Political Psychology Research Paper

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I. Introduction

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II. The Central Assumptions of the Political Psychology

III. How the Political Psychology Is Studied

IV. Origins and Historical Development of the Political Psychology

V. Personality Studies and Psychoanalysis

VI. The Rise of Voting Behavior and Research on Political Attitudes

VII. Decision Making and International Politics

VIII. Where the Field Is Going: A Fourth Phase?

I. Introduction

The term political psychology refers to the study of the ways in which human psychology—our thought processes, personalities, beliefs, and so on—affects politics, and it can be thought of as the area where the academic disciplines of political science and psychology overlap or intersect. It can also be thought of as a kind of “bridge” between the two fields. Just as political economy studies the ways in which economic relationships affect political behavior (as well as the ways in which politics affects economics), political psychology looks at the ways in which our cognitions and emotions, as well as the social pressures surrounding us, can shape our behavior in the political realm. It would be odd indeed if the ways in which the human mind works, for instance, did not affect our voting choices in significant ways, the manner in which we campaign, the tendency of some individuals to engage in genocidal behavior, or the practice of terrorism (to note but a few of the ways in which human beings act politically). In fact, while many political scientists attempt to explain our behavior in other ways—most commonly, by modeling it according to the assumptions of classical economics—there is at least a grudging acceptance within the discipline today that any full account of the vast array of behaviors that human beings engage in when they act politically simply requires an understanding of political psychology.

II. The Central Assumptions of the Field

Perhaps rather surprisingly, a number of traditional approaches within political science give psychology short shrift. Many of the theories one encounters when one first studies political science tend to emphasize the importance of structures, context, or what might be called “the nature of the times,” rather than analyzing the properties of actors or individuals. Marxism, for instance, offers an especially stark example of this tendency. It tends to discount the role of individuals in history, ascribing to material factors a powerful causal effect that overwhelms the significance of particular individuals. History, according to this dialectical view, follows a familiar and predictable drumbeat no matter who the actors involved happen to be at any given time. Within international relations theory—to give another example from a wholly different theoretical tradition—the approach called neorealism argues that we can explain a great deal about how and why a state behaves as it does by looking at that nation’s position within the international system. Superpowers, neorealists argue, tend to behave the same way no matter who they are, as do all middle powers and weak powers. If this is so, it follows that we need not trouble ourselves with the analysis of who is leading a particular state or what the leader’s psychological characteristics happen to be. Nevertheless, political psychology has always had a special appeal for those who believe that political actors—their beliefs, past life experiences, personalities, and so on—do make a difference. It attracts those who believe that individual actors matter; that history is not just the story of how structures and contexts shape behavior but of how individuals can themselves shape history and politics. This is perhaps the key assumption that underlies the whole field and brings its adherents together, in spite of the great diversity of approaches within it and the equally great range of topics that political psychologists address.

A second uniting assumption is the devotion of political psychologists to what has been termed Homo Psychologicus, as opposed to Homo Economicus (Houghton, 2009; Iyengar & McGuire, 1993). Once we decide that individuals do make a difference—in other words, that their decisions matter in the sense of having a meaningful impact on historical outcomes—we need to adopt some view of how they decide. Two rival models of decision making have come to dominate thinking about political behavior within modern political science, one derived from economics, the other from psychology. These are summarized below.

Homo Economicus

  • Humans are comprehensively rational actors.
  • Decision makers are assumed to possess perfect information.
  • The decision maker generates a list of all available options.
  • He or she weighs up the costs and benefits of various options.
  • He or she then selects the alternative that delivers the greatest benefits relative to cost (maximizes subjective utility).
  • This model is derived from microeconomics or classical economics.

Homo Psychologicus

  • Humans are boundedly rational actors (defined below).
  • Decision makers possess only imperfect information, and there are limits to everyone’s cognitive processing capabilities.
  • The decision maker employs various cognitive shortcuts when generating a list of available alternatives.
  • Not all conceivable alternatives are fully considered.
  • The decision maker selects that alternative that “will do” (in other words, the actor satisfices instead of maximizing utility).
  • Group and broader social pressures may lead decision makers to behave in nonrational ways, even contrary to their beliefs and values.
  • This model is derived from social and cognitive psychology.

