What Is Political Psychology


Political psychology has as its’ primary concern the application of psychological theory to individuals and groups within the context of a political system. Thus, rather than concern ourselves, as psychologists, with how some person behaves more generally; we can instead concern ourselves with said person’s behaviour as it occurs in relation to a political institution, political event, or a political ideology. For example, we could measure risk-adverse behaviour in a vacuum setting, such as in a controlled laboratory; or, we can study risk-adverse behaviour as it occurs within those who identify themselves with a certain political disposition. So, political psychology concerns behaviour, beliefs, and other predicaments of the human as they occur in the context of political systems.

An example of an important political psychology question would be, during mass killings, whether political leaders are causally responsible, or is the human tendency to obey authority responsible, or is a mixture of the two? Some suppose the existence of a particular personality-type which is distributed amongst the followers of some authority, of which then leads to a higher rate of approval and compliance of those leaders; others attribute these events to human propensity to obey authority; and still yet, some researchers view these events as reactions of authoritarian individuals to social and political discord. This is just one example of a political psychology topic.

Therefore, political psychology cannot explain all matters regarding politics. Political psychology is not a means to undermine rational philosophy within the context of politics: namely, political philosophy – although it nevertheless has some important implications for political philosophy; nor does political psychology explain whether certain political beliefs are justified or unjustified. Likewise, political psychology cannot, on its own, negate the validity of some political doctrine by finding correlations between disfavourable psychological traits and particular political beliefs. Such doctrines ought be considered on the validity of their fiscal, moral, and legal policies, among other things, rather than their psychological features alone.

Areas of Study And Theoretical Approaches In Political Psychology

One tendency within the discipline is rational choice theory. Rational choice theory has the following three assumptions:” first, individuals have consistence preferences over their goals, which are often defined as the pursuit of economic self-interest; second, individuals assign a value or utility to these goals; and third, probabilities are assigned to the different ways of achieving such goals”.  This essentially makes the claim that individuals choose courses of action that maximize their utility.

Comparatively, there are others who believe rational choice theory has short-comings, and that social prospect theory – or, theories which rely on cognitive biases and affective biases – ought be used to model human political decisions.

Decision theories are important when we consider whether the public votes based on rational choice, that is, which leader will maximize their economic profits, or if they rely on emotional and cognitive biases. Likewise, when we consider the decisions of political leaders and government, it is important to note whether their decisions conform more so to rational choice or social prospect theory.

Another important theoretical consideration within political psychology has to do with evolutionary theory and biopolitics.

A traditional debate between fitness maximizers and adaptationists has spilled into political psychology. Those who argue for fitness maximization will relate decision theory back to fitness maximization. For example, people are believed to in ways that, though in theory could maximize their economic profit, increase their evolutionary fitness. Comparatively, evolutionary psychology, which is an adaptationst school of thought, argues that political behaviour stems from heritable genetic traits that manifest themselves in particular psychological features. So, a fitness maximizer concerns themselves with the motivations for a decision, while an adaptationst explains the behaviour from a heritability point of view.

In addition to evolutionary theory and behavioural genetics, some neuroscientists and behavioural endocrinologists have begun to ask important questions about the roles of neural circuitry and hormonal activity in political behaviour of citizens and elites, as well as perception of international threat and danger.

Moreover, there are also personality and psychodynamic approaches to political psychology. For example, some researchers have applied the five-factor model of personality to explain political values and ideologies, and others have used personality models to explain voting behaviour and leadership decisions.

Psychodynamic approaches have been used to characterize the individual characteristics of political leaders as well; for example, Erikson has written a psychobiography on martin Luther King. This is just another, among many, areas of political psychology research.

The last two important areas of research and theory within political psychology to be mentioned are cognitive and affective psychology and intergroup relations.

Cognitive psychology has made important discoveries about attention span, memory, and reasoning. Within political psychology, people have applied cognitive psychology models demonstrate that certain reasoning biases lead to sub-optimal political decision; some have argued that mass-political decisions ought be made using heuristics rather than rational choice, and still others have assessed the degree to which citizens use heuristics to vote.

As well, emotion has played an important role in political psychology research. For example, when we consider associative learning – that is, what fires together wires together – it becomes readily apparent that people associate positive and negative emotions with particular ideas. From here, we can infer different ways in which people will engage in motivated reasoning; only because they have some pre-conscious emotion motivating their position rather than evidence or arguments. Such an analysis can be applied to public emotions, leadership emotions, and the emotional tones set by parents upon children when discussing politics.

Lastly, social dynamics between groups also have a pivotal influence on political behaviour. In example, what some groups perceive as “enemies” will influence their attitudes towards certain politicians. Likewise, in-group and out-group preferences have an impact on the extent to which democracy can take hold over society, as democracy requires civil dialogue.

So, political psychology is, in essence, about the application of psychological perspectives on human being to political behaviour, systems, and beliefs. It utilizes cognitive, bio-psychological, neuroscience, and personality approaches to psychology to further understand the nature of political behaviour and political beliefs.


Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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