Revitalizing Political Psychology: The Legacy of Harold D. Lasswell

By William Ascher; Barbara Hirschfelder-Ascher | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
Symbols, Personality,
and Appeals: Lasswell's
Contribution to the Political
Psychology of Propaganda

Harold Lasswell made three profound and enduring contributions to the understanding of how the manipulation of symbols and their meanings shape the receptivity of political and policy appeals. He first developed a perspective on the meanings and associations of political and policy material that goes far beyond the content normally examined by political scientists and policy analysts. In stark contrast to the conventional view of a political figure or policy proposal as the sum of objective attributes, Lasswell offered a much broader vision of the complex, multifold, subjective meanings of political and policy objects. He applied the psychoanalytic insight of multiple associations to develop the view that an individual's perception of a given object is defined by a thick tangle of symbol associations, often subject to propagandistic manipulation. 36

Second, Lasswell used this broader conception of subjective meanings to link political and policy appeals with the psychodynamics of relevant audiences. This was epitomized by the direct application of psychoanalytic personality theory in his 1932 article, “The Triple-Appeal Principle, ” which explored the ways that reactions to sociopolitical phenomena are shaped by the demands coming from the id, ego, and superego. Finally, Lasswell provided an encompassing heuristic framework for exploring the full range of reactions to symbols, whether crafted on the basis of psychoanalytic insights or from more straightforward, naive models based on focusing attention on obviously positive or negative symbols.

This chapter is divided into five sections that explore and extend Lasswell's contributions. First, we examine Lasswell's broad, original conception of “symbols” and associations. This conception enabled Lasswell to

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