For 10s of millions of us in the United States as well as millions around the world, the week of the 2020 elections were some of the most stressful days of our lives. We were either going to be doomed to four more years of Donald Trump or get the fantastic news that the less of two evils, Joe Biden, would become our 46th president. Fortunately, we ended up with the latter, but for reasons we’re going to analyze, there’s a massive conspiracy theory that voter fraud took place to elect Joe Biden.
This year has had a lot of twists and turns, but what’s impacted us more than anything else is the COVID-19 pandemic. With the pandemic happening during the election year, we knew that this election was going to be different. For months, we’ve been told that we’ll be encouraged to vote by mail, and if we’re to vote in-person, we should take the necessary precautions to decrease the spread of the coronavirus.
Since mail-in voting was announced, Donald Trump started laying the foundation to undermine the election. Much like his tactics to win in 2016, he’s used the emotion of fear to rile up his base by claiming that mail-in voting invites voter fraud. In an effort to combat this, news organizations and political scientists have done their best to put the facts out there about mail-in voting.
Not only does Donald Trump mail-in his ballot, but so do many people who are part of his campaign. Aside from this fact, the reality is that voter fraud is not a problem we’ve ever had to worry about due to the multiple checks the votes go through. In fact, the biggest evidence of mail-in voter fraud has come from the Right.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Donald Trump encouraged his voters to vote in-person, and at one point, he told his supporters in North Carolina to illegally vote twice. Meanwhile, we learned that most Democrats were going to vote by mail. Due to the contrast in voting strategy from the opposing sides, we were warned of what they called the “Red Mirage”.
We were warned that due to Republicans voting in-person, on election day, it may appear as though Trump was going to win. But, as they’ve told us for months, the final count would take days or even weeks to complete due to millions of people voting by mail. And within a week of November 3rd, that’s exactly what happened. After it looked like Trump was leading, Joe Biden managed to have massive victories in states like Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan, and Georgia.
Unfortunately, even with all of the information and warnings we’ve been given for months, Donald Trump, many from the Republican party, and millions of his supporters are promoting the conspiracy theory that this is voter fraud.
If you’re like me, this is extremely confusing. How could people have been warned of the “Red Mirage” and the time it would take to count the votes but then point to those exact things as “evidence” of voter fraud?
This seems as silly as when you warn a child not to do something because they’ll get hurt, and then they’re surprised when you were right and they got hurt.
Now, the country is in a strange place where it appears as though Donald Trump and the Republican party are staging a coup. Since November 3rd, Trump’s team has issued multiple lawsuits, and each one has been thrown out due to a lack of evidence. In the best-case scenario for Trump’s team, they may be able to prove that a few thousand votes were miscounted nationwide, but even if that happened, it wouldn’t change the results.
For the last week, I’ve sat back and watched news outlets explain the lack of evidence that voter fraud took place. And on social media, I’ve seen people arguing with conspiracy theorists. One of the primary arguments they use is when they ask, “If we were going to rig the election, don’t you think we would have won the Senate as well?”. They say this because if Republicans win the run-off election in Georgia, Joe Biden will have a hard time passing left-leaning legislation.
But as I see people present this as their strongest argument against Trump conspiracy theorists, I can’t help but think, “You really don’t know how conspiracy theorists work.” Personally, I spend a lot of time learning about the psychology of conspiracy theorists, and what people don’t realize is that the Senate argument is moot. When you point out that we would have elected more senators if we rigged the election, conspiracy theorists merely point to that as evidence that they’re right.
In a conspiracy theorist’s mind, they can justify the absence of evidence as evidence that they’re right. So, rather than trying to persuade conspiracy theorists, I thought we’d take some time to better understand the psychology of what makes conspiracy theorists tick. Recently, I’ve read incredible books like Suspicious Minds and Bad News by Rob Brotherton, and I’m currently reading Republic of Lies by Anna Merlan. These books dive into the psychology behind why people believe in conspiracy theories and misinformation online. So, I thought it’d be enlightening to go over five psychological reasons people believe the voter fraud conspiracy theories.