Although Homo Economicus offers a useful set of assumptions for some political scientists—its great strength is that it simplifies human behavior in a way that makes it predictable, and thus it appeals to those who want to model political behavior in a simplified, parsimonious way—it is not properly considered an approach to political psychology. As its name suggests, many economists and devotees of the rational choice approach to political science use it as a set of simplifying assumptions in the full knowledge that these assumptions do not describe how people behave in the real world; they are, however, prepared to sacrifice a measure of accuracy in the expectation that doing so will generate powerful models and predictions. However, even some economists have begun to question the utility of simplifying reality this way (a school of thought often known as behavioral economics). What unites devotees of a political psychological approach is precisely this reaction against oversimplification. Political psychology as a field is highly empirical: It is concerned with describing and explaining how political agents actually do behave, and not primarily with how they ought to, or with making simplifying assumptions for the sake of parsimony. Of course, taking this approach makes things messy; as soon as the complexity and greater realism of Homo Psychologicus are conceded, it becomes clear that much of human behavior is idiosyncratic and unpredictable. This is, however, a price most political psychologists are prepared to pay.

The pioneer in developing the more realistic account of human decision-making behavior called Homo Psychologicus here was a brilliant and eclectic academic figure known as Herbert Simon. Simon came up with at least two highly significant concepts with which he will always be associated: bounded rationality and satisficing behavior (Simon, 1957). Human decision makers are rational, he suggested, but only within the bounds of the information available to them (which is often either limited or too great to process). As a consequence, we often satisfice instead of maximize utility. In other words, we frequently just plump for the first acceptable option that will do out of a potentially limitless set of choices. So, for example, when you have not already decided where to eat one evening, you usually do not walk up and down the entire length of the street looking each place over and comparing prices and quality in minute detail; instead, you generally pick the first place that is satisfactory. And this, on a slightly different scale, is what policymakers often do, according to the bounded rationality perspective: faced with a potentially limitless range of solutions to a problem, they choose the first available option that is acceptable rather than trying to consider everything. Cognitive psychology has built considerably on Simon’s early insights, and we will return to these issues when we consider the impact of that field on political psychology and the study of decision making.

What Political Psychologists Study

There are many different subfields, specialisms, and approaches within the general field of political psychology. Moreover, there are various (rather different) ways in which an undergraduate or graduate course in political psychology may be taught. One important distinction is that some political psychologists are primarily interested in elite-level behavior. This camp focuses on examining how the perceptions of leaders shape government policies, for instance, or the impact of personality and beliefs on leadership, or on how a particular government decision came to be reached. Other political psychologists are more interested in mass-level behavior, on the other hand, or— put more simply—in how ordinary people behave. A member of this second group might study why people vote the way they do, for instance, or might be interested in the impact of public opinion on government policies or the existence of racism within a given population.

For some academics, the study of political psychology is virtually synonymous with the analysis of U.S. voting behavior, political tolerance, and the impact of the mass media on behavior. Other students of the field look mostly at foreign policy decision making and applications of psychological approaches to international relations. In truth, however, political psychology encompasses all these topics and more. One drawback of this breadth—which essentially derives from the fact that the subject matter of political psychology covers all varieties of political behavior—is that experts in one area of the field rarely consider themselves expert in more than one or two of the others. Nevertheless, the field of political psychology today covers topics as diverse as political communication, terrorism, genocide, the mass media, racism, emotion, cognition, neuroscience, group processes, belief systems, personality studies, and political leadership.

III. How the Political Psychology Is Studied

Just as political psychology encompasses an extraordinary array of topics in its subject matter, the field is equally diverse theoretically. Some of its members draw primarily on social psychological theories, for example. This large set of theoretical approaches tends to emphasize the impact of social situations on behavior. Other political psychologists are more influenced by cognitive psychology and the older tradition of abnormal psychology, both of which stress the importance of individual characteristics in shaping the way that we behave. Also increasingly prominent within this camp is the increasing number of political psychologists who employ the theories and methods of cognitive and social neuroscience in their work (see the section titled Where the Field Is Going).

