Objectively, Donald Trump’s presidency is flailing. Regardless of what you feel about his core politics and policy, the Trump administration is caught in a cycle of scandals of its own creation. Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, with the possible intent of quashing an FBI probe into his campaign. He gave away intelligence secrets to the Russians, potentially endangering a foreign agent embedded with ISIS. (And wait ... there’s more!)
The start of the Trump administration has been riddled with more scandals than any presidency of recent memory. And yet Trump still enjoys high support among his base: 85 percent of Trump voters approve of the job he’s doing, a recent Morning Consult poll found.
If you’re looking for an explanation for why Trump’s support is so solid among his base — and why it will remain so stubbornly high — read this piece by the Associated Press, where the reporters asked Trump supporters how they’re handling the wave of scandals.
“I tuned it out,” Michele Velardi, a 44-year-old in Staten Island, told the AP of the recent news. “I didn’t want to be depressed. I don’t want to feel that he’s not doing what he said, so I just choose to not listen.”
This line is extremely revealing. It shows a psychological tendency we’re all susceptible to. That tendency is called “motivated ignorance,” and it’s an extremely powerful force in American politics. It’s also one of the keys to understanding why political discourse can be so irrational.
Politics is about establishing a shared sense of reality with like-minded people. It’s not about facts.
Here’s a simple truth: We find inconvenient political facts to be genuinely unpleasant. Psychologists theorize that’s because our partisan identities get mixed up with our personal identities — which would mean that an attack on our strongly held beliefs is an attack on the self.
“The brain’s primary responsibility is to take care of the body, to protect the body,” Jonas Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, told me earlier this year. “The psychological self is the brain’s extension of that. When our self feels attacked, our [brain is] going to bring to bear the same defenses that it has for protecting the body.”
And researchers have seen what this immune system looks like in action.
A recent study presented 200 participants with two options. They could either read and answer questions about an opinion they agreed with — the topic was same-sex marriage — or read the opposing viewpoint.
Here’s the catch: If the participants chose to read the opinion they agreed with, they were entered into a raffle pool to earn $7. If they selected to read opposing opinion, they had a chance to win $10.
A majority — 63 percent — of the participants chose to stick with what they already knew, forgoing the chance to win $10. Both people with pro-same-sex marriage beliefs and those against it avoided the opinion hostile to their worldview at similar rates.
In another test, the researchers (essentially) asked participants to rate how interested they were in learning about alternative political viewpoints compared with activities like: “watching paint dry,” “sitting quietly,” “going for a walk on a sunny day,” and “having a tooth pulled.”
The results: Listening to a political opponent isn’t as awful as getting a tooth pulled, but it’s trending in that direction. It’s certainly a lot worse than taking a leisurely stroll.
“People on the left and right,” the study concludes, “are motivated to avoid hearing from the other side for some of the same reasons: the anticipation of cognitive dissonance and the undermining of a fundamental need for a shared reality with other people.”
The upshot: We avoid uncomfortable opinions and facts in the same way we avoid going for a root canal or taking out the trash. And we do it to maintain a sense of camaraderie and shared reality with our political teams.
Our brains are more interested in protecting our political groups than finding out the truth
This “fundamental need for a shared reality with other people” all too often overshadows incentives to weigh evidence or to be objective when it comes to political discussions.
This is the dark truth that lies at the heart of all partisan politics. We automatically have an easier time remembering information that fits our worldviews. We’re simply quicker to recognize information that confirms what we already know, which makes us blind to facts that discount it. It’s the reason why, paradoxically, as we learn more about politics and politically charged issues, we tend to become more rigid in our thinking.
“People are using their reason to be socially competent actors,” Dan Kahan, a psychologist at Yale, told me earlier this year. Put another way: We have a lot of pressure to live up to our groups’ expectations. And the smarter we are, the more we put our brainpower to use for that end.
Critical thinking and reasoning skills evolved because they made it easier to cooperate in groups, Elizabeth Kolbert explains in a recent New Yorker piece. We’ve since adapted these skills to make breakthroughs in topics like science and math. But when pressed, we default to using our powers of mind to get along with our groups.
Not helping: it’s easier than ever to avoid uncomfortable information
Velardi, the Trump supporter in the AP story, avoided the news by averting her eyes (and ears). But if you’re a regular consumer of conservative media, you don’t have to.
Vox’s Alvin Chang tracked how conservative news sites have been covering the recent Trump controversies. And they largely have been avoiding the topic or obscuring the details.
“Even amid some of the most troubling presidential news in decades, a huge portion of this country is having a very different experience of these events, and repeating it over and over,” Chang writes. “Our collective memories — and, in turn, our shared culture — are being splintered.“
This is a key point that many people miss when discussing the “fake news” or “filter bubble” problem in our online media ecosystems. Avoiding facts inconvenient to our worldview isn’t just some passive, unconscious habit we engage in. We do it because we find these facts to be unpleasant. And as long as this experience remains unpleasant, and easy to avoid, we’re just going to drift further and further apart.
These scandals seem likely to keep growing. And new ones may pop up. But know that it will take a lot for Trump’s supporters to abandon him. Why? They’re human.