Political psychology

Political psychology is an interdisciplinary academic field dedicated to understanding politics, politicians and political behavior from a psychological perspective. The relationship between politics and psychology is considered bi-directional, with psychology being used as a lens for understanding politics and politics being used as a lens for understanding psychology. As an interdisciplinary field, political psychology borrows from a wide range of other disciplines, including: anthropology, sociology, international relations, economics, philosophy, media, journalism and history.

Political psychology aims to understand interdependent relationships between individuals and contexts that are influenced by beliefs, motivation, perception, cognition, information processing, learning strategies, socialization and attitude formation. Political psychological theory and approaches have been applied in many contexts such as: leadership role; domestic and foreign policy making; behavior in ethnic violence, war and genocide; group dynamics and conflict; racist behavior; voting attitudes and motivation; voting and the role of the media; nationalism; and political extremism.[1] In essence political psychologists study the foundations, dynamics, and outcomes of political behavior using cognitive and social explanations.

History and early influences


Political psychology originated in Western Europe, where it was closely tied to the emergence of new disciplines and paradigms, as well as to the precise social and political context in various countries.[2]
The discipline political psychology was formally introduced during the Franco-Prussian war and the socialist revolution, stirred by the rise of the Paris Commune (1871).[3] The term "political psychology" was first introduced by the ethnologist Adolph Bastian in his book Man in History (1860). The philosopher Hippolyte Taine (1828–1893), a founder of the Ecole Libre de Sciences Politiques, applied Bastian's theories in his works The Origins of Contemporary France (1875–1893), to ideas on the founding and development of the Third Republic. The head of Ecole Libre de Sciences Politiques, Emile Boutmy (1835–1906), was a famous explorer of social, political and geographical concepts of national interactions. He contributed various works on political psychology such as English People; A study of their Political Psychology (1901) and The American People; Elements of Their Political Psychology (1902).[4] The contributor of crowd theory Gustave Le Bon (1841–1931) suggested that crowd activity subdued will and polluted rational thought which resulted in uncontrollable impulses and emotions. He suggested in his works Psychology of Socialism (1896) and Political Psychology and Social Defense (1910)[5] that in the uncontrollable state of a crowd people were more vulnerable to submission and leadership, and suggested that embracing nationalism would remedy this.


Meanwhile, in Italy, the Risorgimento (1870) instigated various social reforms and voting rights. A large divide in class during this period led the lawyer Gaetano Mosca (1858–1914) to publish his work The Ruling Class: Elements of Political Science (1896), theorizing the presence of a ruling and a ruled class in all societies.[6] Vilfredo Pareto (1828–1923), inspired by Mosca's concepts, contributed The Rise and Fall of the Elites (1901) and The Socialist System (1902–1903) to the discipline of political psychology, theorizing on the role of class and social systems. His work The Mind and Society (1916) offers a sociology treatise.[7] Mosca and Pareto's texts on the Italian elite contributed to the theories of Robert Michels (1875–1936). Michels was a German socialist fascinated by the distinction between the largely lower class run parliament in Germany and upper class run parliament in Italy. He wrote Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchic Tendencies of Modern Democracy (1911).[7]


A large psychoanalytical influence was contributed to the discipline of political psychology by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). His texts Totem and Taboo (1913) and Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) link psychoanalysis with politics. Freud and Bullitt (1967) developed the first psychobiography explaining how the personality characteristics of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson affected his decision making during World War I. Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957), inspired by the effects of World War II, was interested in whether personality types varied according to epoch, culture and class. He described the bidirectional effect of group, society and the environment with personality. He combined Freudian and Marxist theories in his book The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933). He also edited The Journal for Political Psychology and Sexual Economy (1934–1938) which was the first journal to present political psychology in a principal western language.[8]


In Germany novice political alterations and fascist control during World War II spurred research into authoritarianism from the Frankfurt school. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) opened up issues concerning freedom and authority. In his work Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (1941) he suggested that groups compromise individual rights. Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) also investigated authoritarian individuals and anti-Semitism. His report The Authoritarian Personality (1950) attempts to determine the personality type susceptible to following fascism and anti-democratic propaganda. Nazi movements during World War II also spurred controversial psychologists such as Walther Poppelreuter (1932) to lecture and write about political psychology that identified with Hitler. The psychologist Eric Jaensch (1883–1940) contributed the racist book The Anti-type (1933).

United Kingdom

At the turn of the century Oxford University and Cambridge University introduced the discipline political psychology offering courses on "The Sciences of the Man", along with the foundation of the Psychological society (1901) and the Sociological society (1904).[9] The Oxford historian G. B. Grundy (1861–1948) noted political psychology (1917) as a sub-discipline of history. Motivated by social and political behavior during World War I he deemed the new branch of historical science "The Psychology of Men Acting in Masses".[4] He intended the science to instrument the clarification of mistaken beliefs about others intentions based on mistaken beliefs about ourselves.[4] The intellectual Graham Wallas (1859–1932) implicated the significance of studying psychology in politics in Human Nature in Politics (1908). Wallace stated the importance of enlightening politicians and the public to unconscious psychological processes to help to guard oneself against exploitation and to control one's own psychological processes intellectually. He suggested in Great Society (1917) that recognition of such processes could help to build a more functional humanity.

United States

Across the Atlantic the first American to be considered a political psychologist was Harold Lasswell (1902–1978) whose research was also spurred by a sociological fascination of World War I. His work Propaganda Technique in the World War (1927) discussed the use of applying psychological theories in order to enhance propaganda technique.[10] Lasswell moved to Europe shortly after where he started to tie Freudian and Adler personality theories to politics and published Psychopathology and Politics (1930). His major theories involved the motives of the politically active and the relation between propaganda and personality.

Another contributing factor to the development of Political Psychology was the introduction of psychometrics and "The Measurement of Attitude" by Thurstone and Chave (1929). The methodological revolution in social science gave quantitative grounds and therefore more credibility to Political Psychology. Research into political preference during campaigns was spurred by George Gallup (1901–1984), who founded the "American Institute of Public Opinion". The 1940s election in America drew a lot of attention in connection with the start of World War II. Gallup, Roper and Crossley instigated research into the chances of Roosevelt being re-elected. Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet (1944) also conducted a famous panel study "The People's Choice" on the 1940s election campaign. These studies drew attention to the possibility of measuring political techniques using psychological theories.[11] The entry of the US into World War II spiraled vast research into fields such as war technique, propaganda, group moral, psycho-biography and culture conflict to name a few, with the U.S. army and Navy recruiting young psychologists.[12] Thus the discipline quickly developed and gained international accreditation.

McGuire identifies three broad phases in the development of political psychology, these three phases are: 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 "rational man" assumptions 3.An era since the 1980s and 1990s, which has focused on political beliefs, information processing and decision making, and has dealt in particular with international politics.[13]