Explorations in Political Psychology

Explorations in Political Psychology

by Shanto Iyengar

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Mapping the territory where political science and psychology intersect, Explorations in Political Psychology offers a broad overview of the the field of political psychology—from its
historical evolution as an area of inquiry to the rich and eclectic array of theories, concepts, and methods that mark it as an emerging discipline.
In introductory


Mapping the territory where political science and psychology intersect, Explorations in Political Psychology offers a broad overview of the the field of political psychology—from its
historical evolution as an area of inquiry to the rich and eclectic array of theories, concepts, and methods that mark it as an emerging discipline.
In introductory essays, editors Shanto Iyengar and William J. McGuire identify the points of exchange between the disciplines represented and discuss the issues that make up the subfields of political psychology. Bringing together leading scholars from social psychology and political science, the following sections discuss attitude research (the study of political attitudes and opinions); cognition and information-processing (the relationship between the structures of human information-processing and political and policy preferences); and decision making (how people make decisions about political preferences).
As a comprehensive introduction to a growing field of interdisciplinary concern, Explorations in Political Psychology will prove a useful guide for historians, social psychologists, and political scientists with an interest in individual political behavior.

Contributors. Stephen Ansolabehere, Donald Granberg, Shanto Iyengar, Robert Jervis, Milton Lodge, Roger D. Masters, William J. McGuire, Victor C. Ottati, Samuel L. Popkin, William M. Runyan, David O. Sears, Patrick Stroh, Denis G. Sullivan, Philip E. Tetlock, Robert S. Wyer, Jr.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Explorations in Political Psychology provides a much-needed framework for organizing the multi-disciplinary, multi-method research that characterizes the field of political psychology. The authors have also assembled some of the best examples of that research. The volume is equally useful to the beginning student and the advanced researcher."—Gregory Markus, University of Michigan

"This book will be indispensable to any serious student of political psychology. The editors, themselves among the most prominent schoalrs in the field, have brought together a first-rate lineup of authors. Not only are the chapters comprehensive, but they offer [many] ideas for future research. More than anything else, this reader says that political psychology has a bright future."—James H. Kuklinski, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Explorations in Political Psychology

By Shanto Iyengar, William J. McGuire

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9669-7


An Overview of the Field of Political Psychology

Political psychology is the field of inquiry at the intersection of political science and psychology. Political scientists, psychologists, historians, psychiatrists, sociologists, and legal scholars have all contributed to this body of research. The primary objective of this volume is to survey areas of current interdisciplinary interest and to illustrate the rich eclecticism of the theories, concepts, and methods that make up research in political psychology, while giving emphasis to what we regard as the most promising trends. In their present form, the various social sciences are largely autonomous and parochial enterprises. In imperialistic fashion, political scientists, economists, sociologists, or psychologists impose their distinctive disciplinary stamps on the phenomena they investigate. This tendency toward "disciplinary egocentrism" runs counter to the natural overlap in subject matter interests across disciplines. As those pioneers of interdisciplinary collaboration Muzafer Sherif and Carolyn Sherif observed: "man does not arrange his problems or divide them up neatly along lines laid down by academic disciplines ... a single discipline which buries itself in order to concentrate on its own problems, theories, techniques, and data collection to the exclusion of others will end up being a know-nothing. The self-insulation of a social science discipline is ostrichlike. It will not and cannot protect the bird from impending danger" (1969, p. 7).

The different social sciences tend to cross paths only when some basic theoretical framework or methodology penetrates a disciplinary boundary. In the case of research on "political economy," for example, economics is typically the "source" discipline and political science the "receptor" discipline. The intellectual exchange is essentially unidirectional as political scientists use the methods of economic analysis and game theory to study phenomena of political relevance. (For further discussion of the hierarchical nature of interdisciplinary exchanges, see Schwartz, 1990.)

As William McGuire points out in his overview of the history of political psychology, the relationship between political science and psychology cannot be easily characterized in terms of disciplinary dominance. Indeed, political psychology is unusual in that each parent discipline has sparked research in the other. Political scientists, especially those working in the fields of public opinion and voting, may have been the more enthusiastic participants in this joint venture (most graduate training programs in political psychology are housed in departments of political science), but the range of phenomena and activities studied by them and the methods they use are increasingly migrating toward psychology. In this sense, political psychology is a dialogue marked by genuine intellectual exchange.

