Tribalism and Cognitive Dissonance

Do you remember the scene in Casino Royale when James Bond runs through a courtyard in Venice. An expert marksman with a machine gun manages to miss him completely. A piece of you thought: that is ridiculous, but most of you said – let it go, after all he is James Bond. Such movies consistently test our willingness to accept absurd outcomes so that our hero can survive. We are left to reconcile (and ignore) what we know about physics and human biology [death] with what appears on the screen. Cognitive dissonance is the effort to think consistently. It’s OK for James Bond to be special but it’s not OK for him to be superhuman.


Apparently cognitive dissonance occurs less often among extroverts. Perhaps their higher level of emotion prevents them from appropriate introspection. Are all Donald Trump voters extroverts? Are Republicans less inclined to reconcile inconsistent facts then Democrats? The first question is impossible to answer but the second one is not. Republicans are more tribal simply because they come from a more homogenous demographic group than Dems. It is hard to break the bonds of tribalism. Even when clear evidence is presented to show that their beliefs are flawed or based on fiction, they feel the obligation to band together and fight back for group survival. Scientology still exists in spite of the exposure of fraud and criminal behavior within the sect.
Paul Krugman marvels at the inability of West Virginians to see that every part of the AHCA and the new Trump budget will hurt them. Tribalism guarantees that these believers won’t abandon their faith until their healthcare is completely gone. They won’t believe that Trump and his cronies are criminals until they are actually in jail.
There is one source of hope: People’s love of scandalous news. What would you do if you worked at Fox or Breitbart News and your guy offered a healthcare bill that destroyed health care, or a budget that blew up the deficit and included a huge adding mistake. Should they mention that Trump’s son in law felt a need for secret talks with the Russians? We know the answer: Bury the story or wave it off as absurd. Both reactions guarantee that neither outlet is where anyone would go to hear about these stories. The result – ratings implosion. Breitbart has gone from a website ranking around 63 last year to #284 now. Fox News ranks below CNN and MSNBC for the first time in 17 years. Trump believers are either changing the channel or turning the TV off.
There is another big problem for these media outlets. For decades their listeners have been programmed to believe in conspiracy theories. We thought the Glenn Beck had taken it to ridiculous extremes but now Alex Jones is out doing him. These talking heads play into a fundamental human weakness. Everybody is fascinated by the idea that powerful people are conspiring against us. What secrets are not being revealed? We are now being offered some of the best conspiracy stories we’ve ever seen from the presidency and there will be more. Trump is so stupid and so devoted to his business and ego over the office that he will have special private discussions and plots. There will be leaks. Everyone will want to hear the news and speculate about what it all means. If Fox and Rush and Drudge refuse to give credence to the stories by investigating them then their rabid listeners will go to CNN. Then the Repubs have a huge problem – tribalism depends on solidarity. They must stay together and constantly reinforce their mythology with rhetoric and rituals.
Belief will wither and die in direct proportion to the number of words heard from Anderson Cooper’s mouth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *