Politics is Psychology

13 07 2010

Which comes first, psychology or politics? Contrary to popular belief, it’s psychology.

Politics is often talked about as if it’s about ideology first, and that people are drawn to a particular ideological stance because of their life circumstances – i.e. grow up in a working class family and you’ll vote left; grow up in a wealthy family and you’ll vote conservative – or that we are able to detach ourselves from our individual circumstances and reflect on political ideology in an idealised rational way, and we eventually settle on what we think is the ‘correct’ political ideology.

But it’s not like that.

Certainly, circumstance plays a roll, as does reason. But the dominant factor that decides the political ideology we’re likely to identify with is our psychological disposition and accompanying worldview.

This is the sentiment underpinning my recent analysis of a speech given by our new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, published on the ABC’s Drum website today. The analysis isn’t as much about her political views as the implicit worldview that underpins them.

The idea is that each of us have a different personality – some are more introverted, some are more open to new experiences, some are more emotional – we all know this already. But the psychological differences go deeper than just personality. Our psychology shapes the way we think and feel in ways that are imperceptible to our own conscious reflection – in fact, it’s typical for us to assume that other people think and feel the same as we do. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Take a little-known concept called integrative complexity, or IC. People with a high IC tend to factor in multiple perspectives and pieces of information when making a decision or forming some judgement. Think John Kerry, who was even criticised as a ‘flip-flopper’ for having multiple positions on various issues. People with low IC (think George W. Bush) tend to treat problems in a black and white way and only factor in a small number of perspectives when making a decision.

Now, it’s worth stressing that there’s strictly no one ‘right’ way to do things. You might think that high IC is automatically superior to low IC, but that’s not always the case. Many decisions we make must be done quickly or we risk missing out on opportunities or failing to make a decision at all. Low IC trades off accuracy for expediency. Evolutionarily speaking, you can see how expedience (and efficiency) might have been selected for.

The interesting thing is IC is strongly correlated with the political ideology; liberals/progressives tend to have higher IC than conservatives.

The question is: which came first? Did adopting a particular political outlook influence psychology? Or did the psychology influence the political outlook? I think the evidence is strongly in favour of psychology coming first. As such, we don’t choose to be liberal or conservative, instead we discover that we’re already liberal or conservative.

There are many other interesting psychological dimensions to out political attitudes. One fairly comprehensive account is given by cognitive linguist George Lakoff in his book Moral Politics. In this book he suggests that liberals and conservatives adopt a family metaphor to describe politics and government – only they choose opposing metaphors: liberals see the government through the lens of the nurturant parent metaphor; conservatives see it through the lens of the strict father metaphor. It’s a fascinating – but not uncontroversial theory. Read up on Lakoff and his theory if you’re interested.

One of the fundamental psychological differences between liberals and conservatives is their perception of human nature, and nature at large. Liberals are more inclined to see humans as basically good and only prone to moral failure if the world has led them in that direction. As such, everyone is redeemable. Conservatives, on the other hand, see people as basically bad, and it takes internal strength and discipline to do the right thing. As such, once you’ve demonstrated that you lack that moral character, you’re a write off.

This differing perspective accounts for a lot, such as the liberal rejection of the death penalty, or support for education and welfare – to steer people back on to the right track – or the claim that liberals are too forgiving, such as that they’re more concerned about the perpetrators of crime than the victims. It also makes sense of the conservative opposition to these views – such as support for the death penalty (you’ve blown it, chum, so let’s be off with you), or the rejection of welfare (it undermines the motive to build self discipline), and their generally ‘tough on crime’ approach.

There are many others. I encourage you to read around political psychology, or the work of Jonathan Haidt, if you’re interested in the idea that psychology comes before politics. It certainly makes you reflect on the way you see the world, and where your own political attitudes come from.

More importantly, I think it gives one a better insight and appreciation into opposing political views. Instead of dismissing them as absurd or wrong headed, it encourages you to understand the psychology and worldview that inspires that political belief. Once that’s understood, there’s a greater chance that we might actually be able to communicate with the ‘other side’ rather than talk across each other aimlessly, as seems to be the norm in political discourse these days.




4 responses

14 07 2010

Interesting. I would also be curious to take a deeper look into the psychology of philosophy. William James (and Paul Bloom give an up-to-date example) both talk as if their is some philosophical theories which humans will have (natural) dispositions towards.

If this is true, I would imagine that certain psyche’s have leanings towards certain theories such that Christopher Hitchens’s or Pat Robertson’s disposition or aversion to certain theories is (at least) as psychological a matter as it is a ‘logical’ one.

Somehow, though, it supposed to be taboo to psychoanalyze philosophers in some circles; perhaps it is time to fund a project to examine the leading philosophy faculties and publish the research.

Thanks for the reading suggestions.

14 07 2010
Mark Sloan

Further evidence that psychological disposition and accompanying worldview is more important than reason in one’s politics is supplied by the large amount of heat and small amount of increased understanding generated in most political discussions.

To the extent that psychological disposition is genetically determined, it might even be argued that: “Being politically conservative is not a fault of reasoning ability – these people were born that way the same way some people are born with genes making them susceptible to alcoholism”.

But we also know that people’s politics can change over time. Perhaps studies of identical twins raised separately could shed light on the relative dependence on inheritance and environment.

I agree that the higher IC and lower IC approaches to problem solving are different and the higher IC person runs the risk of the “paralysis of analysis” and “can’t see the forest for the trees”. But my view of social history is that most liberals have been more consistently fighting on the side of what is later generally recognized as more moral treatment of other people and most conservatives have been on the side of less moral treatment of other people. Perhaps we need input from both sides to pick an optimum path, but that doesn’t change which sides the two fight on.

I found the lead in question “Which comes first, psychology or politics?” confusing because I was thinking in terms of “first” in time sequence (though the piece made it clear what you were talking about). I would have been less confused by something like “Which determines our politics, psychology or reason?”

14 07 2010
Mark Sloan

Another thought on “Perhaps we need input from both sides to pick an optimum path, but that doesn’t change which sides the two (generally) fight on.”

It can be argued that the biological and cultural ‘reproductive fitness’ of a population is best served by a distributions of psychological dispositions. For instance, troops of baboons where some are highly vigilant (for predators) and others relaxed if there is no obvious threat may be more successful than a troop where all have the same disposition.

Perhaps societies with both conservatives and liberals are also more successful.

10 08 2010

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