The methodological ebb and flow across the disciplines is of particular significance. Writing in 1959, the social psychologist Carl Hovland lamented the tendency of psychologists to rely exclusively on manipulational laboratory experiments while political scientists relied chiefly on the sample survey. As he pointed out, these distinct methods of research, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, yield different accounts of closely related phenomena. At the time of Hovland's analysis, the psychological literature on attitude change suggested that human beings were malleable, even capricious, creatures and that attitudes and choices were subject to any number of powerful external influences. Yet the contemporaneous literature on political persuasion indicated that voters were stubbornly resistant to the effects of communication and that political campaigns typically induced only minor shifts in support for candidates or public policies. Hovland demonstrated that these inconsistent results were largely a function of the respective strengths and weaknesses of the experimental and survey methods of research. He concluded that research into attitudes and attitude change must avoid the pitfalls of methodological orthodoxy:

What seems to me quite apparent is that a genuine understanding of the effects of communications on attitudes requires both the survey and the experimental methodologies. At the same time, there appear to be certain inherent limitations of each method which must be understood by the researcher if he is not to be blinded by his preoccupation with one or the other type of design.... I should like to stress in summary the mutual importance of the two approaches to the problem of communication effectiveness. Neither is a royal road to wisdom, but each represents an important emphasis. The challenge of future work is one of fruitfully combining their virtues.... (p. 17)

If Hovland were alive today, he would be less troubled by the state of political psychology. While experiments and surveys still enjoy privileged status within political science and psychology, the two fields are moving closer together in methodological terms. Political scientists are increasingly turning to experimentation to test hypotheses about real-world phenomena (including mass media effects, social cooperation, voting, legislative outcomes, and international conflicts). Psychologists are increasingly moving outside the laboratory to examine behavior in naturalistic contexts (such as subways, elevators, or shopping malls). In addition to adopting "quasiexperimental" methods, psychologists are also turning to alternative sources of evidence (such as surveys and content analysis) and alternative nonexperimental techniques of hypothesis testing (for an early prediction of this trend, see McGuire, 1969). The disciplines are also converging on nonmethodological grounds. Thus, as the essays invited for this volume illustrate, political scientists are employing psychological explanations of political attitudes and foreign policy decisions, while psychologists are beginning to examine phenomena, including voting, group conflict, and elite rhetoric, that have considerable political significance.

Notwithstanding increasing interdisciplinary contact, political psychology is still far from attaining mainstream status. Researchers in political psychology are more prone to violate the norms of their "host" disciplines, and they face an uphill battle in gaining recognition for and publication of their work. The proportion of journal articles in social psychology that employ nonexperimental methods remains low (see Sears, 1986), and experimental studies rarely appear in political science journals. While the obstacles are gradually being overcome, political psychologists have seen fit to form their own organization, the International Society of Political Psychology. Founded in 1978, this organization has rapidly acquired the indicia of scholarly legitimacy—a large dues-paying membership, an annual research conference, and a refereed journal (Political Psychology). The emergence of political psychology as a distinct area of research also has had important pedagogical consequences. Virtually every major psychology and political science department in the United States offers specialized courses in the field, and a few (including CUNY Graduate Center, Minnesota, Ohio State, SUNY—Stony Brook, UCLA, Wisconsin, and Yale) offer political psychology as a formal component of their graduate curriculums.

The extent of the interdisciplinary exchange, the rapid institutionalization of the field, and the growing number of graduate students being trained as researchers and teachers are clear testimony to the growing interest in political psychology. This collection of essays, selected to illustrate a wide range of the most promising trends in the field, will be the first volume in a series devoted exclusively to research in political psychology. It is intended as an introductory overview of the heterogeneous approaches and research topics (ranging from public opinion to foreign policy-making) that make up the field. The authors, drawn evenly from political science and psychology, are all established researchers whose varied contributions to the field have been numerous and significant.

The book is organized into four sections. The first (Interdisciplinary Cross-Fertilization) includes chapters by William McGuire and William Runyan that trace the intellectual traffic among psychology, political science, and history. While McGuire describes the various research traditions that have emerged from the cross-fertilization of psychology and political science, Runyan locates the study of "psychohistory" within a broader multidisciplinary context.

The remaining sections are devoted to the three principal traditions of research in contemporary political psychology: attitude formation, information processing, and decision-making. It must be emphasized that these thematic categories are far from mutually exclusive. Indeed, there is considerable overlap and supplementation among the guiding assumptions and concepts that appear in the various chapters. The distinction between the three subfields is subtle and most apparent at the level of the researcher's worldview of human behavior.

Research on attitude formation and change typically traces individual behavior to long-term historical and cultural factors, including society's political and economic situation, values, personality characteristics, group affiliations, and other distal antecedents. Political behavior is seen as "dispositional" in that attitudes and their antecedents are considered stable properties of the individual. (In fact, stability is generally posited as a defining characteristic of attitudes.) Attitude researchers also explain behavior in terms of motivational factors, particularly the motive to attain attitudinal states that are consistent, gratifying to the ego, socially adaptive, etc. Granberg's essay is explicit in this regard; he uses a variant of consistency theory (balance theory) to account for a variety of political beliefs and opinions. Sidanius explains intergroup conflict in terms of the drive to make evaluations of individuals consistent with perceptions of their group membership, and Sears makes the argument that individuals react to current issues or events by sorting them into long-standing cognitive and affective categories. What these arguments have in common, then, is a view of human beings as motivated to achieve consistent psychological outcomes.

