Dissonance and the President
How supporters of the current president continue to support him.
Posted Aug 27, 2020
Like many others, I am surprised that so many people continue to support Donald Trump as president of the US. It seems that supporting him would cause dissonance for many people, particularly Christians. Prior to running for president, he owned casinos (many Christians regard gambling as a sin) and he cheated on his wives (adultery is a sin to most Christians). As president, he has engaged in many actions that seem immoral. How do so many still support him? Surely they must experience dissonance over this. How do they reduce this dissonance?
One of the least studied aspects of cognitive dissonance theory is the wide variety of ways in which individuals reduce dissonance. Most of the published research has focused on how individuals change their attitudes after they behave counter to their attitudes. With regard to Christians’ responses to Trump, they have behaved in ways to support Trump, and this could be referred to as their counterattitudinal behavior. Following the majority of past research, then we should expect that these individuals should change their attitudes about Christianity; that is, they should become less interested in being a Christian. But does this happen? I suspect it does not for most Christians because being Christian is very important to them. Do they attempt to psychologically undo their behavior of supporting Trump? It also doesn’t appear that they do this.
Do they claim they were forced to support the current president? This is a plausible way to reduce dissonance, based on research by Gosling, Denizeau, and Oberlé (2006), but given their continued support, it does not appear that they do this either.
Another possible set of reactions could involve trying to “psychologically undo” the immoral actions of Trump. For instance, they could claim that he did not engage in the immoral behaviors of which he has been accused. But what if they believe that he did engage in those immoral actions? They must experience considerable dissonance if they continue to value their moral beliefs, continue their support, but believe that the president has engaged in immoral actions. How do they cope with this dissonance?
It is puzzling that Christians often seem to be excessively supportive of the president, long after he has been elected. What is going on here? This might relate to some paradoxical behaviors observed in past dissonance research in which individuals are exposed to information that challenges a belief, and then they bolster that belief (Batson, 1975). Exposure to information highlighting Trump’s immorality seems to inspire more support for him. This may be because Christians are working to reduce their original dissonance between his immorality and their Christian beliefs.
One of the most common cries of his supporters is, “What about her emails?” This is a reference to the claim that Hillary Clinton, as US Secretary of State, used a private email server instead of the official federal server to communicate about classified information. (After an investigation by the FBI, she was not prosecuted.) It is as though the president's supporters are saying he might be bad but his competition is as bad or worse.
We recently published a paper that examined this way of reducing dissonance (Harmon-Jones, Harmon-Jones, & Denson, 2020). In the study, Americans were exposed to an article that described Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct (or a neutral article). Then, they were presented with a meme that showed Hillary Clinton making a shocked expression as (what appeared to be) Joe Biden whispered to her. The super-imposed text read, “Hey lady, do you need your server wiped?” Then, participants were asked how likely they would share this information on any of their social media accounts. Later, they were asked how much they believed the truth of the article.
Consistent with predictions derived from cognitive dissonance theory, participants who supported Trump, were exposed to the sexual misconduct article, and believed in the truthfulness of the article were most likely to indicate that they would share the meme about Hillary Clinton.
The same kinds of questions could be asked about supporters of other politicians who continued to support them after it was discovered they had behaved in ways contrary to the supporters’ beliefs and values. For instance, how did feminists who supported President Bill Clinton deal with the fact that he cheated on his wife and had sex with someone who worked for him?
Batson, C. D. (1975). Rational processing or rationalization? The effect of disconfirming information on a stated religious belief. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(1), 176-184.
Gosling, P., Denizeau, M., & Oberlé, D. (2006). Denial of responsibility: a new mode of dissonance reduction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 722-733.
Harmon-Jones, E., Harmon-Jones, C., & Denson, T. F. (2020). A novel way of responding to dissonance evoked by belief disconfirmation: making the wrongdoing of an opponent salient. Social Influence, 15(1), 34-45.