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The cognitive dissonance of QAnon followers

sue_frantz
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In the aftermath of the US presidential inauguration, I’ve been reading about QAnon with much interest.

From the New York Times:

Followers of QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory, have spent weeks anticipating that Wednesday [1/20/21, inauguration day] would be the “Great Awakening” [also called “The Storm”]— a day, long foretold in QAnon prophecy, when top Democrats would be arrested for running a global sex trafficking ring and President Trump would seize a second term in office.

Imagine the QAnon believers as they watched the coverage of the inauguration.

From NPR:

Former President Donald Trump did not declare martial law in his final minutes in office; nor did he reveal a secret plan to remain in power forever. President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were not sent to Guantánamo Bay. The military did not rise up and arrest Democratic leaders en masse.

If you’re looking for a new example of cognitive dissonance, here you go.

From CNN:

The anti-climax sent QAnon adherents into a frenzy of confusion and disbelief, almost instantly shattering a collective delusion that had been nurtured and amplified by many on the far right. Now, in addition to being scattered to various smaller websites after Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) cracked down on QAnon-related content, believers risked having their own topsy-turvy world turned upside down, or perhaps right-side up.

We see a similar pattern in doomsday cults. For them, on an identified day, the world will end. When that day passes, the doomsday cult members face some significant cognitive dissonance. “I believed that the world was going to end, but it didn’t.” Now, how to resolve that dissonance. One option is to acknowledge that you were wrong. Another option is provided by the doomsday cult leader. Something like, “The Great Being was so impressed with our preparations for the end that the Great Being has moved the date to [some date in the future].” For some followers, they grab hold of that explanation like a lifeline and become even more committed to the group. “Wow! I helped save the world!”

The QAnon followers are facing a similar cognitive dissonance challenge. While the world wasn’t supposed to end on 1/20/21, democracy in the U.S. was. But it didn’t. So now what? Some followers are deciding that they were wrong; they were duped.

From the Washington Post:

A huge chunk of Twitter’s QAnon community has vaporized, seemingly overnight. A pro-Trump message board has rebranded itself, jettisoning the former president’s name from its URL in its move toward a broader message. And other right-wing forums are grappling with internal rebellion and legal war.

As reported in the above news stories, a significant number of QAnon followers (can we ever know how many?) are looking for something else to grasp. Some have decided that—like doomsday cults—the “Great Awakening” will still happen. Others seem to believe that Trump is still in charge and is controlling President Joe Biden. I’m especially interested to see where that goes. Will that QAnon faction break off and become staunch supporters of Biden? Other QAnon followers are being courted by neo-Nazi groups.

History—and cognitive dissonance research—tell us that the beliefs fostered by QAnon will persist. What form will they take? And how many people will adhere to them?

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.