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Where Politics & Psychology Intersect

Perhaps you have a hard time giving up on the idea that political behavior is--or at least can be--based heavily on facts and ration-al processing of facts. But it's a hard conviction to maintain in the face of, well, established facts.

For example, in exit polls, relatively few voters can correctly answer basic questions about the policy positions held by the candidates for whom they have just voted. Many citizens will describe themselves as "conservatives," then give "liberal" answers to questions about the fundamental role of government. Most voters vote for the same party their whole adult lives, and usually it's the same party for which their parents voted.

Perhaps it's natural and understandable to want political behavior to be rational but, as Regents Professor John Sullivan says, "When ordinary political science explanations don't work to explain political conduct, insights from political psychology can often make sense of things that don't seem sensible."

Political psychology, says Associate Professor Christopher M. Federico, is "the study of how human thoughts, feelings, and behaviors intersect with the political world, and how they mutually influence one another."

The map of this intersection between politics and psychology has grown steadily more detailed over recent decades. And the University of Minnesota has made itself a national leader by creating the Center for the Study of Political Psychology (CSPP).

CSPP receives support from the Graduate School and the College of Liberal Arts. Through the center, graduate students can take a Ph.D. minor in political psychology.

Students from many disciplines can pursue political psychology as a minor. The center is also a place for faculty members from political science and psychology and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication to pool their expertise and collaborate on research that draws from all three.

Obviously, the field of political psychology holds a special attraction for those whose interests straddle political science and psychology. Sullivan was an undergraduate psychology major at the U in the 1960s but was frustrated by the attention paid to the study of laboratory rats, a species not of abiding interest to him. While he was taking an introductory American government and politics course from political science professor Bill Flanigan, Sullivan says, he had an aha moment: "Political science studies people. So I switched."
Four decades later, Sullivan is a Regents Professor and Flanigan is an Emeritus Professor in the department. Sullivan wedded his interest in the human psyche to his life's work in political science and cofounded, with psychology professor Eugene Borgida, the CSPP in the early 1990s. Federico, who is a voting member of both the psychology and political science departments, is director of the CSPP.

Associate Professor Joanne Miller, who teaches political psychology, started out in psychology and stayed with it all the way through her Ph.D. "But as I went through graduate school, I found that the questions I was interested in asking were political science questions, but the answers were psychology answers," she says.

Some of Miller's research illustrates how a psychological component can take our understanding of political behavior a step deeper. Political science long ago noted several factors that correlate with higher levels of political participation, and they are intuitively obvious: people with higher incomes, higher educational levels, and more political knowledge are more likely to vote, contribute, and volunteer. But some affluent people don't vote or donate time or money. And plenty of poor people do. Controlling for the more obvious socioeconomic factors, Miller's research pursued the question of what kind of psychological motivations lead to various forms of political participation.

Using data from surveys that asked respondents about both their personal motivations and their political participation, Miller found, for example, that participation is less common among people who are actively pursuing their self-interest. In other words, most people don't vote or volunteer for campaigns because they hope to come out ahead by any kind of concrete economic logic. But those who are motivated by the pursuit of collective interest and especially those who are motivated to express their personal values are more likely than average to volunteer or contribute.
The only motivation that Miller tested that seemed to increase the likelihood of voting itself was the desire to express one's identity as an American. Observations like those, Miller says, "may put us down the path of ideas that will help make participation more widespread."

Among those who do vote, political scientists are virtually unanimous in the belief that the single biggest indicator of how someone will vote is party identification. This is intuitively obvious but it also crashes up against the idea of a campaign as a struggle to gain the support of voters. Most voters are pretty much beyond the power of campaigns to persuade them to vote for the "other" party. Partisan identification is closely linked to socioeconomic and lifestyle factors such as race, income, religion, and frequency of church attendance, Federico says. All of these factors are or become aspects of personal identity, he says.

Identity Politics

Associate professor Dara Strolovitch doesn't consider herself a political psychologist, but she gains insight from the field for her work on the politics of race, gender, and identity. It's true that many aspects of identity correlate with a choice of political parties, but the story is complicated because a person's identity has many components that may pull in different partisan directions, Strolovitch says.

Looking at Southern voting patterns before the 1960s, she says, some analysts considered it irrational for poor Southern whites not to make political common cause with poor blacks, based on their economic commonalities. Economic status is a strong indicator of political identity, but so is race. It's not a case of rational or irrational, Strolovitch says. Within the context of identity politics, "it makes sense to have an investment in your social status as a white person" in a racialized society.

