to Political Psychology
Why do people behave the way they do in politics? What causes conflicts such as those in Bosnia, Rwanda, or Northern Ireland? Is racism inevitable? Why do presidents make the decisions they do? Why did 9/11 happen? These and many other questions about politics are of great concern to all of us, whether we are directly affected or are only eyewitnesses through the news. So much political behavior seems to defy explanation and seems incomprehensible, even through hindsight: People start wars that are, in the end, thought of as pointless and futile, such as World War I or the war in Vietnam; civil wars erupt among people who have lived together harmoniously for years, but who then commit hideous acts of barbaric violence against one another, as in the former Yugoslavia, Liberia, or Sierra Leone; groups commit acts of terrorism that kill numerous innocent civilians each year; or a scandal-plagued president cannot resist tempting fate by engaging in an extramarital affair, when he knows full well the extent of the scrutiny by those looking for more scandals. Unless one understands the thoughts and feelings of the people who made the decisions to commit those acts, one cannot fully understand why such things occurred. But an exploration of the psychology—the personalities, thought processes, emotions, and motivations—of people involved in political activity provides a unique and necessary basis for understanding that activity.
This is a book about the psychology of political behavior. In the chapters that follow, we explore many psychological patterns that influence how individuals act in politics. At the outset, we challenge the traditional notion that people in politics act in a rational pursuit of selfinterest. This argument concerning rationality is based on a set of assumptions common in political science, but which ignores the many studies done by psychologists. Many people assume that psychology is common sense, because they believe that behavior is rational and predictable. But decades of research by psychologists reveal that behavior is anything but common sense. Although psychologists recognize that much of human behavior is not always rational, human beings, as social perceivers, often operate on the belief that behavior (their own and others) is quite rational. The motivation to expect behavior to be rational is based on two fundamental needs: first, people have a need to make sense of—to understand— their world; second, people have a need to predict the likely consequences of their own and others' behavior. To the extent that behavior is perceived as rational, these two needs become easier to fulfill.
A more accurate picture of human beings as political actors is one that acknowledges that people are motivated to act in accordance with their own personality characteristics, values, beliefs, and attachments to groups. People are imperfect information processors, struggling mightily to understand the complex world in which they live. People employ logical, but often faulty, perceptions of others when deciding how to act, and they often are unaware of the causes of their own behavior. People often do things that are seemingly contrary to their own interests, values, and beliefs. Nevertheless, by understanding the complexities of political psychology, we can explain behavior that often seems irrational. A few illustrations help us bring this point home. These are examples of behavior that is not at all atypical.