Researchers who study information processing, in contrast, give short shrift to motivational factors in accounting for individual behavior. Their preference is for mechanistic or "black box" accounts rooted in components and structures of human cognition. These researchers thus use directive rather than dynamic processes—a capacity-based rather than a motive-based logic. The technological aspects of human information-processing ability (e.g., the form in which concepts are stored in long-term memory and the processes by which information can be retrieved) are thought to be more important in explaining behavior than dispositional attributes such as early childhood experiences or personality traits. Naturally, political psychologists in this subfield rely heavily on the research of cognitive psychologists.

The chapters in the final section address decision-making by both political elites and ordinary citizens. Decision-making research in political psychology relies on elements of both motivational and information-processing arguments, but its distinctive character stems from its use of well-developed normative criteria for assessing the quality of decisions. The criteria posited by the two disciplines diverge, however. The dominant theoretical framework within political science for the study of decision-making, drawn from microeconomics, assumes that individuals strive for decisions that maximize their expected gain. The dominant framework within psychology, however, suggests that decision-makers typically expend the minimal effort necessary to reach satisfactory outcomes. The chapters by Tetlock, Jervis, Popkin, and Ansolabehere and Iyengar, to varying degrees, are concerned with these alternative conceptions of rationality in political decision-making (as applied to both ordinary citizens and political elites). Proponents of economic and psychological models of rationality typically have little to say to each other, both groups accepting a cost/utility model; but political science focuses on utility maximization, and psychology focuses on cost minimalization. As Ansolabehere and Iyengar point out, one of the most exciting prospects offered by political psychology is the potential for reconciling "optimizing" with "satisficing" theories of decision-making.

The emergence of political psychology thus represents a small but nevertheless important step away from the illusion of "unidisciplinary competence" (Campbell, 1969). There can be no denying that political science and psychology remain widely separated in matters of epistemology and in their respective criteria for determining what issues are worth investigating. Truly collaborative research involving scholars from both disciplines is also still rare. The programs of research described in this book, however, are testimony to the existence of a number of areas of mutual interest. The editors hope this volume will help to further erode disciplinary boundaries and the fallacy of disciplinary autonomy.


The Poly-Psy Relationship: Three Phases of a Long Affair

Interdisciplinary cross-fertilization during the past half-century, while always at a modest level, has been as active and sustained between political science and psychology as between any two social sciences, which is surprising considering that each discipline has more extensive frontiers with other fields—political science with economics and history, psychology with sociology and anthropology. This intellectual border traffic has persisted through three successive eras that have differed in preferred topics, theories, and methods. In all three eras the main enthusiasm within political science has come from students of political behavior, while within psychology the enthusiasm has shifted over the three eras from personality, to social, and now to cognitive psychology.

Each of these three collaborative eras has had its preferred topics of study, its favored theoretical explanations, and its high-table nihil obstat methods. Here we shall label each era by its popular topics of study, so that the first interdisciplinary flourishing in the 1940s and 1950s is called the "personality and culture" era; the second, in the 1960s and 1970s, the "attitudes and voting behavior" era; and the third flourishing, likely to dominate the 1980s and 1990s, the "ideology and decision" era. This nomenclature, which for simplicity and consistency emphasizes the era's preferred topic, should not obscure the fact that in some eras a shared theory or shared method has constituted a stronger bond among the interdisciplinary workers than has the shared topic used to label them.

Contributions were made during each of the three eras by both humanistic and scientific approaches, and within each approach on both micro and macro levels. We classify as "humanistic" those researchers who use their era's theoretical insights idiographically to account for the thick texture of complex concrete cases, and we call "scientific" those researchers who use these insights nomothetically to study an abstract general principle as it manifests itself across a wide range of cases whose peculiarities will, it is hoped, cancel each other. The idiographic humanistic workers bring theory and empirical observation into confrontation better to understand the specific case; the nomothetic scientific workers bring them into confrontation better to understand the theory. Within each approach some work is at the micro level, investigating the variables of interest as they relate across individual persons as the units of study; other work is at the macro level, investigating the relations across collectives (e.g., nations, social classes, historical epochs) as the units of study.

Table 2.1 gives an overview of this half-century of interdisciplinary collaboration. Its rows list three successive twenty-year eras, the 1940s–1950s personality and culture era, the 1960s–1970s attitudes and voting behavior era, and the 1980s–1990s ideology and decision era. Of the columns in table 2.1, the three on the left constitute a connotative definition of each era in terms of its characteristic topics, theories, and methods; and the four columns on the right provide a denotative definition of each era by citing some of its important contributions, partitioned first between the idiographic humanistic and the nomothetic scientific approaches and, within those, between work at the micro and the macro levels. The three sections of this chapter describe, in turn, the three successive row eras, each in terms of these seven columns of information sketched in table 2.1.


Excerpted from Explorations in Political Psychology by Shanto Iyengar, William J. McGuire. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author

Shanto Iyengar is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles.

William J. McGuire is Professor of Psychology at Yale University.

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