Trump inauguration ritual generated greater division within each political group

26 March 2019

A group of Oxford researchers have seized on the divisive nature of Donald Trump and his inauguration ceremony to examine how different emotional responses to public rituals can affect group bonds. What they found was that rather than drawing groups together, the event generated greater division within each political group.

Rituals are events that can promote unity amongst group members, such effects can extend to participants and spectators and applies equally to rituals in traditional and modern societies. Psychological theory suggests that the intensity and valence of the emotional experience influence the way we bond with group members.

It is a rare occasion when a ritual event splits an audience down the middle emotionally. Donald Trump’s inauguration was one such national ritual and the researchers capitalised on this valuable opportunity to test theories about ritual cognition against a real world example. The researchers collected data from over a thousand Clinton and Trump supporters, examining how they felt about various groups over the course of six weeks.

In social psychology, research has suggested that following negative experiences individuals can sometimes rally behind their group in order to recover a sense of self and strength. Alternatively, positive experiences can have a more straightforward effect by strengthening existing bonds through celebration. On top of this, rituals that are seen as personally important and evoke strong emotional responses have been theorised to promote a strong type of group cohesion, known as ‘fusion’.

In the case of Trump’s inauguration, as reported in a study recently published in Self and Identity, Trump and Clinton supporters did not display the anticipated responses to the event. Clinton supporters instead of rallying to the groups who shared their political opinions felt less bonded. And Trump supporters did not display much change in their feelings towards their ingroups. The researchers' analysis suggested that it was changes in positive emotions that were driving these effects. When people reported feeling more or less sad it did not influence their group bonds whereas changes in how happy they reported feeling did.

The researchers’ findings, accord with studies conducted with other very different rituals, such as initiations, hazings, or important religious occasions. They stress that the consistencies observed reflect that processes of ritual cognition are universal and apply just as much in modern urban environments as they do amongst tribal communities. We do not often think of national events like an inauguration as a ritual, but when the content-repetitive, formal behaviours, sworn oaths, and various symbolic performances are considered, the parallels with more readily recognised rituals are clear.

Lead author Dr Kapitany, from Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology, said: ‘The real world is messy. Theory predicts that each group should be stronger, more united as a group - rallying behind a cause common to their identity. We couldn’t attribute this to the inauguration specifically, but a lot of things happened right after the inauguration: the women’s march, the Muslim ban, the lies surrounding attendance. People were feeling a lot of emotions, and they may not have been clearly focused on something as singular as the inauguration.

‘However, it was interesting to observe that different kinds of emotions have different kinds of influences on how we relate to one another. This real world data will inform our future work on the topic’.
President Trump's inauguration committee raised more than twice the funds of any previous inaugural committee in US history. And while the Trump administration outspent Obama by a considerable margin, Trump gave the shortest inaugural speech since Carter ('77). The Trump administration is currently under investigations for misappropriated funds intended for the Inauguration.

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