Political psychology is an interdisciplinary academic field that emphasizes the psychological dimension of political life. Its practitioners use psychological constructs, such as personality, attitudes, beliefs, values, needs, goals, and expectations, to explain political behavior and to examine the complex and reciprocal relationship between politics and psychology. Political psychologists presume that political actions, like all other forms of human behavior, are the result of interplay between the individual and the environment. Because the scientific study of politics investigates relations and interactions among individuals behaving as political actors, it is inevitably linked with psychology, which is concerned with human thinking and behavior. Political analysts throughout the ages and across civilizations have been interested in the interrelation between personality traits and political contexts. They have employed many concepts and theories to explain why rulers and subjects think and act as they do, and how their thoughts and actions shape the course of politics. Hence, political psychology focuses on the important role of psychological factors in determining the individual’s responses to various contextual/environmental stimuli.
Born in the decades between World Wars I and II, modern political psychology has developed to cover a wide variety of subjects. It traces its intellectual roots back to the eminent American political scientist and communications theorist Harold D. Lasswell (1902–1978). His classic writings, such as Psychopathology and Politics (1930), World Politics and Personal Insecurity (1935), Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How (1936), Power and Personality (1948), and Power and Society (1950), centered on the impact of individual and social psychological processes—perception, motivation, conflict, cognition, learning, socialization, attitude formation, and group dynamics—as causal factors influencing politics. It was Lasswell’s pioneering work in political psychology that contributed to the field’s initial unidirectional nature, characterized by a specific focus on how the individual psyche shapes political behavior and values.
Several leading members of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt (the so-called Frankfurt school ) who had arrived in the United States as refugees from Nazi Germany—Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), Erich Fromm (1900–1980), Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), and Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), among others—developed the concept of authoritarian personality, which deals with the causal relationship between political views and personality types. Their ideas inspired Adorno and his associates at the University of California at Berkeley to conduct a seminal empirical study, The Authoritarian Personality (1950), based on the F(ascism)-scale measurement, which linked right-wing authoritarianism (“implicit antidemocratic tendencies and fascist potential”) to a family pattern of rigidity, discipline, strict rules, and fearful subservience to the demands of parents. Even though it has been widely criticized, including for its heavy reliance on the psychoanalytical perspectives of Freudian theory, this now classic work reveals how certain politically relevant aspects of the psyche lead to fascist or authoritarian belief systems. The F-scale describes a personality type characterized by ethnocentric nationalism, extreme in-group conformity, rigid adherence to conventional values, submissiveness to authority, a readiness to punish, opposition to the free-thinking and kind-hearted, arrogance toward those considered inferior, and other authoritarian attitudes that explain major political outcomes (for instance, the rise of archconservative, ultranationalist, and fascist ideologies and war in twentieth-century Europe).
Political psychology received a significant impetus from and, in turn, was a major contributor to the “behavioral revolution” that swept the field of political science in the 1950s and 1960s. Behavioralist-oriented researchers directed their scholarly attention to new issues such as analyzing the impact of personality characteristics upon political participation and party preference. Lasswell, for one, came up with eight psychological reasons for participation in politics: power, wealth, well-being, skill, enlightenment, affection, rectitude, and respect. Similarly, Robert E. Lane in his Political Life: Why and How People Get Involved in Politics (1965) argued that political participation serves a number of conscious and unconscious needs and motives, including power, economic and material gain, friendship and affection, self-esteem, relief from psychic tensions, and a need to understand the world. Thanks to the behavioral revolution, survey methods showed marked improvement from early studies such as The People’s Choice (1944), the classic study of the 1940 U.S. presidential election conducted by the famous Austrian-born sociologist Paul F. Lazarsfeld (1901–1976), to later ones such as The American Voter (1960), the best-known research study of American voting behavior by Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, William Miller, and Donald Stokes. Electoral behavior was examined in relation to various demographic and population variables (age, gender, level of education, type of employment, social class, ethnicity, race, religion, and ideology). The increased sophistication of public opinion polling led to numerous in-depth analyses of belief systems at both the mass and elite level, such as Philip Converse’s influential study, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics” (in David Apter’s Ideology and Discontent, 1964), which found that mass public opinion tends to be inconsistent, fickle, and poorly informed.
Largely under Lasswell’s influence, early political psychology had centered on the unidirectional impact of individual and social psychological processes upon the polity, but in later decades attention began to be devoted also to the reverse effect of politics on personality systems. Studies of political culture and political socialization, such as Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba’s The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations (1963), looked at how political systems inform individual behavior and values. By the 1980s most political psychologists had accepted the “bidirectional” nature of the interaction between individual psychology and the polity:
[T]he perceptions, beliefs, motives, opinions, values, interests, styles, defenses, and experiences of individuals—be they citizens, leaders, group members, bureaucrats, terrorists, or revolutionaries—are seen as influencing what they do politically; and, in turn, the political culture, political system, mechanisms of political socialization, political movements and parties, and the international system are perceived as having an impact on what people are like. (Hermann 1986, p. 2)
Political psychology finally took shape as an academic discipline in its own right when the International Society of Political Psychology was founded in 1978 and began holding annual scientific meetings and publishing a quarterly journal, Political Psychology. Today, political psychology is a key component of the political behavior subfield of political science. Its diverse objects of analysis range from the psychobiography of political leaders (for example, the 1997 psychobiography of President Richard Nixon by Vamik D. Volkan, Norman Itzowitz, and Andrew W. Dod) to inquiries into the “postmaterial” bases of identity politics (e.g., Ronald Inglehart’s seminal work, Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles among Western Publics, 1977). Psychological terminology is now an important and pervasive part of political science discourse, as numerous psychological concepts have been incorporated into political studies at both the national and international level. Psychological concepts are widely used in research on voting behavior, political socialization, political leadership, the dynamics of public opinion, political attitudes, political conflict and cooperation, international negotiation, decision-making, and, more recently, political information processing.
The two empirical research methods most often employed to study psychological variables are the sample survey and the in-depth interview. For example, political psychologists frequently use attitude surveys to probe the connections among personality structures, demographic and population variables, and dispositions toward political participation and party preference. Other more innovative but less frequently utilized research tools include simulation, projective techniques, content analysis, focus groups, and the controlled experiment. The application of psychological insights to political inquiry remains a widespread and growing trend, as many political psychology studies continue to appear within the framework of related social-science disciplines, especially political science. Although no underlying scientific paradigm or even a single basic theory provides unity and coherence to this eclectic interdisciplinary field, political psychology has already acquired a permanent, if rather heterogeneous and pluralistic, presence within the discipline of political science.
SEE ALSO Almond, Gabriel A.; Attitudes, Political; Authoritarianism; Authority; Behaviorism; Cognition; Communication; Fascism; Frankfurt School; Lay Theories; Left Wing; Persuasion; Political Science; Politics; Preferences; Prejudice; Psychoanalytic Theory; Psychology; Right Wing; Stereotype Threat; Stereotypes; Tolerance, Political; Verba, Sidney
Ascher, William, and Barbara Hirschfelder-Ascher. 2005. Revitalizing Political Psychology: The Legacy of Harold D. Lasswell. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Cottam, Martha L., et al. 2004. Introduction to Political Psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Hermann, Margaret G., ed. 1986. Political Psychology. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Knutson, Jeanne N. 1973. Handbook of Political Psychology. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Monroe, Kristen Renwick, ed. 2002. Political Psychology. Mahwah, NJ, and London: Erlbaum.