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7 psychological concepts that explain the Trump era of politics

by Bill Hayes

In 7 psychological concepts that explain the Trump era of politics, Vox looks at psychology to explain how the nation can remain so divided.

1) Motivated reasoning: rooting for a team changes your perception of the world

One of the key psychological concepts for understanding politics is also one of the oldest.

It’s called motivated cognition, or motivated reasoning. And there’s no clearer example than in a paper published way back in the 1950s.

The Dartmouth versus Princeton football game of November 1951 was, by all accounts, brutal. One Princeton player broke his nose. One Dartmouth player broke his leg.

Princeton students blamed the Dartmouth team for instigating. The Dartmouth paper accused Princeton’s. In the contentious debates that ensued about “who started it,” psychologists at the two schools united to answer this question: Why did each school have such a different understanding of what happened?

In the weeks after the Princeton-Dartmouth game, the psychologists Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril ran a very simple test. Their findings would become the classic example of a concept called motivated reasoning: Our tendency to come to conclusions we’re already favored to believe.

When they asked students at each of their universities to watch video highlights from the game, 90 percent of the Princeton students said it was Dartmouth that instigated the rough play. Princeton students were also twice as likely to call penalties on Dartmouth than their own team. The majority of Dartmouth students, on the other hand, said both sides were to blame for the rough play in the game, and called a similar number of penalties for both teams. Hastorf and Cantril’s conclusion wasn’t that one set of fans was lying. It’s that being a fan fundamentally changes the way you perceive the game.

The lesson is simple: “People are more likely to arrive at conclusions … that they want to arrive at,” the psychologist Ziva Kunda wrote in a seminal 1990 paper, making the case that motivated reasoning is real and pervasive.

And there’s plenty of proof of it today. When Gallup polled Americans the week before and the week after the presidential election, Democrats and Republicans flipped their perceptions of the economy. But nothing had actually changed about the economy. What changed was which team was winning. [more]