In terms of the methodologies that political psychologists employ, the field has traditionally been characterized by what social scientists call methodological pluralism; in other words, political psychologists have used a variety of methods, both qualitative in nature (including case studies and literature reviews) and quantitative in character (most notably, large-scale survey research combined with the use of statistical procedures). Until recently, there was little evidence that any one method was predominating in the literature, although this appears to be changing. An increasing proportion of the work published in the field’s flagship journal Political Psychology in recent years, for instance, has been quantitative in nature, to some extent crowding out the presence of historical case studies and other qualitative work. It is unclear, however, whether this is a real trend within political psychology as a whole or whether it simply reflects an apparent preference, among recent editorial staff on the journal, for quantitative work (Monroe, Chiu, Martin, & Portman, 2009).

IV. Origins and Historical Development of Political Psychology

Political psychology is comparatively new as a recognized academic field. With only a few exceptions, courses in political psychology were not offered at most U.S. and European universities until the 1970s, and it was only at about the same time that the term began to be used by researchers. A Handbook of Political Psychology, the first of a subsequent series, appeared in the early 1970s (Knutson, 1973). A professional apparatus began to be created around the subject in the late 1970s, when the International Society for Political Psychology (ISPP) was founded. The organization remains vibrant today, and the ISPP holds its meetings as far afield as Portland, Oregon, and Barcelona, Spain. A new journal—appropriately titled Political Psychology—was also set up in 1979, and the field is now recognized as an integral subdiscipline within political science. While the term political psychology is less used within the mother discipline of psychology—the majority of adherents of political psychology continue to be employed by departments of political science—the ISPP now also includes within its ranks many professionally trained psychologists, as well as policymakers and the members of policy think tanks and nongovernmental institutions. Measured by the institutional affiliation of authors contributing to the journal Political Psychology since 1979, approximately 45% of all political psychologists are professional political scientists, and about 33% work in departments of psychology (Monroe et al., 2009).

The roots of political psychology run much deeper than its recent acceptance as an academic field would suggest, however. In a sense, its subject matter is as old as the study of politics itself, for as long as people have reflected on political questions, they have asked themselves basic psychological questions having to do with why human beings think and act the way they do. One of the first things one discovers in introductory political theory classes—where conventionally we consider the history of political thought as having begun with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—is that every political worldview is ultimately based on a view of human nature. In a general sense, every theory of politics is predicated on some general psychological portrait of how human beings are. The 16th-century Italian conservative theorist Niccolo Machiavelli, for instance, developed a famously dark view of human psychology, which led him to propose in The Prince that the end justifies the means and that leaders must be prepared to do anything necessary—including committing acts of murder— to stabilize the state. Classical liberalism, on the other hand—often represented in introductory political theory courses by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau— is rather optimistic about human nature, leading to a far more benevolent idea of the role government ought to play. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these general conceptions of political man and arguments about human nature began to gradually coalesce into something more sophisticated, especially as psychology developed into a recognized academic discipline in its own right. In France in the 1800s, for example, conservative thinkers such as Hippolyte Taine and Gustave Le Bon began to develop psychological explanations of human political behavior.

The greatest contributions to the early growth of the field would come from Vienna and Frankfurt, however. Thinkers such as Sigmund Freud and Erich Fromm in particular would have a special impact on the development of the field in the United States, and Freud may in some ways be thought of as the founding father of the field because of his early impact on psychology and the imprint of his ideas on early work within political psychology. Freudianism— or psychoanalytic theory, as it is sometimes called— analyzes the drives or motivations that are assumed to lie within all human beings. Freud argued that sex and aggression are the most significant drives within us, but he also accorded a key role to what he called the unconscious—a term he virtually invented but which is now widely used in everyday speech—arguing that many of our true drives and motives are hidden even from ourselves. Because the public display of our basic drives is deemed unacceptable in many societies, their existence is often repressed. They reveal themselves only through slips of the tongue (the now famous Freudian slips, another term that has entered the English language) and the analysis of dreams, a medium that Freud regarded as the playground of the unconscious. He also saw the human mind as a continual battleground between our selfish, childish impulses (what he termed the id) and our higher, moral selves (the super ego).We must listen to both impulses, Freud argued. When we have a difficult time reconciling the impulses of both id and superego, however, we often subconsciously employ one or more defense mechanisms. They include displacement, denial, repression, and transference.

