Donald Trump supporters are under the spell of blind faith
Paul Stapleton says research in psychology shows that human beliefs, once formed, are difficult to dismantle and may even strengthen as believers’ faith becomes tied to their identity. This is why the US president has not lost his backing despite his missteps
The latest polls in the US show President Donald Trump with an approval rating just below 40 per cent, which is the lowest recorded for a first-term president this early in his term of office. This low rating is not surprising, given the many blunders he has made in the first few months of his presidency. In fact, what may be surprising is that close to 40 per cent of the population still support him. How could this be so, given his frequent distortion of facts coupled with his bombastic narcissism?
The story is that Trump has a strong appeal with the disaffected voters in parts of the country where manufacturing and mining jobs have disappeared, and their support put him in office. But why do these voters continue to support him today despite his miscues?
In the past few of decades, research in psychology has gone some distance towards understanding the human belief system. And with this understanding comes a plausible explanation for why tens of millions of Americans defy what appears to be common sense and continue to support Trump.
This support can be explained by studies on belief systems that have been conducted since the 1950s. These studies reveal that, once a belief is established, it is extremely difficult to extinguish. And even in the face of overwhelming evidence running contrary to the belief, people holding the flawed belief will double down with even stronger convictions, to the point where it becomes part of their identity. This motivated reasoning is similar to a force all of us are subject to, called confirmation bias, which is the tendency to favour only the information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs while disregarding information to the contrary.
One should not underestimate the power of this cognitive force. Whole industries or practices use this power of belief to sustain themselves. Acupuncture has thrived for thousands of years because of the power of belief. It is so powerful that its placebo effect can trigger the release of endorphins that really do work as painkillers, although not in the way acupuncturists with their explanations about qi and body meridians would have us believe. Religious belief goes one step further and asks devotees to believe without any proof at all.
Returning to Trump, one should not be surprised at all that his followers remain steadfast in their support. In a world where one’s news feeds on social media provide us with a continuous stream of like-minded ideas, our connection to our tribe overpowers notions of truth or falsehoods. When one’s whole identity is at risk, truth has little chance.
Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Education University of Hong Kong