Once a voter establishes a partisan identification (usually by early adulthood and usually for life), that party affiliation itself becomes a powerful piece of identity, to the point that one can say that voters are not Democrats or Republicans because they agree with the parties' position on issues, but vice versa: Democrats take the Democratic position because they consider themselves Democrats.

Likewise, partisans apply a strongly partisan filter.

Associate Professor Paul Goren's research has demonstrated that the influence of partisan attachment on political attitudes is "broader, deeper, and more consequential than previously recognized," Goren says.

During a campaign, each party produces and disseminates negative information about the character of the opposing party's candidate. But the information must pass through a powerful partisan filter, so that members of the candidate's own party find it easy to dismiss or ignore the information, while members of the other party are quick to embrace it and then tell pollsters that the character flaws are a key reason they opposed the candidate.

Goren's studies confirm that "party identification is the bedrock principle on which political judgments rest."

Political psychology can now go beyond survey data to confirm this hypothesis. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) enables researchers to monitor brain activity. In one application that has gained political attention, fMRI can show whether people deal with political information in the portions of the brain where rational analysis tends to occur.

Sullivan notes that in 2007 a New York Times op-ed by political psychology researchers actually published fMRIs of the brains of swing voters reacting to names, images and video clips of various presidential candidates. At that time, the fMRIs suggested, the name Mitt Romney produced what the researchers called "anxiety" reactions, John Edwards produced a lot of "disgust," and Hillary Clinton "conflict," although the brains of men and women responded very differently to Senator Clinton's name. Interestingly, the fMRIs produced by Barack Obama and John McCain were substantially similar, and mostly showed little reaction. Of course, that was in early 2007. Now, as the partisans on both sides have closed political ranks around their candidates, the names probably would produce different results.

If political organizations use focus groups to test themes and messages before trotting them out in their campaigns, imagine what diabolical insights might be garnered by measuring the reactions to such ideas directly from the subconscious of potential voters. "My bet is that the presidential campaigns will be doing this," Sullivan says.
Politico Psychology
A second major branch of political psychology focuses not on the mass psychology of the electorate but on the individual and small group-psychology of the presidents and presidential circles that elections have put into power.

While Joanne Miller's political psychology class focuses on the political behavior of ordinary citizens, Sullivan teaches a course called Political Psychology of Elite Behavior.

Early in the 20th century, as Freud's insights into the individual human psyche took hold, pioneering political scientists applied those insights to a deeper understanding of leaders. For example, Sullivan says, traditional political science had been puzzled by Woodrow Wilson's failure to make small compromises that would have gained congressional approval for Wilson's dream of U.S. entry into the League of Nations after World War I.

In 1956 Alexander George published Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study, which traced Wilson's personality from his childhood, his relationship with his parents, his lifelong struggles with self-esteem, and his hypersensitive ego and constructed an understanding of Wilson as a man who was intolerant of disagreement and almost incapable of compromise. Sullivan cites the book as an example of how the merger of political and psychological provides an explanation for something that previously seemed inexplicable.

Political psychologists have also studied the group psychological dynamics within an administration facing enormous foreign policy challenges. In Groupthink, a book that Sullivan assigns in his Elite Behavior course, political psychologist Irving L. Janis explores three famous cases: the unpreparedness of the United States for the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy administration's decision to go forward with the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion plan it had inherited from the Eisenhower administration, and the Truman administration decision to expand the Korean War into an invasion of North Korea. In all of these instances, Janis finds evidence of what he calls groupthink, wherein the pressure to go along with ideas that the group seems to favor leads individual members of the group to ignore--or least to not force the group to consider--serious problems with a plan.

This kind of post-fiasco research is done by interviewing the key members of the group, asking how the group failed to see--or at least to discuss and deal with--obvious problems. Theorists of groupthink have developed the concept of a "mindguard," a member of the group who pressures other members to stay in line with the emerging consensus and keeps troublesome facts and arguments away from the group. (Janis concluded that President Kennedy's brother Robert played that role in the Bay of Pigs case.)

Sullivan's class also reads a political psychology book that looks at the two Presidents Bush and the group dynamics within their administrations as they contemplated war against Saddam Hussein. The book portrays the two Bushes as having a lot of psychological characteristics in common, including a tendency to trust their gut instincts over the advice of their subordinates, Sullivan says. In the case of George H. W. Bush, those instincts were based on a lot of foreign policy experience. In the case of George W. Bush, they were not.

Looking at these and other current and past events, political scientists at the University of Minnesota are