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UMN News: Studying the intersection of politics and psychology


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 rational 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.”

The 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).

Through the center, graduate students can take a Ph.D. minor in political psychology. 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.

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.”

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. Associate Professor Christopher M. Federico, who is a voting member of both the psychology and political science departments, is director of the CSPP.

Who votes and why
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.

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.

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.

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 area 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. 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.)

Looking at these and other current and past events, political scientists at the University of Minnesota are unraveling the mysteries of political behavior. It’s difficult to let go of belief in a rational, informed electorate. It may be downright scary to think that childhood adjustment issues will cause a president to mess up a major foreign policy decision. But, to the degree that this is reality, political psychology can help us understand it.

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