A common misconception is that all conspiracy theorists think the same, but this isn’t the case. There are dozens of psychological reasons a person may believe in conspiracy theories, and today, we’re just going to scratch the surface by covering five of them.
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1. Cognitive Dissonance
We’ll kick this off by starting at the root of the problem. Cognitive dissonance is something that everyone struggles with, and it’s the core reason for human irrationality. If you’ve ever taken a psychology course, you’ve most likely heard of cognitive dissonance. Dissonance theory originated by the psychologist Leon Festinger when he wanted to explain one of the primary sources of our irrationality. Dissonance happens when our mind holds two contradicting beliefs, so we come up with absurd logic to ease our dissonance.
As mentioned, this isn’t limited to conspiracy theorists. We all do it. For example, I’m a recovering drug addict with 8 years sober, and when working at a rehab, I’d sometimes jokingly ask, “How many of you didn’t know heroin was bad for you?”. Everyone would chuckle while no hands would go up. Drug addicts know drugs are bad, but due to dissonance, they justify continued use.
Maybe you struggled with dissonance when you were in denial that a friend did something wrong. You made excuses and all sorts of alternative reasons for what happened. This occurs because you’re a good judge of character and only hang out with good people, so if your friend did something bad, that would disrupt how you view yourself. In order to ease that dissonance, you accuse people of lying about your friend or saying your friend had a good reason to do that bad thing.
Cognitive dissonance is one of the primary reasons we’re seeing people spread the voter fraud conspiracy theory despite Trump’s lack of evidence and the mountains of evidence to the contrary. A Trump supporter obviously likes Trump, and they believe that he is the best person for the job (or at least better than Biden), and like all of us, Trump supporters believe they’re highly intelligent and would only vote for the best candidate. Since a Trump supporter wouldn’t support a bad candidate, the only explanation for the loss must be voter fraud.
2. Why You Can’t Argue with a Trump Conspiracy Theorist
We may never be able to sway a conspiracy theorist, but we can be aware of what makes the situation worse. One psychological phenomenon that often makes conspiracy theorists fall deeper into their conspiracy thinking is what’s known as the backfire effect. In fact, I believe the backfire effect is one of the main reasons people get so frustrated arguing with conspiracy theorists because it’s like quicksand; the harder you fight, the worst it gets.
The backfire effect happens when you present someone with evidence that conflicts with their beliefs, and it makes them more convinced that they’re right. With Trump supporters, the fact that mainstream media is trying to prove the lack of voter fraud only means that it’s more evidence of voter fraud.
So, why does the backfire effect happen? There are many possible reasons like cognitive dissonance, but I think a major reason for political backfire effects are due to group identity. What we often neglect to realize is that we strongly identify with our groups, and to get rid of one belief may mean being ostracized from the group. While factually irrational, it makes sense from a social psychological standpoint. If all of a person’s friends and family believe in a conspiracy, they maintain group membership by believing along with them. This is one of the reasons it’s so hard to get someone to leave a religion or a cult as well.
3. Motivated Reasoning
One of the biggest lies we tell ourselves is that we’re rational, objective creatures by default. The reality is that our default is to be biased, and rational thinking is secondary. This is highlighted in Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow. Our default is what Kahneman calls our “system 1 thinking”, which is our reflexive, intuitive thinking. System 2 thinking is our slower, more deliberative thinking. While system 2 thinking allows us to be much more rational, we often rely on system 1 thinking because it requires less of a cognitive load.
Due to our default system 1 thinking, we often fall victim of a major bias known as motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning happens when we’re more likely to believe information because we have some sort of skin in the game.
In one study, participants were given a fake intelligence test, and afterward, they were given research that explains the legitimacy of the test. Those who scored high on the test were more likely to skim over the research and believe it. For those who scored low on the intelligence test, they were more likely to spend a lot more time dissecting the research article trying to explain why it was wrong.
