The scientific reason why Trump's supporters won't believe any evidence
When delving into the perplexing world of politics and the enigmatic figure of Donald Trump, we often encounter a peculiar phenomenon amongst his supporters: a staunch refusal to accept any criminal allegation or felony charge against him, no matter how compelling the evidence.
There are many neurological and psychological reasons for this irrational behavior. But today, we will focus on the mental phenomena I feel are most urgent to explore ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
First, a disclaimer: I am not a psychiatrist or a clinical psychologist — I am a cognitive neuroscientist with a research focus in clinical psychology (in particular, anxiety’s effect on attention). In fact, much of my published work has appeared in psychology journals. As a science journalist, I have been covering the psychology of Trump and his supporters since he emerged on the political scene in 2015.
Now that Trump is running for president again while facing 91 felony charges, I feel a moral responsibility to illuminate all the mental factors that are driving Americans to support a man who is a master manipulator, and incapable of telling the truth. Unfortunately, these are qualities that are too common among presidential candidates, but Trump is a particularly egregious example, and therefore we must be vigilant. This article is meant to inform but also to warn voters of what is to come.
Cognitive challenge of disbelief
In 2009, a study published in PLOS ONE challenged our understanding of belief systems.
Researchers placed participants into the confines of an fMRI scanner and presented them with a mixture of factual and abstract statements. The results were illuminating. Disbelief, it turns out, is cognitively demanding. It requires more mental effort than simply accepting a statement as true. From an evolutionary perspective, this preference for easy belief makes sense; a perpetually skeptical individual questioning every piece of information would struggle to adapt in a fast-paced world.
What does all this have to do with Trump supporters? Well, it’s far less cognitively demanding for them to believe anything their leader tells them. Any challenge to what Trump tells them is true takes mental work. This means there is a psychological incentive for Trump loyalists to maintain their loyalty. (I wrote about this phenomenon in a slightly different context in the Daily Beast article "Religious Fundamentalism: A Side Effect of Lazy Brains?")
Molding of belief: neuroplasticity at play
Now, let's consider the unique predicament faced by individuals who staunchly support Trump and want him to again become president. From the moment Trump began his political career and his social engineering career, his supporters have been exposed to narratives — Trump doesn't lie, Democrats are communists, the media is an enemy of the people — that emphasize loyalty and trust in their political idol. These narratives often steer away from critical examination and instead encourage blind faith. When coupled with the brain's inherent tendency to accept rather than question, it creates an ideal environment for unwavering allegiance. No matter that Trump, time and again, has been revealed to be a serial liar, habitually misrepresenting matters of great consequence, from elections to economics to public health.
For example, in the Psychology Today article "Why Evangelicals are Wired to Believe Trump’s Falsehoods," I explain that the children of Christian fundamentalists typically begin to suppress critical thinking at an early age. This is required if one is to accept Biblical stories as literal truth, rather than metaphors for how to live life practically and with purpose. Attributing natural occurrences to mystical causes discourages youth from seeking evidence to back their beliefs.
Consequently, the brain structures that support critical thinking and logical reasoning don't fully mature. This paves the way for heightened vulnerability to deceit and manipulative narratives, especially from cunning political figures. Such increased suggestibility arises from a mix of the brain's propensity to accept unverified claims and intense indoctrination. Given the brain's neuroplastic nature, which allows it to shape according to experiences, some religious followers are more predisposed to accept improbable assertions.
A supporter of former President Donald Trump gather outside of the Fulton County Jail ahead of Trump's surrender on Aug. 24, 2023 in Atlanta, Ga. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
In other words, our brains are remarkably adaptable and continuously evolving landscapes. For ardent Trump supporters, residing in an environment that prioritizes faith over empirical evidence can reshape the neural circuits within their brains.
Imagine these neural pathways as trails in a forest. The more one traverses the path of unquestioning belief, the clearer and more entrenched it becomes. The path of skepticism, however, grows over with doubts and becomes difficult to navigate. This cognitive reshaping primes individuals to accept, and even defend, far-fetched statements and suggestions presented by manipulative politicians.
The Dunning-Kruger effect
This cognitive bias occurs when individuals with low ability at a task overestimate their capability. Translated to the context of understanding complex legal matters, some Trumpists might believe they have a superior grasp of the former president’s predicament and dismiss expert opinions, thinking they're immune to being misled.
The Dunning-Kruger effect becomes especially concerning in the context of polarizing issues, such as climate change. A research study from the University of New Hampshire in 2017, for example, revealed that a mere 25 percent of those identifying as Trump supporters acknowledged the role of human actions in climate change. This is in stark contrast to the 97 percent consensus among climate scientists on the issue.
This troublesome cognitive bias could be making it easier for Trump to deliver unchallenged falsehoods to his more uneducated followers. In some cases, not only are these individuals uninformed, they are unlikely to seek new information on their own. In their minds, they have nothing to learn because Trump and his acolytes have already told them what they need to know.
Reevaluating our cognitive reflexes
It is important to state that these phenomena are not exclusive to Trump supporters or any particular political group; this article serves as a broader reflection on the cognitive shortcuts that our brains favor.
If we aspire to build a society less susceptible to misinformation, we must embark on a paradigm shift. Our educational approach should pivot from passive acceptance of supposed “facts” to the exhilarating pursuit of questioning authority and healthy skepticism (as too much skepticism can also lead to irrational thinking). Recognizing that belief, in many ways, is the brain's default mode rather than a conscious choice, can serve as the first step in this cerebral revolution.
In conclusion, the unwavering belief in Trump, despite the felony charges against him, is not solely a political matter but, for some, a manifestation of our brain's intrinsic tendencies. Understanding this cognitive dynamic is pivotal in addressing the challenges posed by misinformation and fostering a more critical and discerning society.
Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist and the author of the new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity. He is also a blogger for Psychology Today and the creator of the Substack Road to Omega. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.
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