No matter who would have won the U.S. presidential election last night, roughly half of the American public would have woken up in disbelief. The questions on their minds would be many, but one is surely: how could anyone have voted for ________? I’m a professor, and yes, there is no even distribution of support for Trump vs. Clinton among my higher education faculty colleagues; but I grew up, own land, and run an educational nonprofit in a county in rural Oregon that voted for Trump 65% to 26% for Clinton. Many of my longstanding friends live in that reality. Either way, then, one of these groups of people close to me would have woken up this morning in disbelief.
So, how could anyone have voted for Trump? Social psychologist Arie Kruglanski‘s op-doc video suggests that the issue is not of one particular political figure, nor of one particular political party or place or time. He and colleagues coined the term cognitive closure to suggest that, as the summary reads, “Certainty can be a dangerous thing.” His op-doc includes images of Trump to be sure, but President Obama and Bernie Sanders as well as famous totalitarian leaders, reaching back to what must surely have motivated the theory: his childhood in the early 1940s in a Jewish ghetto in Poland.
Kruglanski says, “The need for closure is the need for certainty: to have clear-cut knowledge, to stop processing too much information, to stop listening to a variety of viewpoints, and zero in on what appears to you to be the truth.” He speaks of closure as dangerous, but necessary. Kruglanski is not naive: he speaks toward the end of the need to act against evil in the world, and how this necessitates cognitive closure: “You cannot fight fire with ambiguity and indecision.”
Then the question becomes, as Kruglanski asks, “So how do we know the difference between extremism and fighting for a just cause?” His paradoxical answer is understandably unsettling: “That’s what makes certainty so dangerous. When you dismiss other points of view, you ignore information that is critically relevant to making a good judgment.” Kruglanski concludes, “That’s why we should be suspicious of our own sense of righteousness.”
As you read this, surely, I would imagine that it is much easier to pin cognitive closure and the dangers of certainty on your political enemies. But, given that many of our collective conversations in the U.S., from environment to livelihood to safety to diversity, are effectively getting nowhere at this point, perhaps we need to consider that they apply to us as well. We may all be much too sure of ourselves.
So, what to do? I’d say: listen to people who are unlike you. In environmental communication, for instance, this dialogic approach may prove far more effective than simply yelling louder (the “deficit” model) or trying to speak the right language (the “framing” model). Dialogue may be the last thing you want to do on the morning after, but it’s a mark of leadership to initiate that dialogue, knowing that effective action must always reach beyond one’s own limited circle of like-minded friends. We may all just learn something in the process as well.