’Tis Easier to Believe than to Unbelieve

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"I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK?" ~ Donald J. Trump, January 23, 2016

The conservative sage and former George W. Bush speech writer Peter Wehner is aghast at what his U.S. Republican Party has come to accept:

Republican officials showed fealty to Trump despite his ceaseless lying and dehumanizing rhetoric, his misogyny and appeals to racism, his bullying and conspiracy theories. No matter the offense, Republicans always found a way to look the other way, to rationalize their support for him, to shift their focus to their progressive enemies. As Trump got worse, so did they.

Indeed, in the wake of misappropriated top-secret documents, civil suits over alleged business frauds, and the revelations of the January 6 House Select Committee, Donald Trump’s aggregated polling data approval average increased from late July’s 37 percent to today’s 41 percent, a virtual tie with President Biden.

Democrats join Wehner in being incredulous at Trump’s resilient approval rating, even as MAGA Republicans are similarly incredulous at Biden’s public approval. In politics as in love, we are often amazed at what others have chosen.

Psychological science offers some explanations for why people might be drawn, almost cult-like, to charismatic autocratic leaders on the right or left.

  1. Perceived threats and frustrations fuel hostilities. Punitive, intolerant attitudes, which form the core of authoritarian inclinations, surface during times of change and economic frustration.
    • During recessions, anti-Black prejudice has increased.
    • In countries worldwide, low income years and low income people manifest most anti-immigrant prejudice.
    • In the Netherlands and Britain, times of economic or terrorist threat have been times of increased support for right-wing authoritarians and anti-immigrant policies.
    • In the U.S., MAGA support rides high among those with less than a college education living amid high income inequality.
  2. The illusory truth effect: Mere repetition feeds belief. In experiments, repetition has a strange power. It makes statements such as ““A galactic year takes 2500 terrestrial years”” seem truer. Hear a made-up smear of a political opponent over and over and it becomes more believable. Adolf Hitler, George Orwell, and Vladimir Putin all have understood the persuasive power of repetitive propaganda. So have Barack Obama (“If they just repeat attacks enough and outright lies over and over again . . . people start believing it”) and Donald Trump (“If you say it enough and keep saying it, they’ll start to believe you”).
  3. Conflicts feed social identities. We are social animals. Our ancestral history prepares us to protect ourselves in groups, to cheer for our groups, even to kill or die for our groups. When encountering strangers, we’re primed to make a quick judgment: friend or foe?—and to be less wary of those who look and sound like us. Conflicts—from sporting events to elections to wars—strengthen our social identity: our sense of who we are and who they are. In the U.S., White nationalist rallies serve to solidify and sustain aggrieved identities.

Still, I hear you asking: Why do people, once persuaded, persist in supporting people they formerly would have shunned, given shocking new revelations? In just-published research, Duke University psychologists Brenda Yang, Alexandria Stone, and Elizabeth Marsh repeatedly observed a curious “asymmetry in belief revision”: People will more often come to believe a claim they once thought false than to unbelieve something they once thought true.

The Duke experiments focused on relative trivia, such as whether Michelangelo’s statue of David is located in Venice. But consider two real life examples of people’s reluctance to unbelieve.

Sustained Iraq War support. The rationale for the 2003 U.S. war against Iraq was that its leader, Saddam Hussein, was accumulating weapons of mass destruction. At the war’s beginning, Gallup reported that only 38 percent of Americans said the war was justified if there were no such weapons. Believing such would be found, 4 in 5 people supported the war. When no WMDs were found, did Americans then unbelieve in the war? Hardly. Fifty-eight percent still supported the war even if there were no such weapons (with new rationales, such as the supposed liberation of oppressed Iraqi people).

Sustained Trump support. In 2011, the Public Religion Research Institute asked U.S. voters if “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” Only 3 in 10 White evangelical Protestants concurred that politicians’ personal lives have no bearing on their public roles. But by July of 2017, after supporting Donald Trump, 7 in 10 White evangelicals were willing to separate the public and personal. It was a “head-spinning reversal,” said the PRRI CEO. Moreover, despite tales of Trump’s sexual infidelity, dishonesty, and other broken Ten Commandments, White evangelicals’ support of Trump continues. Once someone or something is embraced, unbelieving—letting go—is hard.

In Stanley Milgram’s famed obedience experiments, people capitulated in small steps—first apparently delivering a mild 15 volts, then gradually delivering stronger and stronger supposed electrical shocks—after progressively owning and justifying their actions. Each repugnant act made the next easier, and also made the commitment more resilient.

“With each moral compromise,” observes Peter Wehner, “the next one—a worse one—becomes easier to accept.” In small steps, conscience mutates. Cognitive dissonance subsides as people rationalize their commitment. Confirmation bias sustains belief as people selectively engage kindred views. Fact-free chatter within one’s echo chamber feeds group polarization.

And so, after believing in a would-be autocrat—after feeling left behind, after hearing repeated lies, and after embracing a political identity—it becomes hard, so hard, to unbelieve.


(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)


About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).