Introduction to Political Psychology
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Introduction to Political Psychology

Martha L. Cottam, Elena Mastors, Thomas Preston

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eBook - ePub

Introduction to Political Psychology

Martha L. Cottam, Elena Mastors, Thomas Preston

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Introduction to Political Psychology explores the many psychological patterns that influence individual political behavior. The authors introduce readers to a broad range of theories, concepts, and case studies of political activity, arguing that individuals are driven or motivated to act in accordance with personality characteristics, values, beliefs, and attachments to groups. The book explains many aspects of political behavior—whether seemingly pathological actions or normal decision-making practices, which sometimes work optimally, and sometimes fail.

Thoroughly updated throughout, the book examines patterns of political behavior in areas including leadership, group behavior, voting, race, nationalism, terrorism, and war. This edition features coverage of the 2016 election and profiles former U.S. President Donald Trump, while also including updated data on race relations and extremist groups in the United States. Global issues are also considered, with case studies focused on Myanmar and Syria, alongside coverage of social issues including Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement.

Accessibly written and comprehensive in scope, it is an essential companion for all graduate and upper-level undergraduate students of psychology, political science, and political psychology. It will also be of interest to those in the policy-making community, especially those looking to learn more about the extent to which perceptions, personality, and group dynamics affect the policy-making arena.

It is accompanied by a set of online instructor resources.

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Chapter 1 Political Psychology Introduction and Overview

DOI: 10.4324/9780429244643-1

Why Study Political Psychology?