The field of political psychology has evolved through a number of fairly distinctive although overlapping historical phases during the past 80 years or so (McGuire, 1993), and we can identify three broad phases in its development: (1) the era of personality studies in the 1940s and 1950s, dominated by psychoanalysis; (2) the era of political attitudes and voting behavior studies in the 1960s and 1970s, characterized by the popularity of behaviorism and cognitive consistency theory; and (3) an era since the 1980s and 1990s, which has focused on political beliefs, information processing, and decision making, has used schema theory and attribution theory in particular, and has had a particular (although not exclusive) appeal for scholars of international politics. These categories will be drawn on loosely in the discussions that follow in order to show how political psychology has changed and evolved over time.

V. Personality Studies and Psychoanalysis

Within the United States, what would become the modern field of political psychology was pioneered during the 1920s by followers of Freud such as Charles Merriam and his student Harold Lasswell at the University of Chicago. The modern study of political psychology is generally agreed to have begun with a focus on personality studies and the appearance of several works of what is usually termed psychobiography, an early and still vibrant approach to studying leadership. Psychobiography focuses on the personality characteristics of political leaders and on how these characteristics affect their performance in office. Freud himself authored one or two psychobiographic works, but after his death in 1939, his primary impact on the genre came via the influence of his general theoretical approach.

Freud’s emphasis on the role of unconscious motives, childhood development, and compensatory defense mechanisms would have a particular effect on the early work of Lasswell and his own student, Alexander George. It is probably fair to categorize Harold Lasswell as the first modern U.S. political psychologist because it was he who—despite initial indifference toward his ideas within the discipline— did most to probe the relationship between politics and psychology early on. Lasswell’s book Psychopathology and Politics, published originally in 1930, now stands out as a landmark publication within the field of political psychology, as does Power and Personality, a now better-known work of his that first appeared in 1948. Heavily influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, Lasswell came to argue that what he called the political personality results from the displacement of private problems onto public life. Simply put, Lasswell was suggesting that individuals who went into politics were often seeking political power as a compensation mechanism, seeking votes and the attention of an audience (for instance) as a replacement for love that had been lacking at home during their earlier lives.

Alexander George and Juliette George’s (1964) Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House was similarly influenced by this kind of approach. Although not couching their analysis in especially Freudian terminology, George and George trace much of Woodrow Wilson’s adult political behavior to his childhood experiences at the hands of his father, Dr. Joseph Wilson, supposedly a stern Presbyterian minister who rarely showed his son affection or congratulated him on his various achievements in life. As an adult, Wilson was propelled into a series of conflicts with father figures of various kinds, George and George argue, and he sought the love of the people of the United States as a kind of compensation. The fame and controversy of Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House in turn influenced a whole host of works, such as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s (1976) Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, Betty Glad’s (1979) Jimmy Carter: In Search of the Great White House, and James David Barber’s (1972/1992) The Presidential Character, and the psychobiographic tradition remains a vibrant if (somewhat) diminished one within political psychology today.

The early impact of psychoanalysis on political psychology can also be seen in the popularity of authoritarian personality theory during the immediate post–World War II period. Theodor Adorno and his colleagues, who originally developed this theory, believed that right wing authoritarianism—racism and fascism, in essence—were essentially the result of rigid parental discipline within the family (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950). Authoritarian persons direct their aggression toward other groups, often racial minorities, in an attempt to compensate for a feeling of personal weakness and insecurity. The compensation mechanisms include a search for absolute answers, excessive conformity, submissiveness to authority, intolerance toward others who are unlike themselves, superstition, stereotyped thought patterns, and an oversimplistic view of reality in general (a tendency, in other words, to see things in black-and-white terms, with no shades of gray permitted). It is easy to see how the authoritarian personality approach might be used to explain the events that led up to the Holocaust, and the theory enjoyed significant popularity until the work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram suggested that we are all capable of extreme and unethical behaviors (Milgram, 1974). Adorno and his associates argued that obedience to authority (such as the government) will vary with one’s upbringing and that rigid parental discipline had been especially prevalent in countries such as Germany during the 1920s and before.

