Many people are wondering about the 35 to 45% of the population that seems to be unshakably devoted to the Ol’ Pussy Grabber. His approval ratings rarely dip below 40% and have not exceeded 50% except for a brief period after inauguration. According to FiveThirtyEight‘s polling average, his approval rating has varied from 36% to 45% for most of his term.
Given the utter debacle that his reaction to #COVID19 has been, is it any wonder that we are all wondering just what it will take to get the base to abandon him? Seriously folks, he wants us all to suffer and die painful miserable deaths. Isn’t that (a) painfully apparent to one and all and (b) enough to get folks to turn against him?
It should go without saying, but no one should harass, smart off to, make fun of, or otherwise be nasty to @WorriedCitizen as a result of seeing this here.
Luckily for us, psychology has an explanation and some hints about how to reduce his support. In this two part post, we’ll be looking first at the explanation and, then, in the second part, at the ways his support can be reduced.
History is replete with cults, belief systems, and predictions that have gathered many ardent followers and run afoul of reality. None have survived a strenuous contradiction by reality, but some have persisted for a surprisingly long time after being thoroughly debunked. The lessons learned in studying these groups can be applied to the current crop of MAGAs and #COVID19 doubters.
Leon Festinger, the Seekers, and “When Prophecy Fails”
Way back in 1954, Leon Festinger studied the Seekers, a small UFO-end-of-the-world-doomsday cult in Chicago. He and his students infiltrated the group to conduct covert observations — the cult members didn’t realize that they were only there to observe and take notes. Festinger et al. did a good job of pretending to be members. Everyone was fooled, so they all behaved naturally without any self-consciousness giving Festinger insight into the psychological machinations that the cult members used to maintain their beliefs even in the face of repeated failed predictions of the end of the world coming true. Pretty cool, hunh?
Leon Festinger along with Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter wrote their findings up in a book, When Prophecy Fails. Most of this post will be based on those findings. They begin with this strangely apt observation:
A man [sic] with conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. Sound familiar? What is absolutely clear to you and me and all other casual disinterested observers is as unseen as an oncoming motorcyclists to a person making a left across traffic and with as deadly results for the Ol’ Pussy Grabber’s base.
The Ol’ Pussy Grabber’s Failed Predictions
As the pandemic has progressed since February, the Ol’ Pussy Grabber has made several predictions some specific and some quite vague, and none have come true.
- It will go way like a miracle in the warmer weather; it quite clearly has not.
- It is just another flu neither more severe nor more deadly and so does not warrant shutting the country down; it is far more deadly and much more severe and the only way to contain it is to restrict social contact.
- A variety of treatments and preventatives will be useful: (a) hydroxychloroquine, (b) bleach and sunshine, (3) olendrin (the My Pillow Guy’s miracle cure), (4) remdesivir, and (5) convalescent blood plasma therapy; none of which have quite panned out as predicted and several people have died as a result.
- We’re doing a great job of (a) containing the virus (we ain’t), (b) testing for the virus (nope), (c) treating the virus (not at all), and (d) preventing deaths from the virus (we are not).
- It is safe to (a) re-open the economy, (b) go back to school, and (c) attend sporting events; none of these are safe as we are finding out as we try anyway.
The Disconfirmation of Predictions
What will happen? Festinger asks, if someone believes something with his whole heart… has a commitment to this belief… has taken irrevocable actions because of it…and is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable, that his [sic] belief is wrong…. For many, their convictions will not waiver, but they will become even more strongly convinced of the truth of their beliefs AND will work even harder to recruit others! It’s like Festinger and students were prescient, wasn’t it? It gives me a chill just thinking about it.
As if his predictions and happy talk being wrecked on the shoals of reality weren’t enough, the Ol’ Pussy Grabber has confessed on tape to Bob Woodward that he wanted 6.6 million+ real live Americans to sicken and struggle through a devastating disease and 197,000+ people to become real live dead Americans all because (a) he enjoys the feeling of having that kind of control over that many people’s lives, (b) he enjoys our suffering, and (c) were he to do anything to mitigate #COVID19 he runs the risk of being wrong, so why do that when he can foist the responsibility off on governors and the hapless Mother Pence and other members of his administration?
Change or Double Down?
After the point of disconfirmation — the term Festinger uses to describe point at which the prophecy has undeniably failed — what determines whether someone changes their beliefs or doubles down? Festinger and company discuss five conditions that contribute to maintaining beliefs, challenging beliefs, and ultimately determining whether the belief changes or is retained:
- A strong conviction. Not only must the believers be totally convinced of the correctness of their belief, they must also have based some behavior on it like not wearing a mask or socially distance themselves from others. In the deep dark pit of their shriveled souls, the Trump base believes that #COVID19 is a hoax, and by arguing over masks and refusing to social distance, they reinforce their skepticism in the veracity of #COVID19.
- Commitment. The believers must base some important action on the belief. An action that is nearly impossible to undo. Here’s the kicker: the more difficult the action is to undo, the greater the commitment to the belief. Exposing or infecting others or getting #COVID19 is pretty damn hard to undo. The Rachel Maddow Show did a segment on a preacher, Todd Bell, in Maine who officiated a wedding that became a superspreader event and ended up killing at least three people and infecting over a hundred. (Don’t be a dick and jump on the death-threat bandwagon here. It ain’t what we do.) Engaging in challenging and difficult behaviors like getting the disease or infecting others with it based on their #COVD19 doubts maintains their belief like causing over a hundred infections and three deaths.
- A specific belief that is connected to the real world. There’s not a lot more to add here. The belief has to be so specific and concrete that it can be completely refuted by events in the world. You have to be able to see or experience the contradictions like old Todd Bell there watching his church members getting sick and hearing about the deaths he’s caused through his reckless behavior. He’s the perfect example of this. His belief has to have been challenged after having the contacts of infection and death traced out for him.
- The believer must recognize the evidence against the belief. Again, old Todd Bell knows each and every person at the wedding and in his congregation that have gotten sick. The chain of contagion that has led to the deaths of at least three people have been clearly made and explained to him, yet still blubbers on about religious freedom, though. At some level, he has to realize that his doubts about #COVID19 have been refuted by events in the world, which, of course, challenge his belief.
- Social support for continuing the belief. The believer has experienced making substantive decisions and performing life altering behaviors based on their belief and the real world has thrown it back in their face showing them the error of their ways, so what determines whether they continue as a true believer or quit the cult? The deciding factor is social support. If there is social support for continuing the belief, it will continue. If there is social support for discarding the belief, it will be discarded.
The bubble of misinformation provided by the Ol’ Pussy Grabber, the gaslit groupthinkers of his admin, and the conservative media like Fox News and Breitbart all provide the social support folks like Todd Bell need to continue infecting themselves and others. It is that simple. It is what makes his blithe, even lighthearted confessions to Bob Woodward about downplaying the severity of the covfefevirus all the more damning. He continues to provide the social support that doubters and hoaxers need to continue spreading the virus and killing people.
Sign of Life
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Categories: Social Psychology