We need some psychological attention.
Between the Kansas Attorney General and two of our congressmen urging the United States Supreme Court to reject the results of the election and surveys showing only a quarter of Republicans believe Joe Biden won, most of us are either delusional or being driven crazy by those who already are.
To try to understand what’s going on, I sought professional help.
“You really shouldn’t underestimate how much the media diet really affects people. It’s more than we thought imaginable,” said Chris Crandall, a social psychology professor at the University of Kansas.
I’d explained to Crandall that we already know part of the problem is official disinformation coming from the highest levels and being disseminated through social media, so we didn’t need to bother recapping that phenomenon. But he helpfully explained why all efforts to counter lies with facts is futile.
“The information is completely undermined because it’s from the other side,” he said.
Two basic psychological principles are at work. One has to do with in-groups and out-groups, the “us” and the “them.”
“Forming groups is fundamental to the human animal,” Crandall said. “We do it for protection, identity, economic strength, whether it’s our family, our region, our work groups.”
All of that is great, he said. “It’s incredibly natural.”
As soon as humans are assigned to a group that is any way meaningful (as opposed to random) he said, research shows that we immediately begin to favor our own group.
“You will reward your own group a little more, will think your own group is better in a lot of ways,” he said.
And the other group is the bad guys.
“These categories are easy to play on — that’s the fascist’s, the demagogue’s playbook,” he added. “It isn’t that hard.”
Crandall watched this happen in real time during a study of prejudice in social groups when Trump was elected in 2016 after a campaign disparaging Mexicans and Muslims.
Immediately after the election, he said, “there was a sudden shift to prejudice toward Mexicans and Muslims. It was more OK to have and express these prejudices than it was the week before the election.”
The other phenomenon at work is affect (pronounce that in your head like a psychologist: AFF-ect) which refers to anything emotional.
And as we all know by now, the outgoing president is great at stirring up people’s emotions.
“His rallies are not long consecutive Lincoln-Douglas debates,” Crandall quipped. “They’re raising emotions. It’s a lot of fun for these people. They’re happy because the bad guys get made fun of. Is it wrong to make fun of a disabled reporter? Not if it makes you laugh,” he said.
So we have this in-group all in its feelings, now believing the the other group is the bad guys and the election results aren’t legitimate.
Crandall has been studying this kind of thing and has a theory.
“People think things are legitimate when they all line up affectively,” he said. “We think good things should happen to good people and bad things should happen to bad people. That goes for countries, political parties and politicians as well. If your guys are the good guys, how can they lose an election? It can’t be legitimate.”
So if Trump has convinced his followers that Democrats are bad, the factual argument that Biden won — even when it’s coming from Republican secretaries of state — won’t work.
“If bad things didn’t happen to these bad people, it’s either fraud, abuse, rigged or so on,” Crandall said. “It’s very common to have trouble imagining that good people do bad things and bad people do good things, magnified in part by people’s media diet.”
I asked Crandall whether there’s a cure.
“I’m sorry to tell you I’m much better at diagnosis than cure,” he said.
He admitted he was pessimistic. Humans aren’t going to evolve beyond our fundamental nature to form groups, after all. Changing the way the media works, such as restoring some type of fairness doctrine, might help, he said.
Here’s wishing all of us good luck with that.
Meanwhile, the incoming president — the real one — faces a nearly impossible task.
“Biden honestly campaigned on backing away from ‘us and them’ and being cooperative and bipartisan,” Crandall said. “It is way easier to create divisions than it is to heal them. Way easier.”
Even if Trump someday goes away, his Republican peers — Derek Schmidt, Roger Marshall, Ron Estes and plenty of other Kansas politicians — have learned one thing from watching him: the value of feelings over facts.