Why do people behave the way they do in politics? What causes conflicts such as those in Bosnia, Rwanda, or Northern Ireland? Is racism inevitable? Why do presidents make the decisions they do? Why did 9/11 happen? These and many other questions about politics are of great concern to all of us, whether we are directly affected or are only eyewitnesses through the news. So much of political behavior seems to defy explanation and seems incomprehensible when looked at with hindsight: people start wars that are, in the end, regarded as pointless and futile, such as World War I or the Vietnam War; civil wars erupt among people who have lived together harmoniously for years, but then commit hideous acts of barbaric violence against one another, as in the former Yugoslavia, Liberia, or Sierra Leone; groups commit acts of terrorism that kill numerous innocent civilians each year; and a scandal-plagued president cannot resist tempting fate by engaging in an extra-marital affair when he knows full well the extent of the scrutiny of those looking for more scandals. Unless one understands the thoughts and feelings of the people who make the decisions to commit those acts, one cannot fully understand why those things occurred. But an exploration of the psychology—the personalities, thought processes, emotions, and motivations—of people involved in political activity provides a unique and necessary basis for understanding that activity.
This is a book about the psychology of political behavior. In the chapters that follow, we will explore many psychological patterns that influence how individuals act in politics. At the outset, we challenge the traditional notion that people act in politics in a rational pursuit of self-interest. This argument concerning rationality is based on a set of assumptions that are common in political science, but ignore the many studies done by psychologists. Many people assume psychology is common sense because they believe behavior is rational and predictable. But decades of research by psychologists have revealed that behavior is anything but common sense. Although psychologists recognize much of human behavior is not always rational, human beings, as social perceivers, often operate on the belief that behavior (their own and that of others) is quite rational. The motivation to expect behavior to be rational is based on two fundamental needs. First, people have a need to make sense of—to understand—their world. Second, people have a need to predict the likely consequences of their own and others’ behavior. To the extent that behavior is perceived as rational, these two needs become easier to fulfill.
A more accurate picture of human beings as political actors is one that acknowledges that people are driven or motivated to act in accordance with personality characteristics, values, beliefs, and attachments to groups. People are imperfect information processors, struggling mightily to understand the complex world in which they live. People employ logical, but often faulty, perceptions of others when deciding how to act, and they often are unaware of the causes of their own behavior. People often do things that are seemingly contrary to their own interests, values, and beliefs. Nevertheless, by understanding the complexities of political psychology, we can explain behavior that often seems irrational. A few illustrations help us to bring this point home. These are examples of common behavior.
A common argument is that people vote in accordance with self-interest; therefore, people in higher income brackets will vote for the Republican Party and those in lower income brackets will vote for the Democratic Party. However, the authors of this book vote for the same candidates and party, despite the fact their incomes and personal circumstances are quite different. Is one rational and the others not, or do we share certain values and beliefs that we put above economic self-interest? Another assumption is people are fully aware of their beliefs and attitudes and they act in accordance with them, behaving in such a way as to maximize values. As the following example illustrates, we often act in ways that violate our beliefs and values:
A friend of ours was sitting on a bench in a crowded shopping mall when he heard running footsteps behind him. Turning, he saw two black men being pursued by a white security guard. The first runner was past him in a flash, but he leapt up in time to tackle the second runner, overpowering him. From the ground, the panting black man angrily announced that he was the store owner. Meanwhile, the thief escaped. Our friend, who is white and devotes his life to helping the oppressed, was mortified.
(Fiske & Taylor, 1991, p. 245)
Here the power of social stereotypes lay unknowingly deep inside the mind of the friend, despite his outward, and no doubt deeply held, values opposed to such stereotyping. This is an example of the power of what psychologists call social categorization, a process wherein we nonconsciously categorize others into groups. On the surface, the act of categorizing people into groups appears logical and rational. The danger, however, lies in the consequences of categorizing people into groups on the basis of characteristics they might not possess. (The process of social categorization is one to which we will devote a great deal of attention in this book.) In the example above, little harm was done, but the same process can occur at society-wide levels, and can produce acts of terrific violence. Racial discrimination, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and genocide in Rwanda are all, in part, outcomes of stereotyping. They are political actions that cannot be understood through conventional political science explanations, yet they constitute some of the most important and damaging forms of behavior in human societies.
Consider the following account:
The army was determined to stamp out the grass roots support for the guerillas. A company of one hundred soldiers from Santa Cruz del Quiché moved into Nebaj the next day and installed a detachment of military police. Within days, leading citizens of the towns began to disappear. Later their bodies were found mutilated and strung up on posts in the town square.
(Perera, 1993, p. 71)
Now consider this example:
Juliette’s family, who were well-off Tutsis, stayed inside their house that first night. The next night, Thursday, when the militia came searching for them, they ran and hid in a banana plantation. On Friday they ran to the school where her uncle … was an administrator. Two days later the family decided to go to the place where the Belgian United Nations soldiers were and seek protection from them. But 11 Belgian soldiers had been lined up against a wall and shot the day before, so all the other Belgian soldiers had left. Juliette’s family then went to a sports stadium where a lot of other people were sheltering. But here the Interahamwe [militia men] caught up with them and ordered them to another place, an open field where thousands of others had also been rounded up. The Interahamwe told all the people who were Hutus to go; then they told all the others to sit down and they threw grenades at them. When Juliette became conscious the next morning, she found her mother and brothers dead. Her father was also dead and his body had been hacked to pieces.
(Bone, 1999, p. 1)
These two stories depict real-life examples of two politically motivated atrocities committed during war that cannot be explained unless the psychology of the perpetrators is understood. What objective self-interest is served by using a machete to chop up a human being? Why not just quickly kill and be done with it if his or her death serves one’s interests? These are true stories: the first is from Guatemala during the 1980s; the second is from Rwanda roughly 10 years later. These are two very different places, and these acts occurred at different times, yet these two countries encountered similar experiences in terms of brutal acts of violence waged by one group against another. And people in many other countries have similar stories to tell. Political psychology helps explain political behavior along the continuum from everyday political behavior, such as voting, to the most extraordinary kinds of behavior, such as mass terror and violence.

What is Political Psychology?

