Posted by Jay Livingston
What happens to a dream disconfirmed? Does it dry up, a dream no longer? Or does it make commitment even stronger?
Ever since When Prophecy Fails, the 1956 study of a flying saucer cult, we’ve known the answer. People will reshape what they know and what they feel in order to preserve an idea that no longer squares with reality.
Failed prophecy was also the theme of a wonderful segment by Zoe Chace on This American Life two weeks ago. She had been spending time in South Carolina in the months before the primary there, and one of the people she met, Alex Chalgren, director of the state’s Students for Trump, was too good a story to pass up. Listen to the podcast (here), and you’ll get a sense of how remarkable and likable he is. You’ll also get a sense of how strongly he supported Trump.
You wouldn’t expect Alex Chalgren to be a Trump supporter. He’s not an angry White man. He is a male, but he’s a high school kid, eighteen years old. He’s not angry, and he is Black.
His early years were rough. He was bounced around from his biological parents to foster homes and back, to group homes and back to foster homes. Then, after a year of asking, he got his teacher in the third grade to adopt him. She later married, and now Alex has two loving parents, both White.
Alex shares the usual conservative talking points – hard work, not handouts; a wall against illegal immigrants; destruction of ISIS – and like his parents he’s an evangelical Christian. But then why not support Ted Cruz as his parents do?
There’s one issue that separates Trump from the Cruz and the others, and for Alex that issue makes all the difference – gay marriage. “Trump is fine with gay marriage,” Alex tells Chace back in January.
“I'm gay. And so it’s big for me. And everyone knows I’m gay. . . . My parents know. Everyone knows. . . . Trump is fine with gay marriage, thank goodness. And he’s a realist. He knows that as society moves on, we must move on. . . . My biggest concern is gay marriage and the economy. For example, if it comes down to Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders, I might not vote or I might vote for Bernie Sanders.”
Now comes cognitive dissonance. The source of the dissonance was not his family – their love for one another clashing with their strong differences about homosexuality. They’d gotten past that. It was Trump.
As Chace says, Trump’s statement contradicts his previous position. Worse, it would seem to leave Alex in a Wile E. Coyote moment. He looks down and discovers that his grounds for supporting Trump have vanished. But unlike Wile E. Coyote, Alex can exercise the powers of mind over what matters. For example, he can say that what he sees and hears is merely a mirage and that Trump doesn’t mean what he’s just said. He can also deny that Trump’s statement is of any importance since it will not reverse the upward arc of gay marriage, and besides, some things are more important than even gay marriage – things like “the survival of our country.”
When people are faced with evidence that contradicts a strongly held idea, they adjust their perceptions and interpretations so as to protect their beliefs. When the flying saucers did not appear at the appointed hour, the members of the flying saucer cult in When Prophecy Fails did not stop believing. They came up with an explanation just as Alex did when Trump hedged his position on gay marriage. This tweaking of cognitions is not surprising. But the members of the UFO group also had a collective emotional reaction, one that was less predictable. The immediate despair and doubt gave way to enthusiasm as they took to spreading the word about the imminent arrival of UFOs.
The sequence goes something like this
- public commitment to an idea
- disconfirmation of that idea
- stronger and more emotional commitment to that idea (as long as there is a group to support that sustained commitment)
His main reason for supporting Trump has been disconfirmed, but his commitment is even stronger. He has raised the stakes from a rational support of Trump’s politics to a personal identification with Trump himself. “You see how I do my hands here? That’s like Trump. He does this.”*
* Needless to say, this was before the leading candidates of the party of Lincoln became obsessed with the length of Trump’s fingers and what that length might betoken.
(Earlier posts on reactions to failed prophecy are here and here.)