Reasonable Reading: “Political Psychology: Neuroscience, Genetics and Politics”

Reasonable Reading: “Political Psychology: Neuroscience, Genetics and Politics”

Written by Daryl Muenchau
Published 18 November 2018

Political Psychology: A Short Introduction

The 2013 book Political Psychology: Neuroscience, Genetics and Politics is a textbook for upper level college undergraduates.  Written by political science professor George Marcus, the book describes what political psychology is and how it goes about gaining new knowledge. Among other things, the book links cognitive science and neuroscience with political psychology. It also gives some historical context for the origins of the discipline. The following summarizes some of the main content of chapter 1, The Importance of Political Psychology.

Marcus points out that fundamental political psychology issues and concerns have been with the human species for millennia and that they are remarkably stable. He asserts that the two dominant concerns of political psychology are studying and trying to understand:

  • How people govern themselves individually and collectively; and
  • How to live within the political structures and institutions that society builds.

Broadly speaking, the goal of inquiry into those two concerns is to “examine human nature to better understand the interplay of human nature and politics.

Marcus describes four approaches or categories of study that encompass much of political psychology research. The broadest, ‘theory focus’, attempts to observe and understand aspects of human psychology that collectively lead to a comprehensive theory of human psychology. This focus looks for what is universal to the human species. An example is rational choice theory from economics research.

“Problem Focus” vs. “Solution Focus”

The two main variables in an experiment are the independent and dependent variables. An independent variable is the variable that is changed or controlled in a scientific experiment to test the effects on the dependent variable. A dependent variable is the variable being tested and measured in a scientific experiment. It responds to effects associated with or caused by the independent variable. As the experimenter changes the independent variable, the effect on the dependent variable is observed and recorded.  

The ‘problem focus’ in political psychology looks at a dependent variable, such as when people exhibit political tolerance compared to when they are intolerant. In the case of political tolerance, researchers measure tolerance in the face of an independent variable such as harsh (intolerant), neutral and empathetic (tolerant) political rhetoric. That allows researchers to see if different kinds of rhetoric correlate with (or maybe even cause) varying and/or different levels of tolerance.

In essence, the dependent variable is seen as ‘the problem’ or, maybe more accurately, an end result.

In contrast to the problem or dependent variable focus, the ‘solution focus’ looks to see if there are previously unknown independent variables that correlate with or possibly cause phenomena such as political tolerance. Here, the focus shifts from the end result, i.e., the dependent variable, to the possibility of a previously unknown independent variable exerting influence on beliefs or behaviors.

Social Dominance Orientation

Marcus cites a trait called social dominance orientation (SDO), as an example of a relatively new independent variable. Regarding SDO, he comments that “some of us are very concerned with sustaining established hierarchies and order, whereas others are much less concerned and find greater importance in sustaining individual autonomy.”

A 1994 research paper describes SDO:

Social dominance orientation (SDO), one’s degree of preference for inequality among social groups, is introduced. On the basis of social dominance theory, it is shown that
(a) men are more social dominance-oriented than women,
(b) high-SDO people seek hierarchy-enhancing professional roles and low-SDO people seek hierarchy-attenuating roles,
(c) SDO was related to beliefs in a large number of social and political ideologies that support group-based hierarchy (e.g., meritocracy and racism) and to support for policies that have implications for intergroup relations (e.g., war, civil rights, and social programs), including new policies.

SDO was distinguished from interpersonal dominance, conservatism, and authoritarianism. SDO was negatively correlated with empathy, tolerance, communality, and altruism.”

By finding human psychological traits such as SDO that affect perceptions, thinking and beliefs about politics, findings from political psychology research shed light on how and why humans think and act as they do in terms of politics. Marcus writes:

As citizens we develop habits of thought and stable preferences. We often defend them and those who articulate them on our behalf (political leaders, interest group spokespeople, columnists, and pundits). Notice that the discipline of political psychology, as other scientific disciplines, goes to considerable effort to set aside such established patterns of trust. Rather, as political psychologists, you are asked to set aside convictions and instead rely on rigorous reliance on evidence.

Aristotle’s Taxonomy of Political Regimes

Marcus points to Aristotle as having come up with the simple six category taxonomy of political regimes that is shown below. The taxonomy is still used today, although variations are common. For example, the US has been argued to be a democratic oligarchy, based on analysis of where the balance of political power resides and on how little influence public opinion has on policy at the federal level. Note that democracies can be virtuous or corrupt. Obviously, those are essentially contested concepts. People will disagree over, for example, whether president Obama’s time in office represented a period of virtuous or corrupt rule. The same applies to how people see president Trump’s time in office.

Marcus cites some of his own research on what threat in politics is and when it influences tolerance. Marcus included eight questions about sources of threat in a massive public opinion survey. The independent variable was threat and the dependent variable was tolerance. The eight questions constituted a problem focus experiment. The initial hypothesis was that all eight factors that could influence perceptions of threat in about the same way and all eight would correlate with or maybe cause decreasing tolerance.

The results were surprising: “We had expected the eight indicators to be equally good measures of one concept, Threat. Instead this result led us to revise our understanding of Threat, rather than a singular concept we now understand it as two concepts.; so different that we found the two concepts are not correlated at all. And, when we analyzed the data we found that how strongly people judged their disliked group had no impact at all on whether they would support the rights of that group to practice their rights: None at all. On the other hand, it was the second concept of threat, malevolence, that proved to be the single most important independent variable in explaining when people would be politically tolerant.”

Marcus found that if a disliked group was either strong or important, that made no difference in people’s tolerance. What set people off and triggers intolerance was groups that violate social norms. That made them appear to be malevolent. The six intolerance-inducing factors were groups characterized as unpredictable, untrustworthy, bad, dishonest, violent or dangerous.

This point is relevant to current politics. How does president Trump characterize his political opposition? He never calls democrats strong or important. He routinely characterizes democrats as some combination of untrustworthy, bad, dishonest, violent (‘mob rule’) and/or dangerous (‘mob rule’ again). That rhetorical cognitive-social strategy pushes five out of the six emotional-moral factors that Marcus showed could induce an emotional intolerance toward out-groups (or political opposition) that Trump creates by his rhetoric, e.g., rapist, drug dealing immigrants.

Although there are downsides for society and the rationality of politics in general, there are excellent political reasons for a politician to play on the public’s emotions. Playing on threat prods people into an emotional state, which in turn tends to impair conscious logic or reasoning.

Political psychology provides an important social science point of view from which to observe and understand politics and tactics politicians use to manipulate the human mind.