Motivated reasoning is a major reason why people on the right believe that voter fraud took place. A primary example is that they aren’t claiming there was voter fraud in any state that Trump won. Why? It doesn’t serve them. Much like the intelligence test, it confirmed what they wanted. But in states where Trump lost, those are the results they want to pick through with a fine-tooth comb.
4. Proportionality Bias
If I handed you a pair of six-sided die, and I told you to try to roll a 12, how hard would you roll them? Now, what if I asked you to roll a two, how hard would you roll?
Well, they actually did this as part of a study, and they found that people throw the die harder for high numbers and softer for low numbers. Rationally, we know that the strength we use to throw die won’t affect the numbers, but we do it anyway. Why? The proportionality bias.
The proportionality bias is our unconscious tendency to assume that big events have big causes. A great example is the assassination of JFK vs the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. How many conspiracies can you think of involving the attempt on Ronald Reagan? If you’re like most people, none, because they virtually don’t exist. But for JFK, there are many. Why? Proportionality. The JFK event was much bigger because the attempt was successful.
Occam’s razor teaches us that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, but conspiracy theorists throw this out of the window. Rather than believing that Donald Trump is a bad president who has divided our country and had a poor response to the COVID pandemic, they believe there must be a massive conspiracy afoot. Today, Donald Trump even made the claim that Georgia’s Republican Governor Brian Kemp and progressive senator Stacey Abrams colluded to flip Georgia blue.
One of the most paranoid presidents we’ve ever had was Richard Nixon. Nixon was constantly paranoid that people were conspiring against him. Due to this paranoia, he ended up being helping to orchestrate the Watergate scandal. This isn’t new either. Based on numerous psychological studies, they’ve found that conspiracy theorists are often projecting because they’re more likely to participate in conspiratorial behavior.
It’s definitely possible that some Trump supporters are projecting because they know about the voter suppression from the right, but I believe this is more of something we see from the Republican party. From gerrymandering to the suppression of Black voters, Republicans have taken extensive steps to remain in power. Unlike shady backdoor conspiracies, they manipulate the law to try and rig the system.
A prime example is what happened in Texas prior to the election when they limited voter drop-off locations in areas that were more likely to vote for Joe Biden. As mentioned earlier, Donald Trump even encouraged his voters to illegally vote twice. In the mind of conspiracy theorists, since they believe the “other side” is playing dirty, they feel justified in their dirty tactics even though they lack evidence of wrong-doing from the other side.
So, now that we know about some of the psychological reasons people believe the voter fraud conspiracies, you may be wondering what we can do about it. Unfortunately, this is a complex, nuanced discussion that we could spend hours talking about. In the intro, I mentioned that a misconception is that all conspiracy theorists think the same, but the reality is that they’re all different.
There are some strategies you can use to have conversations with conspiracy theorists to hopefully sway them, but typically this will just plant a seed. One of the best strategies is to ask questions. Studies have shown that by asking questions and getting a person to initiate system 2 thinking, they’ll start questioning some of their conspiratorial beliefs. Another great strategy is to find common ground with the other person, and this is something I do quite often.
The government and corporations have done plenty to fuel our distrust, and as a recovering prescription pill addict, I lack quite a bit of trust for Big Pharma and how the government has handled the opioid epidemic. Although I believe in vaccinations, I can find common ground with an anti-vaxxer by explaining some of my issues with Big Pharma and the government. When you find at least one point you can agree on, you’re going to have a much better conversation.
Finally, the last tool I want to give you is one simple question, and that’s, “What would evidence would you need to change your belief?”.
If a conversation with a conspiracy theorist seems like it’s not going anywhere, ask them that question. If the person you’re debating says that nothing will change their mind, you’re wasting your time. All of us need to be ready to change our beliefs when presented with new evidence if we want to be critical thinkers.
One of my favorite quotes came from the famous astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson when he said something to the effect of, “If I was presented with valid evidence of a God, I would change my beliefs.”
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