If you are like me, you are probably captivated by the US Presidential campaigns of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump. A fascinating aspect of the Trump campaign is the approach taken by the Democrats, and also high-level anti-Trump Republicans, in responding to the outrageous statements made by Mr. Trump. How does one respond most effectively?
For example, Mr. Trump claims that he is “for” the middle class and “for” reducing offshore jobs. Why, then, is Mr. Trump’s support not reduced when opponents, or the media, point out that many of the products he sells, for example, his Donald J. Trump Collection shirts, are made in other countries. These shirts and other products such as perfume, cuff links and suits are made offshore in such countries as China, Bangladesh, and Honduras.
Why does he not lose support when it is conclusively demonstrated that he habitually – to give him the benefit of the doubt – makes “mistakes” in his claims? For instance, Trump has asserted that the USA is one of the highest taxed countries in the world when all the available evidence shows it is not. Why, also, did his supporters defend him when he attacked a Gold Star family (a family that has lost a child in the military)?
A number of well-known politicians, including Republicans like Mitt Romney, and Democrats like Mrs. Clinton and Joe Biden, have made speeches that have directly attacked Mr. Trump’s statements. What is the effect of these speeches that have revealed, and emphasized, how Mr. Trump has, at the very least, habitually stretched the truth?
Many psychologists would predict that these direct attacks would have little effect on the supporters of Mr. Trump. There are a number of factors that can help to account for this. For example, at Mr. Trump’s rallies, which are his primary campaign events, a basic mob or herd mentality might be promoting a self-reinforcing process of acceptance among those attending the rallies. It might also be the case that Mr. Trump comes across as a “strongman” who has induced unquestioning acceptance of his claims. While these factors might initially promote acceptance of Mr. Trump, they do not account adequately for his continued acceptance in the face of the fact-checking that is extremely easy for people to do.
A key factor that is at play here is a well-known phenomenon called tenacity. Simply put, there is a lot of evidence that when people who hold a strong belief are confronted with credible strong evidence to the contrary, instead of reducing their belief they are much more likely to believe more intensely. In addition, people are highly likely to quickly forget strong arguments against their position, while they are more likely to recall even weak arguments supporting their position. Thus, this effect tells us not to expect that direct attacks will reduce the support for Mr. Trump.
Similarly, leftist ideologues demonstrate tenacity in the face of the problems that have surfaced in Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. However, in light of the latest revelations about Mr. Trump advocating sexual assault, the focus is much more strongly on his supporters, than on Mrs. Clinton’s. One might expect that this latest scandal would begin to erode his support, but clearly many of his followers continue to support him even now.
Why, then, given the powerful tenacity effect, would both camps, Democrats, and many Republicans who are against Mr. Trump, choose to attack him directly? One possibility is that the advisors for both sides are not familiar with the tenacity effect, and chose to mount a conventional head-on attack. This might be the case, but it would invite the conclusion that perhaps the advisors are less than competent.
A more likely possibility is that the advisors are all too aware of this and are making these blatant head-on attacks for the benefit of the electorate that is undecided or against Mr. Trump. These constant attacks would have the effect of reminding people of the claims made by Mr. Trump and the extreme positions he has advocated.
This raises the uncomfortable possibility that Mr. Trump’s supporters are unlikely to change unless Mr. Trump himself causes them to question and mistrust him. On the other hand, those against Mr. Trump must fervently hope that continually attacking him will prevent others from joining his camp.
Tim Parker, Psychology, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on October 25th, 2016.