Trump supporters have an attitude problem: The psychology of attitude change

In light of the latest scandal to plague Donald Trump (if you haven’t seen the video, it’s here), non-Trump supporters right now are wondering how people can actually continue to support this man. Prominent Republicans, including RNC chairman Reince Priebus, have publicly denounced Trump’s recent comments about “grabbing a woman’s pussy.” To them, I ask, what took so long? To his existing supporters, I ask, how can you continue to support him?

But I know how they can.

hard-way-easy-wat

Attitude change is a tricky thing. Attitudes are comprised of an ABC of sorts: varying amounts of affective (based on emotions and values), behavioral (based on people’s observations of their behavior toward something), and cognitive (based on thoughts or beliefs) components. And trying to change a person’s attitude requires knowing which components make up that attitude. Attitude change is more likely when persuasive messages match the attitude type [1]. In other words, attempting to change a person’s cognitive-based attitude is more likely to be successful when the message appeals to a person’s rational thought and logic. Similarly, using an emotional appeal to a person with an affective-based attitude is likely to be more persuasive. The catch here is that emotions are, well, emotional and inherently non-objective. So, in the case of fear-based attitudes, which characterizes most of Trump’s supporters, trying to change their minds by too much fear is also ineffective. Fear-based change messages that are too strong backfire and lead the target person (or persons, in this case) to become overwhelmed, tune out, and lose the ability to think rationally about the topic at hand [2] [3].

20151210_edcartoon_640px_1449787495799_28217634_ver1-0_640_480-trumpWhich is why well-intentioned Clinton supporters or progressives who use cognitive-based attitudes fail to persuade Trump supporters. It’s why progressives who resort to fear, as in “Trump will start a nuclear war!” (could he? It’s possible), come up against a brick wall with Trump supporters. For many of them, their support of Trump is not cognitively-based, so that appeal won’t work. It’s why telling them Donald Trump is flat out lying to them A LOT doesn’t mean a thing. And fear-based appeals come on too strong and too intense–likely because Trump opponents are legitimately terrified of a Trump presidency given his incompetence and xenophobia, racism, misogyny, etc.–so those certainly don’t work, either.

Something else is likely going on here: the inoculation effect. Attitude inoculation acts in essentially the same way as vaccines and other inoculations: “attitude inoculation is making people immune to attempts to change their attitudes by initially exposing them to small doses of the arguments against their position”[4]. Does that sound familiar? Trump supporters have been exposed to “attacks” on him and questions about his character, his integrity, his competence since he first announced his candidacy and in the process offended millions of Latinos throughout the country. And each successive “attack” on Trump (note how I’m using quotations because these attacks are, nearly without exception, justified and truthful revelations) is actually strengthening “Support Trump” attitudes.

This, of course, is not true without exception. Certainly there have been Trump supporters who no longer supported him after successive gaffes, especially after this latest one. By and large, however, Trump has maintained a steady percentage of Americans who stand by him (about 32%), seemingly no matter what; this support has been even higher among certain demographics. How else can that be explained than by decades of research on attitude change?

party-crasher-trumpOf course, the presidency is much higher stakes than a typical attitude change situation.
Additional factors are at play, like the crumbling and divided GOP, who can’t decide what to do with Trump. This latest might finally be the blow that pressures Trump to withdraw (although he claims there is “zero chance I’ll quit”). If he does, however, he’ll do so to the dismay and sadness of his ever-present fearful supporters.

 

 


[1] Shavitt. (1990). The role of attitude objects in attitude function. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 26, 124-148.

[2] Janis & Feshbach. (1953). Effects of fear-arousing communications. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49, 78-92.

[3] Liberman & Chaiken. (1992). Defensive processing of personally relevant health messages. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 669-679.

[4] Aronson, Wilson, & Akert. (2013). Attitudes and attitude change. In Social Psychology (164-195) (8th ed.).

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