Understanding the psychological underpinnings of these behaviors gives us a different, and arguably a much more complex, understanding of political behavior. Traditional explanations of political behavior often fail to adequately explain some of the most important political decisions and actions people take. Political psychology emerged as an important field in both political science and psychology that enables us to explain many aspects of political behavior—whether it is seemingly pathological actions, such as those described above, or normal decision-making practices, which sometimes work optimally and other times fail. Both psychologists and political scientists became interested in expanding their knowledge of issues and problems of common interest, such as foreign and domestic policy decision-making by elites, terrorism, conflicts ranging from ethnic violence to wars and genocide, the minds of people who are racists, and more peaceful behaviors such as voting, among many other problems and issues that are traditionally of concern in political science. For example, if we understand the limitations of the abilities of policy-makers to recognize the significance of specific pieces of information, then we can institute organizational changes that will help improve our abilities to process information adequately. Likewise, if we can understand the deeper personality elements of the most important of our political leaders, we can comprehend which situations they will handle well, and which situations will require more assistance and advice from others. If we understand what motivates terrorists to act, we can find ways in which to try to address those motivations and counter terrorism.
One goal of political psychology is to establish general laws of behavior that can help to explain and predict events that occur in a number of different situations. The approach used by political psychologists to understand and predict behavior is the scientific method. This approach relies on four cyclical steps that a researcher repeatedly executes as he or she tries to understand and predict behavior. The first step involves making observations, both systematic and unsystematic, of behavior and events. From these observations, a researcher begins to form hunches about the likely factors, or variables (see box) that affect the behavior under observation. The second step involves formulating tentative explanations, or a hypothesis. During this stage, a researcher makes predictions about the nature of the relationship between variables. The third step involves making further observations and experimenting (see box). During this stage of the scientific method, observations are made to test the validity of the hypothesis. In the fourth step, refining and retesting explanations, researchers reformulate their hypothesis on the basis of the observations made in Step 3. This might involve exploring the limits of the phenomenon, exploring causes of relationships, or expanding on the relationships discovered. Clearly, the scientific method requires a great deal of time spent making careful observations.
At the same time, it is important to mention the replication crisis currently being experienced in psychology. Replication is what gives science credibility. It is the key to important scientific results and is at the heart of generalizability. The “crisis” that results do not replicate is a recent concern in the social sciences, and especially psychology. The replication issues were brought to the attention of social scientists almost 20 years ago, with the publication of two seminal papers. First, Simmons, Nelson, and Simonsohn (2011) argued “questionable research practices” lead to many “false positive” results. Briefly, “questionable research practices” include such things as “p-hacking” (using ostensibly permitted or unpermitted data strategies to turn null findings into significant ones), selective reporting of dependent variables, and failure to disclose all experimental conditions, to name a few. Second, John, Lowenstein, and Prelec (2012) sampled a large number of studies by social scientists and reported a “surprisingly” high rate of questionable research practices. There are, of course, many reasons why a study might fail to replicate. It may be that the replication studies were poorly designed, leading to “false negatives.” Or, it may be that the original studies were poorly designed. The replication crisis might be a result of a publication bias, which is the tendency of journals to only publish statistically significant results.
Regardless of the reasons for the replication crisis, psychologists are responsive to the crisis and have taken significant steps to solve the issues. Some of the practices currently in place include changes in the ways statistical analyses are reported, and moving toward a more open science, where replicability and transparency are promoted (Open Science Collaboration, 2015). For example, it is now common practice to either pre-register a study before data collection begins or to share the data and materials freely. Other solutions to the crisis include changes to journals and publishing, including the addition of replication and null-effects journals, and open source publishing.
A variable is what we call something that is thought to influence, or be influenced by, something else. One seeks to identify variables in the first stage of the scientific method. Variables can vary in degree or differentiation. One question of interest in social sciences is the question of how variance in one variable explains change in something else. When variables are measured, the researcher ideally wants a measurement instrument that is reliable—that is, one that will produce the same results when used by another researcher. In addition, the measurement should have validity—that is, it should provide an accurate measurement of what it claims to measure.
Essentially, political psychology represents the merging of two disciplines, psychology and political science, although other disciplines contributed to the literature and growth of the field. Political psychology can be described as a marriage of sorts that fosters a very fruitful dialogue. Political psychology involves explaining what people do by adapting psychological concepts so they are useful and relevant to politics, then applying them to the analysis of a political problem or issue. For example, psychologists have been helpful to political scientists who study negative political advertising. Psychologists have done studies whose outcomes provide evidence to suggest negative political advertisements are often ineffective because the sponsor of the negative ad is evaluated negatively by same-party voters. Psychologists brought fresh perspectives to political science regarding how to make sense of politics, thus expanding our knowledge of the political world. Political scientists bring to the field their knowledge and understanding of politics. For example, psychologists often study the decision-making process employed by groups. Some of the ideas psychologists use to guide their theories about how groups make decisions come from real-life group decisions made by political groups (e.g., Bay of Pigs, the decision to enter the Vietnam War). Each must be well versed in the other field, and together they are able to expand the scope of study in both political science and psychology. As a result, political psychology makes a very important contribution to our understanding of politics and expands the breadth of that understanding.
The three characteristics that define experimental research are the manipulation of an independent variable, control over extraneous variables, and random assignment of participants to conditions. The values of an independent variable are set and chosen by the experimenter. If an experimenter wanted to examine the effects of room temperature on mood, then room temperature would be the independent variable. The experime...