The Brain

Trump Supporters And The Emperor's New Crowd Size

At least one in seven people who voted for Donald Trump will reject the evidence of their own eyes in favor of endorsing the President’s claims, according to a study by two political scientists. In order to make them public while the findings are most topical, the study has been reported in the Washington Post without going through peer review. Nevertheless, if the research stands up to scrutiny it marks a staggering demonstration of how far people will go to support their candidate over what is before their noses.

Hans Christian Andersen warned us in his story The Emperor’s New Clothes of the extent to which people will bow to peer pressure rather than admitting what they see before them. Yet even Andersen might have been bemused by the work of Professor Brian Schaffner and Dr Samantha Luks, 180 years later.

Following Trump and his spokesman Sean Spicer’s assertions that the crowd at the Trump inauguration was larger than that at President Obama’s in 2009, comparative images of the National Mall during the two events circulated widely in social media and newspaper reports. Taken from almost the same angle, one shows the Mall almost entirely filled, while the other reveals abundant empty space.


One of the images from Obama’s 2009 inauguration that has been widely circulated, showing the scale of his crowd. David Stephenson/Getty Images

Schaffner, of the University of Massachusetts, and Luks, of the polling firm YouGov, collected a panel of 1,388 Americans and showed them the two images, labeled as Photo A and B, rather than identifying the respective events. However, by the time the study was done, two to three days after Trump’s inauguration, many of those in the survey would already have seen the comparison.

Half the participants in the study were asked which photo was from 2009 and which from 2017. Almost eighty percent of non-voters got the answer right, presumably a reflection of having seen the photos already, or hearing that Obama had the bigger turnout. The number was 90 percent for Clinton supporters, but only 60 percent of Trump supporters picked the answers correctly. It is unsurprising that 40 percent of a group who had heard their candidate claims might make such a mistake.

More significantly, however, the other half of the participants were asked which image showed more people. Almost all the Clinton supporters and nonvoters did this accurately. On the other hand, 15 percent of people who had voted for Trump looked at all that white space and said the Trump photo had more people – without even being prompted that this was from their candidate’s event.

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