet named Clarion that the world would end in a great flood beginning at midnight, and that they, the faithful, would be rescued by an alien spacecraft. Three of the group, Leon Festinger, Henry Reckon, and Stanley Schacter, were not there to be saved. The three had infiltrated the pseudo-cult to study Festinger’s recently elaborated theory of “cognitive dissonance.” The theory predicted that when people with strongly held beliefs were presented with contrary evidence, rather than change their minds they would seek comfort and “cognitive consonance” by convincing others to support their erroneous views.

Festinger’s prediction was correct. When neither the apocalypse nor the UFO arrived, the group began proselytizing about how God had rewarded the Earth with salvation because of their vigil. Festinger’s subsequent book, “When Prophecy Fails,” became a standard sociology reference for examining cognitive dissonance. Hurst notes that it is unlikely that the researchers would have predicted that over a half century later Festinger’s theory would be applicable to roughly 25% of the population of the United States and one of its two major political parties. But the theory was timely as it provides an understanding for deprogramming the Trump cult’s acolytes. This effort would require a level of sympathetic engagement on the part of nonbelievers that they have yet to display.

Hurst writes, “Trump, like the populist authoritarians before and around him, has also understood (or, at least, instinctually grasped) how indispensable his own individual persona is to his ultimate goal of grasping and maintaining power. Amidst his string of business failures, Trump’s singular talent has been that of any con man: the incredible ability to cultivate public image. Of course, Trump did not build his cult of followers—his in-group—ex nihilo; in many ways, the stage was set for his entrance. America had already split into two political identities by the time he announced his campaign for president in 2015, not just in terms of the information we consume, but down to the brands we prefer and the penchant for manipulating the media, Trump tore pages from the us-against-them playbook of the European [and Russian] far right and presented them to a segment of the American public already primed to receive it with religious further.”

Jana Lalich, a sociologist who specializes in cults, identified four characteristics of a totalistic cult and applied them to Trumpism: “an all-encompassing belief system, extreme devotion to the leader, reluctance to acknowledge criticism of the group or its leader, and a disdain for nonmembers.” Another sociologist of cults, Eileen Barker, has written that, “together, cult leaders and followers created and maintain their movement by proclaiming shared beliefs and identifying themselves as a distinguishable unit; behaving in ways that reinforce the group as a social entity, live closing themselves off to conflicting information; and stoking division and fear of enemies, real or perceived.”

Hurst notes that his nearly 90% approval rating among Republicans is the more remarkable for his having shifted Republican views on a range of issued from trade, to NATO, and to Putin. His endless rallies small of a noxious sort of revivalism, complete with a loyalty “pledge” curing the 2016 campaign. What is most worrisome is an almost universal unwillingness by Republican congressional leadership to check or thwart Trump’s worst instincts in ay substantive way.

Disdain for nonmembers, the ‘gobalists,” immigrants, urbanites, Muslims, Jews , and people of color. Hurst notes that Woody Guthrie sang in 1950 about his father Fred Trump’s discriminatory policies housing policies. Donald continues in his father’s way about birthirism, that dark-skinned immigrants come from “shithole countries,” his frequent classification of black people as uppity and ungrateful, his denigration of Native Americans, his incorporation of white nationalist thought into his administration, and his equivocation over neo-Nazis.

Hurst writes, “Trump sold his believers an engrossing tale of “American carnage” that he alone could fix, then isolated them in a media universe where reality exists only through Trump-tinted glasses, attacking all other sources of information as “fake news.” In the most polarized media landscape in the wealthy world, Republicans place their trust almost exclusively in Fox News, seeing nearly all other outlets as biased. In that context, the effect of a president who lie an average of ten times a day is the total blurring of fact and fiction, reality and myth, trust and cynicism. It is a world where, in the words of Rudy Giuliani, “truth is no longer truth”. “Who could really know?” Trump said of claims that Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “It is what it is.”

Trump supporters have time and time again displayed either indifference or disbelief when presented with Trump’s actual record, which has fallen short of what he promised on the campaign trail. With respect to his many, many lies, a Trump supporter said “I don’t care if he sprouts a third dick up there.” What actually is is irrelevant; what does matter is that Trump reflects back to his supporters a general feeling of what ought to be and a generation of in their guts. Hurst concludes, “Those caught in the web of Trumpism do not see the deception that surrounds them.
So when confronted with the 17, and still growing charges being levied against Trump and his group, it is unrealistic to think that many will say that the scales have fallen from their eyes and they at last see the danger that Trump presents not just to the nation, but to the entire world.

There are known ways of converting cult followers. A 2011 study by the RAND Corporation concluded that, “Factors associated with leaving street gangs, religious, right-wing extremist groups, and organized crime groups include positive social ties and an organic disillusionment with the group’s beliefs or ideology. Psychologists Rod and Linda Dubrow-Marshall write in “The Conversation,” it’s extremely difficult for people to admit they are wrong, and it’s crucial for them to arrive at that realization on their own.

Hurst writes, “The very things responsible for the success of democratic transition are under near constant assault from Trump and his Republican abettors. Democracy, especially liberal democracy, has always been dependent on the trust and belief of the self-governed. It is one thing to implement tangible measures to prevent the decay of bedrock institutions when we know what these measures should look like. It’s another, far tougher thing, to figure out how to maintain the legacy of the these same institutions—and how to restore it once lost.”

Sociologists and psychologists are agreed that when it comes to helping individuals leave cult-like groups positive social factors are more effective than negative sanctions. It is better to use dialogue to ask questions and reinforce doubts thatcher then to criticize. Testimonials from former cult members can be especially helpful in fueling disillusionment.

Northern Ireland likely most approximates the United States, in that it was part of a wealthy nation with a democratic tradition (though in the 1980s, Northern Ireland was in a far worse situation of political division and communitarion violence).

Maria Power, a researcher in conflict transformation studies at Oxford, sees strategies from Northern Ireland that could be deployed on the other side of the Atlantic. She cited dialogue-building between Unionist and Republican women, who faced much thought obstacles to reconciliation since they were “risking their lives” even time they met in East Belfast during the Troubles. She said that the peace effort in Northern Ireland hinged on incredibly tough person-to-person groundwork carried out by dozens of organizations and ecumenical groups. She emphasized above all the importance of investing time and effort into building trust, first within, and then later between, identity groups.”

Power also said “that conflict transformation in the United States would likely involve local grassroots community development in the areas that Trump lies to hold rallied. “I don’t meat that progressives should go to these communities and start knocking on doors, tat would be the worst thing that could happen exacerbate tensions. I mean that there should be a focus on real comment development in these areas.”

Although Hurst does not mention the outbreak of violence, that should not be overlooked. Why was Russia pouring money into the NRA? Why is their such reluctance against banning assault class weapons?

We all should be cognizant of the Trump problem. All too often people seem to think that this is politics as normal. True norms are being broken, but it must be realized that Trump seeks to emulate Putin and Kim Jong Un.