Cognitive Dissonance and Terror Management

Support for President Trump may reflect dissonance and terror management.

Posted May 20, 2020

Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar

In the heyday of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, when asked if his smoking habit was a symbolic manifestation of unconscious sexual desires, he allegedly replied that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” 

Sometimes things are just as they appear to be.

The “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” explanation has recently been invoked to account for President Trump’s relatively high approval ratings. Pollsters, pundits, political analysts, pro-Trump media and MAGA fans interpret these numbers as a straightforward indication of Americans’ appreciation of, and support for, Trump’s effective leadership as a “wartime president” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trump’s present bumps, and potential future ones, may not, however, reflect genuine approval of the President’s leadership. Trump's rise in popularity may have little to do with the President per se, so much as a generic “rally round the flag” effect or a general increase of support for war-time leaders found around the world in response to a crisis. Moreover, Trump’s approval rating has not increased as much as other leaders. Is Trump actually being damned with faint praise?

While Trump supporters claim their support for the president is due to his heroic and effective leadership, humans are notoriously inaccurate when explaining the underlying causes of our attitudes and behavior. In one famous study[i], women stopped individually in a department store looked at four pairs of stockings, picked the one they liked best and explained why they chose it. After each participant's explanation, the stockings were shuffled and put back on the table. Over 90 percent of the women picked the pair of stockings placed on the far right of the table, and none of the participants said that their choice was based on where the stockings were located. 

If we generally do not know why we do what we do when we do it, what else then could account for Trump bumps in the polls?

One possibility is that increased support for the President results from cognitive dissonance

In 1954, former L. Ron Hubbard devotee Dorothy Martin prophesized that on December 20, 1954, a flying saucer from the planet Clarion would arrive to rescue her spiritual followers, many of whom had abandoned their jobs and spouses, just before the world was deluged by a great flood. When the flying saucer failed to materialize and the world persisted thereafter, followers became more confident that Martin’s prophecy would soon be fulfilled, and stepped up their efforts to recruit new group members. 

To explain this counter-intuitive outcome, social psychologist Leon Festinger proposed that inconsistency between our attitudes and behavior produces cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable state of arousal that we reduce either by changing our attitudes or behavior. When the prophecy failed, the followers, who had devoted considerable energy and resources in preparation for the rescue, were in a state of dissonance; consequently, they increased their commitment to the cause to justify the effort they had already expended in devotion to it rather than acknowledge that they had been duped by a fraud.[ii]

Many Americans voted for Donald Trump despite serious misgivings about his character and competence, which they were generally able to overlook because of the robust economy. However, it is quite evident to some that Trump ignored or denied the danger of the virus for months primarily for political gain; that his daily diatribes can no longer obscure the federal government’s appallingly inadequate response to the pandemic; and, that the resulting economic devastation will be long-standing. Those Americans are likely in a state of cognitive dissonance. Having voted for Trump is inconsistent with their dawning realization that he is manifestly unfit for office in general and to lead the country in a time of crisis in particular. 

Just like the seekers spurned by the flying saucer doubled-down on their beliefs to reduce dissonance, some Americans may increase their support for the President to reduce dissonance rather than acknowledge having been duped and needing to change their behavior accordingly. 

Amplified enthusiasm and support for Trump could also reflect defensive reactions to existential anxiety. Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that the uniquely human awareness of death gives rise to potentially debilitating terror that humans manage by embracing cultural worldviews that provide a sense of meaning and value. Moreover, during times of historical upheaval when traditional worldviews are found increasingly wanting, people tend to embrace charismatic or populist leaders: seemingly larger-than-life individuals who are perceived, or claim to be, divinely ordained to rid the world of evil.[iii] 

President George W. Bush’s approval rating skyrocketed in the aftermath of 9/11 after he declared that the U.S. would eliminate the evil-doers and that God had chosen him to lead the country during that perilous time. In a study conducted a few weeks before the 2004 presidential election, while participants in a control condition reported intending to vote for Senator John Kerry by a 4:1 margin, those reminded of their mortality reported intending to vote for President Bush by a more than 2:1 margin. These findings suggest that the 9/11 terrorist attacks served as a potent reminder of personal mortality for millions of Americans.[iv]

Similarly, Donald Trump ran for President insisting that only he could keep Americans safe from invasion and conquest by foreign immigrants and terrorists. Studies conducted prior to the 2016 election demonstrated that while Americans were more supportive of Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump in a control condition, their support for Trump increased in response to a death reminder; and, Americans asked to think about a terrorist attack, or a mosque being built in their town, or immigrants moving into their neighborhood, had increased levels of non-conscious death thoughts that in turn increased their support for Trump.[v],[vi]  Just like the Bush bump after 9/11, Trump’s bump may be due to pervasive death fears elicited by the pandemic.

Although Trump’s poll numbers are currently sagging, there will likely be other ratings bumps in the weeks to come. Such bumps may reflect genuine support for Trump. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” But then again, it could be defensive reactions to cognitive dissonance and existential terror.  These are very different explanations for the same numbers, and future research will be necessary to determine what underlies them. Meanwhile, best to remember that “sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar”.


[i] Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84(3), 231–259.

[ii] Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1964). When prophecy fails: A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world. Harper Torchbooks.

[iii] Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death.  New York: Free Press.

[iv] Cohen, F., Ogilvie, D. M., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2005). American roulette: The effect of reminders of death on support for George W Bush in the 2004 presidential election. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (ASAP), 5(1), 177–187.

[v] Cohen, F., Soenke, M., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2013). Evidence for a role of death thought in American attitudes toward symbols of Islam. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(2), 189–194.

[vi] Cohen, F., Solomon, S., & Kaplin, D. (2017). You’re hired! Mortality salience increases Americans’ support for Donald Trump. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (ASAP), 17(1), 339–357.