VI. The Rise of Voting Behavior and Research on Political Attitudes

The influence of Freud on political psychology would wane over time, however. Since it must be admitted that psychology has mostly influenced political science rather than the other way around, trends within political psychology have in general tracked changing fashions within the mother discipline of psychology. During the 1950s and 1960s—and following closely on the heels of similar trends within psychology as a whole—the influence of two other (distinctly non-Freudian) approaches would shape research within the field of political psychology: behaviorism and cognitive consistency theory. As survey techniques became more sophisticated—making it possible to ascertain the attitudes and opinions of large numbers of people—attention would also turn from analyzing only political elites to the examination of mass political behavior.

During the postwar period, psychologists such as B. F. Skinner—a devotee of the school of psychology known as behaviorism—began to highlight what they regarded as the fundamentally unscientific nature of Freud’s work. Skinner criticized Freud for focusing on untestable propositions (Skinner, 1953). Proper science, Skinner believed, ought to focus on what is testable and measurable, and what is testable and measurable is behavior (in other words, what we can see and quantify). We cannot see or measure people’s thoughts, and any attempt to do so—particularly speculation of the sort Freud had engaged in— was bound to lead to bogus science, Skinner argued. At the same time, a behavioral movement within political science began to challenge a reliance on qualitative or heavily descriptive inquiry, arguing that a science of politics could be built only via the patient accumulation of data and the rigorous testing of theories against those data. Heinz Eulau’s (1963) book The Behavioral Persuasion in Politics was emblematic of this movement, a tradition which remains strong today. Although it is hard to say in retrospect which came first or what precise impact Skinner’s ideas had on political psychology—and it must be conceded that there is no “Skinnerian” movement within political psychology comparable to the one animated by Freud—his ideas were at least strikingly similar to those espoused by many students of mass behavior and (more generally) to the behavioral movement within political science. Large-scale survey research and a focus on behavior and on what is quantifiable, rather than the qualitative analysis of particular individuals, became the preferred method of the day for many political psychologists during the 1960s and 1970s, and this remains true today.

At the same time, the older psychoanalytic tradition was challenged on another front, one which—while retaining the Freudian notion of denial, or the rationalizing away of the facts as a central cognitive mechanism humans engage in—dispensed with the idea that Freud’s was somehow associated with abnormal development during childhood. According to the theory of cognitive consistency, inconsistencies between our beliefs—or between our beliefs and our behavior—cause us to experience an uncomfortable state of tension, at least if we are made aware of our inconsistencies. Social psychologist Leon Festinger (1957) famously referred to this condition as cognitive dissonance, a term which has since entered the English language (though it is not always used in precisely the way he intended). Since we generally do not like to be inconsistent, we become motivated to reduce dissonance in some way and bring things back into balance or consonance.

For readers unfamiliar with this approach, the Marian Keech story may prove illuminating and, it is hoped, amusing as well (Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1964). During the 1950s, Festinger infiltrated a religious cult whose leader, “Marian Keech,” was predicting the end of the world (her name was changed in Festinger’s book to protect her identity). Keech specifically predicted that the world would come to an end on December 21, 1954, but she also prophesied that a flying saucer would pick up the “true believers” on December 20, thus saving them from all the death and devastation that would befall the rest of the world. Many members of the group had invested a lot in Keech’s prediction: They had given up their jobs, given away their savings, and sold their houses in preparation for the coming of the flying saucer. For Festinger, this represented a tantalizing scenario for the testing of his theories. He knew—or at least strongly suspected!—that the flying saucer would never show up, and this in fact proved to be the case.

