politics and psychology

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The methods and theories of psychology have been borrowed by politics on an increasing scale since the early twentieth century: in the academic interpretation of political behaviour; and in their utilization by practising politicians. The applicability of psychology in the interpretation and practice of politics nevertheless remains controversial.

In the early twentieth century human psychology was not widely seen as a key determinant of political development compared to structural or functional characteristics of the broader political system. In that it was, it was assumed that the self‐perpetuating imprinting from one generation to another and the stabilizing aspects of the consequent wider culture determined basic personality structures consistent with the maintenance of political stability. The experience of fascist regimes, however, defied explanations within the conventional wisdom. The phenomenon of the authoritarian personality was isolated, and political psychologists set about the explanation both of the phenomenon and the support that it attracted. They focused on the subject's family background, following the hypothesis that a perceived absence of parental love is the fountain of fantasized solutions to the problems of emotional deprivation which then become manifest in expansive desires for dominance. The conditions which created mass obedience to fascist regimes were analysed in terms of individuals: (1) giving up the private ego‐ideal, embedded in the will of the leader; (2) regressing to infantile responses, thus allowing great scope for the group ideal; and (3) becoming easy prey to the imperatives of a collective paranoia against stated enemies.

Academic political psychology expanded to take in more mundane actions and events. Here the development of psychoanalysis has proved enriching, although inclined to foster a continuing obsession with the more rare authoritarian personality syndrome. Explanation of adaptation by political psychologists has also taken in the analysis of electoral behaviour, mass public opinion, and political activity, notably through political parties. Writers, such as Talcott Parsons and Gabriel Almond, propounded the thesis that participation in the democratic process was the principal determinant of adaptation. However, they differed over what determined participation, specifying causation variously to be the result of leadership styles or other elite political control processes or the first stage of political socialization, in particular through school. Those who found no clear causes, however, were driven back to the normal assumptions of personality imprinting and political stability, looking for non‐systematic causes of participation and adaptation as exceptional events in a similar manner to the analysts of the authoritarian personality.

Political psychology has also increasingly focused on group decision‐making in executive elites or policy communities, as key areas of political activity. They have applied theories of bargaining and negotiation, culled from social psychology, to collective dilemmas of conflict resolution or policy coordination. However, this has been challenged by the economic approach to politics which stresses rational choice as the basis of political action, and hence asserted decision‐making to be contingent upon the outcome of relations between rationally competing actors. Interestingly even some neo‐Marxist writers have shown a tendency to embrace rational choice approaches to politics in the context of wider socio‐economic pressures. In practice, it is likely that both rational and interrelational motives apply.


Subjects: Politics.

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