OPINION: Much has been written about the extraordinary events of the last year, most often from a political point of view. While that may provide some entertainment value for those who view the world through a political lens of “our team” vs “their team,” it’s not particularly instructive. Much better, rather, to view recent events through a psychological lens in order to gain some insight into the human condition.
Focusing on the two most recent presidential elections in particular. In 2016 supporters of Hillary Clinton were convinced that the Russian government interfered to hand the election to Donald Trump, in spite of the fact that as the more protectionist and hawkish of the two candidates, a Trump victory would actually be worse for Russia. And in the 2020 election just ended, Donald Trump supporters were convinced that Democrats had stolen the election, in spite of the fact that four years of incessant tweeting by Trump had galvanized the opposition like never before. How to explain these two opposite sides of the same coin?
Psychologist Leon Festinger is credited with coining the term cognitive dissonance in the 1950s. In simple terms, cognitive dissonance is the stress or discomfort humans feel when forced to reconcile competing ideas or facts. And cognitive dissonance can create a crisis of identity or belief when things don’t turn out the way one expects.
One of the classic examples of Festinger’s research were the Millerites. The Millerites were 19th century followers of itinerant preacher William Miller who prophesied the world would come to an end in 1843. When the generally agreed upon date, April 3, 1843, came and went, Miller and his followers recalculated and decided March 21, 1844 was the actual date. This date passed without incident as well, after which a faction of the followers decided it wasn’t the prophecy but the calculation methodology that was in error. The end would occur on October 22, 1844.
When the sun rose yet again on October 23, a crisis of belief (cognitive dissonance) was the result. Individual Millerites were faced with the psychologically uncomfortable fact that they had invested their emotional energy (and in some cases money) in something that wasn’t true. Some acknowledged just that and returned to their normal pursuits. Importantly, Millerites weren’t all fringe members of society but included doctors, lawyers, farmers, laborers, husbands, and wives.
Some, however, could not bring themselves to accept the result – it was too painful psychologically – and they resorted to one of the primary coping mechanisms for living with cognitive dissonance – justification. There were two primary justifications in this case – 1) the date calculations continued to be flawed (perhaps even unknowable to humans), and 2) there was some action or behavioral change the Millerites needed to complete in order for the end to occur, but they had not yet done so.
To return to where we started, elections, like end-time predictions, have a day of reckoning with a binary result. Either your candidate wins, or he doesn’t, there is no gray area. Money, time, and energy devoted to a lost campaign are gone forever, with no return on investment. That is quite difficult to come to grips with psychologically. (The five stages of grief theory is equally apropos here but beyond the space limitation of this column.)
In 2016 the vast majority of the polls predicted a Clinton victory. Her campaign spent $1.2 billion, roughly twice what Trump’s did. It was inconceivable that an outsider like Trump would, or even could, win the election. To Clinton’s credit, she did concede the next day, but the shock to many of her supporters was too much.
There must have been some other explanation (justification) for the result. The justification that gained the most credence (salved the wound) was that the Russians interfered, even though, as noted above, a Trump presidency – the most protectionist of the 21st century – is the last thing the Russians wanted. To this day, Wikipedia promotes this theory, which shows the power of justification in resolving cognitive dissonance.
In 2020 Trump’s supporters were convinced he was going to win. The polls had shown him trailing in 2016 as well only to be proven wrong. When states were too close to call at the end of election night, it was only a matter of time before they declared for Trump. Except they didn’t.
This time the cognitive dissonance shoe was on the other foot, and for many Trump supporters the justification was that the Democrats must have stolen the election. And in a nod to the Millerites, the resulting legal challenges kept pushing back the ultimate day of reckoning.
The point here is not that elections are always pristine. Richard Nixon’s authorization to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at Watergate in 1972, and Lyndon Johnson’s blatant ballot stuffing in his 1948 Senate race prove otherwise. There is too much money and power connected to political office for people not to be tempted to tamper.
The point, rather, is to understand how humans deal with disappointment and cognitive dissonance. And in understanding, to ease their paths toward a return to productive pursuits rather than make it more difficult. The latter is what the press of the 1840s did to the Millerites by belittling them. And what much of the press continues to do in modern times.
Last, lest we think we’re immune to cognitive dissonance, consider a time you’ve been emotionally invested in a team with a big game on the line. Convinced yours is the superior team, and you have home field advantage to boot, how do you react when your team loses? A case in point is the 2018 NFC Championship game in the Superdome between the Saints and the Rams. Everyone “knows” the officials gave the Rams a 26-23 victory due to the infamous pass interference no-call with 1:41 left in regulation. Yet, the Saints still possessed the ball first in overtime and could have won the game had Drew Brees not thrown an interception. But blaming the loss on the referees is a justification strategy making the pain of loss easier to bear.
So, when people struggle to contextualize and come to terms with disappointment, it doesn’t make them shallow, or nefarious, or irrational. Rather, it makes them human. Have empathy with them. It will be you soon enough.
Kelley Williams Jr. is a Northsider.