But what fascinated Festinger was what the group members would do when their theory proved false. What would they do? When the saucer failed to show, Keech had a new (and rather convenient) “vision from God” shortly before 5 a.m. on the 21st, saying that “everyone was saved.” The group members then rationalized away the evidence that they had been wrong all along, and for some, the saucer’s nonappearance even strengthened their belief in the cult! While it would be easy to dismiss the members of the group as simply crazy, Festinger thought that this incident actually illustrates a very common and very human psychological tendency. While Homo Economicus suggests that we just update our beliefs when new information becomes available— correcting theories that have been shown to be incorrect— Festinger argued that in reality we usually just ignore or try to explain away dissonant information somehow. We bring things back into balance, in other words, by coming up with some sort of psychologically comforting excuse.

As political psychology turned from an exclusive focus on elites and began to concentrate more on mass behavior, cognitive consistency theory—an approach to psychology that, as we have suggested already, is explicitly suited to the study of attitudes and beliefs—played a central role in the most popular theory of voting behavior developed during the 1960s: the party identification approach. This was originally proposed by Angus Campbell and his colleagues (Campbell, Converse, Miller, & Stokes, 1960) at the University of Michigan in their book The American Voter. Some studies of voting in the immediate postwar period had suggested that social and economic factors directly determined our voting behavior, so that we can expect a rich man to vote Republican, a poor one to vote Democratic, and so on. But Campbell and his colleagues argued that the picture is more complex than this: A psychological variable, which they called party identification, plays an intervening role between “objective” social forces and the way we vote. During our formative years, Campbell and his associates proposed, we develop a long-lasting, stable attachment to a particular political party. Once formed, this loyalty becomes difficult to change and can take the form of an almost religious devotion to “our” party.

How was this approach influenced by cognitive consistency theory? Put simply, it suggested that strong partisans simply screened out or rationalized away unfavorable information about their own party. These strong identifiers were so attached to their party that in some cases they would even end up voting for a party they did not agree with in an ideological sense! During the mid-1960s, for instance, the Democratic Party embraced the cause of civil rights for African Americans, a measure many Southern Democrats opposed at the time. However, substantial numbers of Southern Democrats continued to vote for the Democratic Party for many years after this (and there are probably even today some Southern Democrats who identify with the party despite an opposition to racial integration, although their numbers have certainly dwindled). Equally, many conservative Democrats continued to vote Democrat for many years after the 1930s, when the party embraced what is essentially a liberal economic agenda. Why did this occur? The work of Philip Converse (1964) in particular argued that most voters lacked an internally consistent system of attitudes and beliefs, relying instead on long-term party ties in deciding how to vote. Strong partisans would explain away their party’s poor economic performance, for instance, as the result of something other than their president’s policy choices (they might blame global economic trends, for instance). And they would ignore information about their own party’s standard bearer that did not fit the voting choice they had made.

VII. Decision Making and International Politics

The influence of cognitive consistency theory began to be felt acutely within international relations theory as well during the mid-1970s. Robert Jervis’s (1976) best-known work in international relations, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, led the way in this regard, explicitly drawing on the theory of cognitive consistency to make a variety of (then path-breaking) observations about the ways in which the processing of information can fundamentally impact foreign policy decision making and outcomes on the world stage (see also Holsti, 1962). Similarly, approaches drawn from social psychology, such as the groupthink perspective of Irving Janis (1982), also had a significant impact during the same period. Janis showed how the dysfunctional processes he believed to be inherent within certain kinds of highly cohesive groups can lead to decision-making fiascoes. Examining well-known episodes from U.S. foreign policy, such as Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs, and the Vietnam War, Janis attributed the faulty decisions in those cases to a phenomenon he called groupthink, a tendency to come to a premature and ill-considered consensus within a group before all options and alternatives have been fully considered.

