A month after the presidential election, President Donald Trump’s claim that the election was rigged to benefit Joe Biden has been debunked by numerous Republican state elections officials. Dozens of lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign and its proxies have been rejected by judges in both state and federal courts. There is no evidence to support any of the campaign’s baseless charges of election fraud, though its power to undermine faith in American democracy is real.
Yet millions of Americans — including about 70% to 80% of Republicans — believe the election was stolen. Why?
One standard answer is that Trump’s backers will believe anything he says. Another perspective, popular among some psychologists, is that people filter ambiguous information through an ideological lens, preferring interpretations that favor their political affiliations.
But in this case, these explanations seem insufficient. People follow charismatic leaders and selectively process political information, but they do not typically cling to a belief that contradicts all available evidence.
Understanding the fallout from the intense polarization of this election will take time. But research into social and political psychology can offer some insight into this response from Trump supporters.
Whether by accident or design, the election fraud narrative features three characteristics that supercharge its psychological appeal: It makes a complex and hostile world seem orderly, controllable and certain.
First, note that Trump and his supporters are suggesting a very specific reason for their loss: fraud. They are not arguing Biden’s victory is due to accidental miscounting or a random software error; rather, that it is the result of systematic ballot tampering and voting software manipulation. For psychological reasons, this is a crucial distinction.
People want to view the world as predictable rather than chaotic. The possibility that many independent counties and states all, by chance, made a series of random mistakes skewing election results in the same direction does not fit with this deep-seated motivation.
Claiming intentional fraud, by contrast, offers a single explanation for what would otherwise need to be an improbable series of coincidences. The fraud narrative rejects the unwanted election result in a way that satisfies the desire to view the world as orderly.
In a recent study, we asked Republicans and Democrats to explain why news sources would ever publish erroneous news stories. They tended to characterize bad stories in outlets they perceived to be ideologically opposite to their views as intentionally “fake” rather than the result of accidental incompetence. And the stronger a person’s self-reported desire for order in the world, the more that person preferred to view objectionable news stories as intentionally fabricated. Similarly, the election fraud narrative can shield people from the idea of blind chance deciding their fate.
To be compelling, the fraud narrative also needs to be paired with another important element: an enemy. While the exact nature of this enemy shifted under Trump’s volatile messaging, it usually stands for a vast underground network of liberal organizations (the “radical left”), powerholders (e.g., the Clintons), private corporations (e.g., Big Tech), and policymakers (the so-called “deep state”).
On the surface, the appeal of this message is puzzling. Why would people want to believe that powerful malevolent agents are conspiring behind the scenes to sabotage their goals? Yet, in the face of bad news, the idea of being the target of an enemy may feel less distressing than being subject to arbitrary, unpredictable forces like natural disasters, accidents or pathogens.
And the more powerful, nebulous and covert the enemy, the more psychologically useful it is for sense-making. If the enemy is not portrayed as powerful, then it’s harder to imagine it being responsible for large-scale negative outcomes. And if the enemy is not portrayed as operating in the shadows, then it cannot be viewed as responsible for a multitude of diverse outcomes.
Anxiety can heighten this psychological response. In a 2008 study, participants were randomly assigned to think about hazards beyond their control (e.g., vehicle accidents) or other negative but controllable events. In a subsequent, seemingly unrelated, context, participants who were reminded of uncontrollable hazards believed more strongly that the presidential candidate they opposed (Barack Obama or John McCain) was working behind the scenes to illegally influence the election (e.g. by tampering with voting machines).
These findings suggest that attributing misfortunes to an unseen enemy or network of enemies can help people cope with feelings of lack of control in their lives. In an election held during a pandemic, that urge may be particularly strong.
Finally, the third characteristic of the election fraud narrative is that it’s laden with arguments that cannot be tested by evidence. Political and social ideas that cannot be tested by evidence tend to have a stronger psychological advantage. For example, the view that “same-sex parents are bad because their children will have behavioral problems” can be tested and refuted or supported by evidence while the view that “same-sex marriage is bad because it is immoral” is not subject to such testing. Under threat, people adopt untestable ideas more readily and defend them more vigorously.
Interestingly, the rhetoric surrounding election fraud has become more immune to testing over time. Consider the “deep state” specter. Such a covert enemy can never be interrogated or investigated. To someone convinced of its role in the election, not finding any trace of its involvement is only more evidence of its cunning. Those who insist the election was stolen by the deep state can tell themselves no one can prove them wrong.
Trump’s stolen election conspiracy is so dangerous because it plays to people’s deep-rooted need for order and control and is impervious to arguments based on evidence. The result of all this? Trump’s supporters can feel safe investing in this narrative — and may well continue fighting zealously for it long after Biden takes office.
Aaron C. Kay is a professor of management and psychology at Duke University Fuqua School of Business. Mark J. Landau is a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas.