why political pros struggle with psychology
It’s not at all unusual for political pros to struggle with a psychological approach to politics. We thought we’d take this opportunity to outline some of the most common biases, misconceptions, and objections that keep political strategists and analysts from benefiting from a psychological perspective.
Bias toward objectivity. What attracts people to a life or career in politics in the first place is the tendency to project and displace their own psychological material onto public objects. This is about more than just blaming other people for life’s problems and pointing fingers. It simply never occurs to most political pros that their political perceptions and preferences are driven by what’s happening in themselves, rather than what’s happening in the world. Ten people can watch the same speech and come away with ten different interpretations of it, yet most people will insist that their own perspective is the only valid way to see it. When political pros deny their own inherent subjectivity, it keeps them from reaping the rewards of a psychological approach to politics.
Bias toward rationalism. It’s only in the last decade or so that economists and political scientists even noticed that human beings behave irrationally. The result is that our working models for persuasion, organizing, and governing generally assume a kind of basic human rationality that just isn’t there — and never has been. Liberals, in particular, desperately want to believe in the power of reason, truth, and evidence — even as the evidence mounts that people are fundamentally irrational, subjective, and symbolic. Political psychology insists that we pay close attention to the irrational and unconscious facets of human nature because they are central to understanding and influencing political behavior.
Bias toward structuralism. People steeped in the traditions of political science tend to overstate the role of institutions, incentives, and interests, while downplaying the role of individuals, relationships, and groups — and ignoring unconscious factors entirely. Structuralist perspectives are essential to our understanding of the world, but far too often they disregard the things that make us human. Political science, the policy sciences, and political management are incomplete without the insights of political psychology. And political psychology would be incomplete without them.
Bias toward materialism. Political pros tend to take what they see at face value, believing that literal interpretations of people and events are the only ones that can be valid. They also tend to dismiss anything they can’t see and easily measure, limiting their understanding of the world to quantifiable material goods and tangible costs and benefits. So much of what psychology deals with is invisible: unconscious motivations, cognitive biases, social influences, generational factors, personality traits, and so forth. Ignoring and dismissing them is a huge mistake, because psychological forces often overwhelm material considerations when people make judgments and decisions.
Bias toward conventional wisdom and practice. Sometimes people will reject a thing just because it’s new, or because it challenges established ways of doing things. Thankfully, political psychology isn’t about replacing anyone or anything you’re already doing. It’s about adding additional tools to your toolbox and optimizing your existing operations to make them as influential and effective as they can possibly be. Political psychology may challenge your assumptions about the world, but ultimately it’s about putting people back at the center of your strategy for social and political change.
Psychology is only about crazy people. It’s wrong when pundits engage in “selective psychoanalysis.” This is when they pathologize extremism, dissent, and other unusual political phenomena, while ignoring the psychological origins of behaviors that are generally considered mainstream and even highly successful. Psychology doesn’t just contribute to exceptional behavior; it contributes to all behavior. That’s why it’s so important, especially in politics.
Psychology is just hocus pocus. People who dismiss psychology are usually just afraid of what they might find if they looked at themselves critically. Just acknowledging that unconscious factors drive human behavior can threaten a person’s sense of control. Regardless, this sentiment is motivated by fear and has no basis in reality. Psychology is a science — just like biology, chemistry, and physics. Experts in the field must subject their work to critical peer review, and are held to rigorous methodological and ethical standards. Indeed, many of the findings in political psychology have been demonstrated in other fields like business, criminal forensics, and foreign intelligence.
Psychology is for hippies. Psychology isn’t some kind of 1960s “love-in.” It’s a set of ideas and tools that can be used for good or for evil. In the past century, political psychology has been used to carry out everything from torture to genocide. But it has also been used to thwart domestic and foreign terrorists, improve public policy, and broker peace agreements no one ever thought possible. At First Person Politics, we use political psychology to help you motivate your supporters, defeat your opponents, and wield power effectively to name just a few of its potential applications.
We don’t need psychology because we have big data. We’ve written a much longer piece explaining why big data deserves big skepticism. But to summarize, big data is massively expensive and time consuming to use; it needlessly duplicates findings that already have abundant academic support; it contains potential errors and biases that are not easily detected; it cannot replace good decisions or genuine leadership; it objectifies human beings by reducing people’s lives to mere statistics; intrudes upon privacy and is ripe for abuse; and it may soon be rendered useless to political strategists.
Polls and focus groups tell us all we need to know. Wrong. Polls and focus groups measure opinions, not motivations. Opinions reflect what people believe; motivations explain why. Psychology studies have shown time and again that if you want to persuade people, you have to target their motivations — not their opinions. Few, if any, public opinion research firms currently measure voter psychology, though we would be delighted show them how. But there’s another more important reason to doubt the reliability of polls and focus groups: people are extremely bad at identifying the true the reasons for their opinions and decisions. In addition to some deliberate deception, there also a great deal of genuine ignorance, unintentional self-deception, denial, and after-the-fact rationalization that keeps people in the dark about their own motives as well as the external factors that influence their behavior. Controlled psychology experiments are often the only way to discover what actually drives attitudes and behaviors. The good news is that we have decades of these studies to help guide you toward the right answers. You can hire First Person Politics to look them up.
Opposition research tells us all we need to know. If you think your opponent’s record matters more than their character, think again. Personality features and behaviors matter far more for one very simple reason: voters can observe them firsthand. Indeed, part of what makes a person a true “swing voter” is that they don’t vote the party or the issues: they vote for the person. Most opposition researchers know how to find all the vulnerabilities in your opponent’s record. But they aren’t psychologists. They can only make educated guesses when it comes to an opponent’s character. If they guess wrong, they leave your opponent free to wink and nod their way to victory — no matter how atrocious their record. Psychological profiling gives you unparalleled insight into your opponent’s personality traits, behavioral patterns, and motivations. It’s not a substitute for opposition research – it’s how you make the most of it.
We will continue to update this list periodically.