Republicans became less likely to perceive the 2020 election as legitimate as evidence accumulated that Joe Biden had prevailed over Donald Trump, according to new research published in PLOS One that examined cognitive dissonance surrounding Election Day. The findings shed new light on polarized perceptions of election integrity in the United States.
“Our inspiration for this study is derived from classic social psychology work on cognitive dissonance theory,” explained study author Marrissa (Dani) Grant, a PhD student in social psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Cognitive dissonance describes the discomfort felt by those whose actions are inconsistent with their beliefs or whose personal attitudes are contradicted by new information. Research indicates that people seek to avoid this discomfort, often by altering their beliefs or rejecting the new information.
“A big limitation of much traditional dissonance methodology is that studies have been constrained to artificial environments, college student samples, and involve relatively mundane evaluations (e.g., was this task interesting or boring?),” Grant explained. “We wanted to pull cognitive dissonance theory out of the lab and into the real world so it might help us make sense of current challenges facing the United States—why so many people reject the 2020 U.S. presidential election results.”
In the study, 1,672 U.S. residents were randomly assigned to complete surveys either during the week following Election Day (when the outcome of the election was still unclear) or during the week after November 9 (when major media outlets, including Fox News, declared Joe Biden to be the winner). A total of 1,236 participants ended up completing their assigned survey.
The surveys asked the participants who they expected to win, how much faith they had that the votes were counted correctly, and what emotions they experienced in regards to the presidential election. Participants also reported how much they trusted and consumed 15 media outlets, including Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal.
The researchers found that Republicans expected Trump to win and Democrats expected Biden to win. Importantly, they found that perceptions of election legitimacy became more polarized after Biden was widely declared the winner. Republicans became less confident that votes were counted as intended after Biden was declared the winner, while Democrats became more confident.
A similar polarization was observed in emotional responses. Among Republicans, negative emotions increased and positive emotions decreased over time. Among Democrats, in contrast, negative emotions decreased and positive emotions increased. Negative emotions were associated with lower perceptions of election legitimacy, while positive emotions were associated with higher perceptions of election legitimacy.
“In healthy democracies, citizens are confident that votes were counted as intended regardless of who won — sure, there may be a fleeting doubt, but ultimately the losers consent to the election results,” Grant told PsyPost. “That isn’t happening among a large portion of the U.S. citizenship, which is an alarming indication that our democracy is not as stable as in past elections.”
Grant and her team also found that Republicans reported trusting and consuming Fox News more than Democrats, who reported trusting and consuming the 14 other outlets more than Republicans. Trusting and consuming Fox News, in turn, was associated with lower perceptions of election legitimacy that decreased over time. Trusting and consuming the 14 other outlets, on the other hand, was associated with higher perceptions of election legitimacy that increased over time.
“We see in our study that polarized news outlets play an important role in resolving cognitive dissonance about the election for dissenters,” Grant said. “People should know the influence Fox News had by providing social confirmation that facilitates dissonance-reducing rationalizations that can distort factual evidence about election results. Our findings undergird the importance of consuming ideologically diverse media sources to mitigate polarized perceptions.”
The researchers were surprised to find that the Wall Street Journal tended to be more trusted by Democrats than Republicans despite being a conservative newspaper. They also expected that USA Today would be about equally trusted among Republicans and Democrats, but that was not the case. Future research, they said, should examine a broader range of conservative media outlets, such as One American News Network, Newsmax, or Breitbart.
“Right-wing media outlets have increased in popularity in recent years, as Republicans have become less trusting of so-called ‘mainstream media.’ An important task for future research is to study the number of outlets trusted and consumed by Republicans,” Grant explained.
The study, “When election expectations fail: Polarized perceptions of election legitimacy increase with accumulating evidence of election outcomes and with polarized media“, was authored by Marrissa D. Grant, Alexandra Flores, Eric J. Pedersen, David K. Sherman, and Leaf Van Boven.