Indeed, during the 1970s and 1980s, cognitive approaches in general—perspectives that emphasize the content of people’s knowledge structures in shaping decision making and behavior in general—began to dominate political psychology. This trend built on earlier work by Alexander George (1969) on the content of belief systems, a tradition called operational code analysis, which remains vibrant today. A whole bundle of cognitive perspectives, including attribution theory and schema theory, began to influence the field. One thing that all these perspectives share is the assumption that human beings are inherently limited in terms of their cognitive capabilities. Unlike, say, computers, human beings have only a limited capacity to process incoming information. We have already seen that the Homo Economicus model asks a great deal of human capabilities; to make a fully and comprehensively rational decision, we require all the relevant information pertaining to the issue we are facing. But in the real world, we know that actual human beings possess neither perfect information nor the inexhaustible energy needed to consider all alternatives. It may sound like a cliché, but the world is an incredibly complex place, and the average individual is constantly bombarded with information, not all of which can be processed efficiently or effectively.

Imagine that you want to make a fully rational, fully informed decision about where to eat tonight and that you have decided to eat out rather than at home. To meet the standard of pure rationality, you would in principle have to read all the menus of all the cafes and restaurants in your town or city. You would have to taste the various dishes in each dining option that night, comparing taste and quality and price and deciding which represented the optimal choice given your preferences. In that way, you would—as economists put it—maximize your utility, selecting the best option relative to its cost. Of course, in the real world, human beings very rarely behave this way. As the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (1994) has suggested, practically the only individuals who actually make decisions in this laborious, time-consuming way are people who have experienced damage to the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain located at just about eye level that is closely associated with emotions and decision making. In his book Descartes’ Error, Damasio relates the story of a brain-damaged patient whom he calls Elliot. When asked to set up a time for his next appointment, Elliot begins an all encompassing attempt lasting several hours to weigh up the pros and cons of every conceivable date in his diary until his exhausted doctors ask him to stop. As we have seen already in describing the Homo Psychologicus approach, what normal decision makers do instead of this is to process information by means of what are generally called cognitive shortcuts or heuristics. These are devices for prematurely cutting short the search for information, tactics that allow us to reach a reasonable decision more quickly and expeditiously than we could if we were to replicate Elliot’s approach. Both schema theory and attribution theory focus on the use of such heuristics, and each has had a notable impact on the study of foreign policy decision making.

A couple of examples drawn from the literature will give you a good idea of how such heuristics work in the real world and how they can affect both the foreign policy decisions made at the highest levels and the decisions of ordinary voters. Schema theory, for instance, argues that human beings are basically categorizers: Rather than considering every bit of information that comes to us afresh, we tend to fit people, events, and things into established mental “boxes” in our heads. It just so happened that when U.S. president Harry Truman and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin first met in 1946, Stalin put Truman in mind of his old boss and mentor Thomas Pendergast, a party boss from Truman’s early days in Missouri (Larson, 1985). Pendergast had taught the future president the importance of keeping one’s word in politics, something that had an important early influence on Truman’s mind-set. Because Stalin just happened to look very much like Pendergast, Truman initially reacted warmly toward the Soviet leader and assumed that Stalin would keep his promises, just as Pendergast had. This proved to be a great error, because the Soviet leader would soon break many of the promises he had made in the aftermath of World War II. Historical analogies constitute another type of cognitive schema, and these devices have been especially well studied and analyzed within the field of foreign policy analysis (Khong, 1992).

Something rather similar to what Truman did in the Pendergast case seems to happen when voters make decisions regarding candidates they know little or nothing about. Consider what happens when we are voting for candidates in U.S. presidential primaries, for instance. We often know very little about the candidates who run for our party’s presidential nomination; some may be governors of states we know little about, for instance, and even if they are members of the Senate, we may know little about them. When we are choosing between candidates of opposing parties, we can just use our party identification as a shortcut, but how do we make a decision when all the candidates come from our preferred party? From the perspective of schema theory, we probably just assess candidates according to how closely they fit our existing conception of the “ideal candidate.” Under such conditions, we base our voting decisions on only a few pieces of observable “data,” and we use this incomplete information to fill in what we do not know by matching a candidate to some stereotype stored in our heads (Miller, Wattenberg, & Malanchuk, 1986; Popkin, 1993). For instance, a candidate who appears “Kennedyesque”—that is, who seems to evoke the image of the late president John F. Kennedy—is likely to do quite well, whereas a candidate who evokes an image of a failed candidate is far less likely to do well at the polls.

