Even though I try to stay out of politics, even though I don’t watch TV, or even live in the United States, every day I am met with another segment of “Can you believe what Trump did?” and “How can people still support this guy?”
No matter what he does, his supporters still stay by his side assured that what they just witnessed isn’t true or that it’s completely justified for some reason. It’s easy to be befuddled by this and simply proclaim that “all Trump supporters are mindless idiots” but, in many cases, this is just the effect of our own psychology.
And, in other situations, all of us act exactly the same.
There is a very common psychological phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance.
It refers to a mental discomfort you feel when holding two contradictory beliefs or values at the same time. If you think one thing, but act the opposite way, it doesn’t make any sense. So, you make up a story which explains the situation and convinces you that you had a reason for behaving in such a way.
Now, you may think to yourself: “Okay, so maybe I sometimes skim the truth, exaggerate the stories I tell, and have some unresolved issues. But I most surely don’t convince myself of something that I know is incorrect. Why the hell would I do that?”
But you do it. And I do as well. In fact, everybody does it. We can’t help it.
The best way to illustrate how this works in real life is by looking at the study from 1957. 1Leon Festinger’s 1957 Experiment In the study, students had to perform some boring, pointless tasks for 30 minutes. When they were finished, the researchers told them something like this:
We usually prepare people by telling them that the tasks are super-fun. But the guy who usually does this job isn’t here, so… can you just go out and tell the next student that the boring tasks you did were actually interesting?
Then, depending on the group, the student was offered either 20$ or $1 for their service. All of the students in the experiment agreed to be hired and, after they had completed their job, they were interviewed once again and asked one simple questions:
Did you actually enjoy performing the boring tasks?
Simple enough to answer, right? I mean, the tasks were designed to be boring and without purpose. And, surely enough, students who were paid $20 admitted this: yeah, the tasks were boring, but I lied to the next person because I got paid. Dollar dollar bill, y’all!
However, people who were paid only $1 had no real reason to lie: they knew the tasks were boring as shit and they were paid basically nothing to lie. So… why did they do it? Are they bad, immoral people? In their minds, it didn’t make any sense. They were holding two contradictory thoughts:
- Tasks are boring
- I said they were fun
I didn’t lie for the money because $1 is such a small payout that it’s completely insignificant. Why then? Why would I just lie and sacrifice my own integrity for no good reason? Am I crazy? Am I a sociopath? No, I can’t be. If I said that the tasks were fun, then I’m sure that they actually were fun. Otherwise, why would I have said it?
And this is exactly what happened. Students who were paid $1 couldn’t comprehend why they would have simply lied for no reason, so they convinced themselves that they had actually enjoyed the tasks and that they would gladly participate in the experiment again.
This may seem like a one-in-a-million event, but it really isn’t. All of us do it, we just aren’t aware of it. We are oftentimes irrational; we do shit that makes absolutely zero sense. But our brains cannot accept that, so we make up reasons that justify our irrational actions.
And this is the case with Trump supporters.
THE TRUTH OFTEN HURTS
While it’s true that Trump has a tendency to attract crowds who have racist and xenophobic views, 2Bloomberg on Trump and Xenophobia not all of his supporters fall into this category.
But even when the guy obviously contradicts himself (as in, there is a video recording of him saying one thing and another recording of him saying the exact opposite), they will negate any criticism and find a compelling reason of why they aren’t wrong.
Most of us will look at this and think — how? I know we don’t see the same reality, but how in the hell can you not see that he is literally contradicting himself?
If you voted for someone because you truly believed he would change things for the better and then, as time passes, you realize he isn’t doing shit, you start to think… why the hell did I vote for him?
Am I crazy? Am I responsible for the current state of things? Is it partially my fault? If I don’t like what he’s doing, why would I have voted for him? No, that can’t be right. I’m not crazy. If I voted for him, I must’ve had a good reason. He must actually be the good guy I thought he was, and the media is just biased and is reporting lies.
And this pattern of thinking is a textbook case of cognitive dissonance:
This tension makes us uncomfortable enough we’re motivated to reduce it in a number of ways. We may change the way we think about the decision or try to change how others think about it so that they can support our decisions. Or we may change some aspect of our behavior, so that our decision seems more “in character” with us.
In other words, we try to reduce the dissonance between how we think we should act and how we actually act by changing one or the other.— Philip Zimbardo 3Philip Zimbardo, Discovering Psychology (1990)
The problem with cognitive dissonance is that we never consciously go through this thought process. Our brains are hardwired to need to make sense of things, so when we hold two opposite ideas, our brain automatically conjures a story that explains it.
And, since nobody really wants to questions themselves, we eat that shit up and never think twice about it. We don’t want to believe we’re crazy, so we do crazy things to stop us from seeming crazy.
This is just how our minds work. Fuck it. We’re imperfect in too many ways to count. But knowing that we have a tendency to brainwash ourselves, you can break the cycle.
Sure, these things happen subconsciously, but you can now consciously recognize when they happen and stop them from causing any future damage.
Next time you feel like you’re struggling with your own actions or beliefs, think to yourself: is this making sense? Am I just justifying my irrationality? Should I maybe adjust or change my behavior or my values?
If the answer turns out to be yes, do it. After all, you can’t fix your problems if you don’t admit they exist.