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Liar, Liar, President on Fire

What we are seeing, what we are in the throes of, my fellow Americans, is part Huxley, part Orwell – and a whole lot of Leon Festinger.

OK. So Huxley is obvious. As in Brave New World, we are seeing the construction and manipulation of a “state” based on the principles of obedience, homogeneity and consumption. Indoctrination is not via hypnosis but rather tweet blasts and bald-faced lies masquerading as “alternative facts.”

And then there’s Orwell, literary creator of a dystopia controlled by privileged few and headed by a leader who enjoys an intense cult of personality. (Um…?) Remember newspeak and doublethink? War is Peace. Ignorance is Strength. Black is White. A true believer not only proclaims black is white, but believes black is white and forgets that anyone ever believed the contrary.

But who the heck is Leon Festinger?

Leon Festinger was an American social psychologist best known for developing the theory of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when you are faced with reality that goes against what you firmly believe. For example, you firmly believe – you have been led to believe (you voted based on the belief) – that the Affordable Care Act is “imploding,” and that Trump’s plan will, as promised, insure more people, giving them more choice, at a lower cost.

Then you are faced with the reality of that Plan: that millions of people will lose their coverage or not be able to afford coverage (so choice is not an issue) and that the cost for those who most need insurance – hint: not the young and healthy – will increase (and I use this word advisedly) astronomically. And that you, working-class, rural, Red state supporter, are in the crosshairs.

What do you, true believer, do with that information?

Leon figured that one out back in 1956 – it’s known as “belief disconfirmation” — when he and colleagues wrote When Prophecy Fails. Here’s what happens: In the face of patently contradictory, inarguable verifiable information, your original belief is…deepened. Or, slightly reconfigured to make room for the clearly contradictory information without that new information materially changing your original belief.

You may have heard about the famous study that underlies this finding. It had to do with an apocalyptic religious cult, members of which had given up homes, jobs, material possessions — and left their families – in preparation for the end of the world. The world was ending because of Sodom-and-Gomorrah type corruption (like, oh, being able to use the bathroom of the gender you identify with). Only the self-sanctified members of this cult would survive, spirited to the planet Clarion by an alien spaceship. No, this is not the plot of a 1950s sci-fi pot-boiler.

The world would end (big flood) right before dawn on Dec. 21, 1954. The rescue spaceship would arrive at a predetermined place on the stroke of midnight.

The cult assembled. Midnight stroked. No spaceship. The disconfirmed prophecy caused them acute cognitive-dissonance: Had they been victims of a hoax? Had they foolishly given up everything? What Festinger found was that to resolve the dissonance between apocalyptic, end-of-the-world beliefs (oh, let’s just call them Trumpisms) and the earthly reality (oh, let’s just call it reality), most of the cult restored their psychological consonance by choosing to hold a less mentally-stressful idea to explain the missed landing. Instead, they decided to believe the alternate facts their leader presented: The aliens hadn’t arrived not because the prophesy was false but because the aliens had given planet Earth a second chance. In the face of the prophesy-that-didn’t-happen, people did not leave the cult. People did not stop believing in the corruption of the world and their own sanctified status. In fact, they got out and proselytized.

As Festinger wrote, “If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must after all be correct.”

4 comments

1 Richard Greene { 03.15.17 at 10:36 pm }

Good concise explanation of Festinger. He was a City College graduate and as a NYer could call Trump out as a BS artist. BS is more complicated than just out right lying and I suspect it works on a different level than cognitive dissonance. I know your focus is on the true believer and not Trump but I see him more as a “Music Man” BT Barnum than wild eyed Jim Jones. So I see the psychology as more the reaction to buying that $1000 “Electrolux” and explaining to friends all the great reasons for such an unreasonable purchase even as one struggles with paying for it.

2 Lauren { 03.16.17 at 4:13 pm }

Agreed. Trump himself is a lout and a con artist, a pathological narcissist. I am trying to figure out why the people who believed in him continue to believe in him as he, day by day, publicly illustrates that he is a liar.

3 Richard Greene { 03.17.17 at 9:50 pm }

There are over 60 million, Trump voters. Out of that some for sure suffer that cognitive dissonance, and think there were 3 million illegal votes and that Trump crowd was biggest ever, way bigger than Obama’s. And there are some just out right racist. And some that hear the dog whistle. But I think the majority are being conned and as most cons go Trump is promising something for nothing. They are going along thinking they are in on the con. A few outright lies to confound the liberals, a little fib here and there with a wink and the smug assurance the tables are being turned on “them”. Meanwhile Trump and co. are “on the take”. Turning the tables on everyone.

4 Lauren { 03.18.17 at 5:17 pm }

You may be right, Richard. We’ll see the extent of the wink-wink I’m-in-on-the-con mentality as his supporters lose their health insurance, as the public schools their kids go to decline, as their air and water quality worsen.

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