The Guide to Political Psychology – Understanding 2021 Politics

Political psychology is the study of political behaviors and their psychological origins, specifically how our traits and values shape our decisions. It helps explain the modern US political behavior.

Updated June 29, 2021 by Jeffrey Lee, Principal Editor


Political psychology explains political phenomena (trends and behaviors) from a psychological perspective – shedding light on why certain decisions were made.  After WWI, political psychology started to emerge as a dedicated field but was not formally established until 1978.

Though the field is very broad, here are some examples of what it covers:

  • The impact of a politician’s personality on decision-making.
  • The psychology of a candidate’s appeal to a general population.
  • Voter psychology when determining likelihood to vote and specific voting patterns.
  • The impact of media and rhetoric on psychological interpretation of issues.
  • Cognitive psychological processes can be measured and quantified as a predictor of particular political behaviors.
Political Psychology and Personality

Key Psychological Themes of Modern US Voting Behavior

Modern US voting behavior can be explained by a few psychological concepts, as evidenced in this Vox article.

  1. Motivated Reasoning: Rooting for a team/party reinforces our sense of belonging, so we are likely just to pick a side and stick with it, no matter what.
  2. Group Think: Selecting only sources that reinforce our viewpoints creates a self-reinforcing circle of beliefs.
  3. Confidence Bias: We tend to hold fast to our beliefs, as we personalize and justify them as part of our identity.
  4. Argumentative Reasoning Bias: The argumentation schema that works for you may not work for others.
  5. Fear as an Influencer: Being afraid of something will typically compel you to take action against it, even if the fear is contrived.

Reading The Rise of American Authoritarianism, we get a stronger view of how authoritarian rule has cultivated a personality/identity cult within the political system.


Components of Political Psychology

Political psychology relies on an amalgam of theories that address perceptual and intergroup relations, specially in the political arena. To inform and predict preferences for domestic and international policy, it draws upon the following fields:

  • Biopsychology: Studies how our brain, neurotransmitters, and biological predispositions influence our thoughts, feelings, and overarching behavior.
  • Neuroscience: Studies how our nervous system works, specifically studying anatomy, molecular biology, brain inner-workings, and physiology.
  • Psychopathology: Studies mental disorders and the inner-workings of our behavioral patterns, specifically related to specific predispositions.
  • Evolutionary Psychology: Studies memory, perception, language, and other psychological traits to understand how human behavior has evolved – including adaptions and natural selection.
  • Social Psychology: Studies how people’s beliefs, intentions, actions, and feelings influence their social interactions on a day-to-day and macro basis (perception vs. imagined interactions).
  • Cognitive Psychology: Studies thinking, attention, language, learning, and problem-solving – basically it is the science of how we think.
  • Intergroup Relations Theory: Studies intergroup behavior and how our psychology is influenced by social and group interactions.
  • Developmental Psychology: Studies how our behaviors and general psychology changes through the course of our lives.

Why is it important?

Political psychology helps us understand how our cognitive models influence our political behaviors.  In other words, it helps us understand our own political actions, but also the actions of policymakers, businesses, and individuals.

Overall, it influences choice.  How we make certain decisions and why we feel certain decisions are more important than others. Here are some examples:

  • Why do we vote for certain political leaders more than others?
  • Who is predisposed to identity politics?
  • Who is more likely to vote, and why?
  • Why do certain political leaders make certain decisions?
  • How do our emotional reactions influence our choices?

For Americans in general, researchers have noted that emotional reactions are the primary determinants for behavioral choice.  By studying political psychology, we can better understand the role that emotion plays in political decisions – and how campaigns leverage emotions to sway votes.

The role of emotions in political decision-making is ushering in a new paradigm of choice where policy positions are not as influential in political decision-making as emotional appeals.

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