VIII. Where the Field Is Going: A Fourth Phase?

It may perhaps be too early to talk of a fourth phase in the development of political psychology, but if recent trends are anything to go by, the field may already have entered one. This might loosely be termed the era of emotion and neuroscience. This most recent trend is in large part a reaction against the computer analogy that implicitly underlies much work on cognition and decision making. For the purposes of analyzing behavior, it was often assumed, in the work described in the previous section, that human beings processed information much as a computer does, in a “cold” or neutral way. The brain was treated as little more than a storage system. This was somewhat ironic because it placed supporters of Homo Psychologicus and Homo Economicus in the same boat, in the sense that both essentially ignored the role of emotion or what some have called hot cognition. But human beings do not simply process information; we feel things as well. Virtually everything in politics—including political ideas, political issues, and politicians themselves—is loaded with emotion, either positive or negative. Very few people can look at a picture of the World Trade Center falling on September 11, 2001, for example, without feeling something, and this is a factor that obviously differentiates us from computers. Politics often provokes strong emotions in us, feelings such as happiness, sadness, anger, guilt, gratitude, disgust, joy, insecurity, fear, and anxiety.

One interesting insight that has come out of this new body of literature so far is the recognition that emotions are not necessarily irrational. For a long time, emotions have been thought of as something that comes from the heart or the gut rather than the mind. This way of thinking about our reasoning processes has been present in popular culture for hundreds if not thousands of years and probably dates back to the ancient Greeks, and it is still very common in the Western tradition of political thought to contrast ordered reason with passion or emotion. Emotion according to this view is something detrimental to informed, factually based decision making. Yet although we can all think of cases in which emotions have had a damaging impact on decision making—the fears that President Lyndon Johnson seems to have experienced during the Vietnam decision making or the feelings of depression Richard Nixon appears to have suffered during the Watergate scandal might be seen as good examples—there is an increasing recognition within political psychology that emotion is actually essential to good decision making. We have already mentioned the work of Antonio Damasio, for instance, who has shown that patients who lack the ability to feel emotion make consistently bad and even reckless life decisions. In order to reason successfully, we first have to care about the outcomes that might potentially result from our actions. The intense fear that we know gripped U.S. decision makers during the Cuban missile crisis, for instance, seems to have had a beneficial impact on decision making, in the sense that President John F. Kennedy eventually chose a set of options for resolving the crisis that de-escalated the conflict rather than the other way around. Within political psychology, the work of George Marcus (2002; Marcus, Neuman, & MacKuen, 2000) on political tolerance and voting behavior and the research of Jonathan Mercer (2005) within international relations make especially prominent use of this insight about the role of emotion in decision making.

Another thing that has coincided with the recognition that humans are not much like computers is a series of technological advances in the field of neuroscience, the study of the brain. Part of the reason emotion has traditionally been neglected as a factor within decision making is that it is so hard to measure in a scientific way. Indeed, we often cannot be 100% sure what even our closest family members are thinking and feeling. Traditionally, political psychologists have relied on questionnaires and interviews to gauge what people are feeling, but these techniques are unsatisfactory in many cases, not least because people may not state honestly what they think or feel (racially prejudiced individuals may not admit to being racist in questionnaires, for instance). There has been a tendency within political psychology—a hangover, perhaps, from the behavioral era—to neglect what we cannot see or measure. Increasingly, however, we now have the capacity to “see” emotions working within the human brain. Because in recent years neuroscientists have vastly increased our knowledge of what individual parts of the brain do—we know, for instance, that the part of our brains called the insula is associated with disgust and the amygdala is activated by fear—and because brain imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging have been developed, it is possible to directly or indirectly measure the emotions that individuals are experiencing. Political psychologists have begun to work with neuroscientists at an interdisciplinary level to use such techniques in their work. This work is very new indeed, and the results of the few studies done so far are extremely preliminary, but interesting work is already being done in this area (Westen, 2007). Increasing use of brain imaging techniques and an enhanced focus on the role of emotion—as well as the ways that hot processes interact with cold ones—appear to be the future of political psychology, especially in the study of mass behavior.


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