why psychologists struggle with politics
Earlier this week, we discussed the many reasons why politicos struggle with psychology. Since turnabout is fair play, we though we’d identify the most common reasons psychologists to struggle with politics.
biases and tendencies
Theory over practice. Like nearly all scientists, psychologists love a good theory that has enormous explanatory and predictive power. In politics, theory is only helpful if it can be used to generate actionable recommendations. The truth is that not all psychological theories are useful to political strategists. But at First Person Politics, we’ve made it our business to specialize in the ones that are. It’s time for psychologists to start treating the practical applications of their ideas as more than an afterthought.
Lack of political experience. While psychologists have a long history of successful collaboration with law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and the corporate world, they’ve never had much of a role in politics. As a result, many psychologists just don’t get how their ideas translate into the realities of campaigning, organizing, and governing. First Person Politics is here to change that by serving as bridge between the two worlds. With a little collaboration, politicos and psychologists can learn a great deal from each other.
Issues before politics. Most psychologists genuinely care about the topics and issues they work on. In some ways, pursuing their interests inside an academic context is a more effective way to address them than working through the gridlocked political process. But this means that psychologists sometimes overlook the difficult political realities standing in the way of their good ideas. They know what needs to be done — but don’t always stop to consider how to make it happen.
The 30,000 foot view. Particularly where international problems are concerned, some psychologists have an unfortunate tendency to take the 30,000 foot view of conflict and decision-making. Political decisions — whether they occur in the domestic or the international arena — involve real people just as much as they involve states, interests, and institutions. We believe there is enormous value in looking at the entire forest, but to be strategically effective, you still need to be able to see the individual branches and leaves on the most important trees.
Academic methods. Psychology academics are constrained by the often painstakingly slow methods and procedures necessary to conduct and publish research. These methods ensure scientific accuracy and credibility, but they keep psychologists and political strategists apart. Most political professionals don’t have months or years to wait around. They need solutions they can implement within weeks, if not immediately. The good news is that psychology has already discovered a huge number of solutions that political strategists could start implementing right now, if only they knew about them.
Academic jargon. It’s hardly a secret that every discipline has it’s own jargon, and psychology is no exception. It doesn’t help that seemingly clear terms like “authoritarian” and “representative” can mean different things in different contexts. If there’s going to be a dialogue between politics and psychology, psychologists need to learn to talk in ways that regular people can understand.
Academic journals. Few political professionals read academic journals, and for good reason. The findings and analyses are nearly impossible for lay people to decipher. As a result, few strategists ever learn about the exciting things happening in psychology. If psychologists want to be politically relevant, they need to learn to communicate their ideas in ways ordinary people can understand…and to circulate their ideas in venues where political strategists are likely to encounter them.
The issue silo mentality. A staggering diversity of perspectives and sub-disciplines within psychology is a good thing. It’s a bad thing when they stop talking to each other. Would you believe that volunteering for a political campaign, volunteering for a social cause, and volunteering for a charity are three entirely separate specializations in psychology? We couldn’t find a single paper within one of these specializations citing research of the other two. In the past decade, leaders in progressive politics learned the hard way that change only happens when people breakout from their issue silos and start behaving like a team. Not all psychologists are hyper-specialized, but those who are could learn a thing or two from politics.