The psychology of politics developed as a scientific discipline from the merger of psychology and political science between World War I and World War II. Political psychology has emerged as an important field of study in both political science and psychology as it helps explain political behavior, which traditional science has failed to understand. This discipline helps researchers understand how and why political decisions have been made.
Historically, the development of political psychology was prompted by specific events in the 1920s, with a focus on the psychoanalytic analyses of political leaders. In the 1940s and 1950s, the psychology of politics was mainly used to examine voting behavior in the United Sates. In the next two decades, marked by tight international relations amid the ongoing Cold War, researchers applied political psychology to study foreign policy and international conflicts, such as the Vietnam War. At the end of the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st century, scientists focused on phenomena including terrorism and ethnic cleansing.
One of the main goals of the psychology of politics is to set up general rules of behavior in order to help explain and predict various events that can take place under different circumstances. Political psychology uses a scientific approach based on four steps:
- Systematically observing behaviors and events in order to distinguish factors or variables possibly affecting them;
- Formulating tentative expectations or hypotheses;
- Making further observations and experiments;
- Refining and restating explanations.
Political psychology studies a wide range of topics, including the political behavior of individuals. This topic comprises a large number of issues such as the individual's political socialization and formation of political attitudes, in addition to his or her political participation and alienation. It involves studies into voting behavior and the relationship between personality and political attitudes. Researchers also focus on the the influence of mass media.
Studies into the psychology of the political actor are a main driver for the development of the discipline as they explain how political behavior differs from the models of rational decision-making. According to the psychology of politics, people can apply different reasoning in different situations as emotional factors play a decisive role in the action and interaction in the social world. Understanding the individual as a political actor also helps researchers understand group membership and collective action, as well as why people identify themselves with collective identities. This field of psychology studies the emotional aspects of people's need for belonging and bonding, in addition to identification and mutual recognition.
Psychologists in this area are interested in political movements. Research comprises of studies into the individual's behavior as part of various social formations and organizations. Researchers have tried to apply the social identity theory to understand political movements and other social formations. The psychology of politics not only tries to explain group conflicts and violence but also seeks their resolution.
Political leaders are another key area of study, where researchers focus on the personality and psychohistory of leaders, as well as on the behavior of politicians concerning decision-making, foreign policy, crisis management, negotiations, charismatic relationships and group dynamics. Other topics of interest include the influence of prominent figures in politics on their peers.
Some psychologists have examined political alignments and structures. These studies are concerned with the various social formations among politicians such as coalitions. Political psychology examines the factors that determine the development of co-operative relations among political groups rather than competitive ones, as well as the role of large-scale parties in democracies.
Meanwhile, psychologists have also considered political inter-group relations, looking at the interaction and relations between political units, such as governments and alliances. This topic covers the study of hostile relations involving war or threats, as well as co-operative relations, including mutual aid and various scientific exchanges. Psychologists have studied the individual and collective influences in the development of political formations. In this branch of psychology, political processes refer to aspects of psychology such as perception and cognition, persuasion, learning and conflicts.
Case studies are a useful tool used by psychologists to determine the voting and non-voting behavior of specific groups. Studies have been carried out into influential political figures such as Hitler and Churchill. Other case studies have focused on conflicts in the Middle East, Rwanda and Cuba, where decision-making processes have been examined.