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University of Michigan Press
Political Psychology in International Relations

Political Psychology in International Relations

by Rose McDermott


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Political Psychology in International Relations

A comprehensive account of the field of political psychology with a focus on its implications for international relations

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472097012
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 04/19/2004
Series: Analytical Perspectives on Politics
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

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Political Psychology in International Relations

By Rose McDermott


Copyright © 2004 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-09701-2

Chapter One


The events of September 11 profoundly shook the sense of personal security previously experienced by most Americans. In the light of the terrorist attacks, many of the questions and concerns that circulated in the media and in private conversations focused on the motivations of those involved. Why would someone do something so horrible? How might a leader induce his followers to give their lives for an abstract cause, and accomplish such a seemingly impossible goal even from a long distance away? How could people hate America and Americans so much when we mostly believe that we are decent and fair people who are concerned with the individual and human rights of others? How can a relatively small series of rare events puncture the sense of personal security of so many individuals not directly affected by the events? How can the government warn people to be careful without inducing fear and paralysis? How can individuals within a nation constructively channel bottomless degrees of anger, anguish, and abhorrence? Any one of these questions, along with many others, requires and deserves tremendous thought and consideration.

Two main insights come out of this reflection. First, explanations for veryimportant and influential events often lie in the personal psychology of leaders, participants, victims, and observers. Comprehensive explanations for the personal motivations of a suicide bomber cannot be complete without some understanding of the nature of individual thought, action, and emotion. Second, tragedy can shift values, beliefs, and behaviors. Most important, tragedy can bring people together in previously unexpected and unusual ways. And psychological comfort, social support, and resistance to isolation achieve what no terrorist can dissolve: resilient individuals, community commitment, and political cohesion. These outcomes do not justify or ameliorate the impact of tragedy, but they do illuminate the ubiquitous nature of psychological phenomena within the context of the political world. Accurate representations of the world around us demonstrate the link between politics and psychology in deep and myriad ways.

Every year, a topic appears in the news that offers direct evidence of this interplay. One year the Monica Lewinsky scandal suggested the ways in which a bright and promising politician can fall victim to his own personal psychological weaknesses. Another year the Chinese shot down an American spy plane and held the crew hostage for a period of time during which crucial questions about the decision-making capacity of the new president were raised. And all of these events seem silly or trivial in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Those events left many feeling frightened, hopeless, and powerless.

One of the best ways to handle a personal sense of impotence lies in action, particularly action designed to help others or to gain some sense of mastery over the source of the fear by trying to obtain a better understanding of its sources. Methodological and theoretical tools exist to illuminate the processes that go into creating terrorists, encouraging followers to obey leaders, developing ideologies, and channeling emotion. This book attempts to examine these tools and the insights they produce through the prism of political psychology.

What is political psychology? Why it is important? If the field of political psychology is to be more than the sum of its parts, it must add value to the independent studies of political science and psychology. In fact, there are many important issues and questions where each discipline benefits from the contributions and insights of the other. There are myriad ways in which political science and psychology interconnect. Combining these disciplines can provide additional purchase in topics that include the study of political leadership, political judgment and decision making, public opinion and voting behavior, the impact of emotion on behavior, the interaction between individual processes and group behavior, and the formation and maintenance of dominant values in society.

This book provides an introductory survey to the study of political psychology in international relations. The study of political psychology has produced a wide literature in American politics, particularly in American political behavior, as well (Iyengar and McGuire 1993; Sniderman and Tetlock 1991). However, this book focuses on the application of social and cognitive psychology to the study of security issues in international relations.

In many instances, psychologists have focused on theory development while political scientists have emphasized theory application. Similarly, much scholarship has focused on the impact of psychology on politics and paid less attention to the impact of politics on psychology (Deutsch 1983). Yet the relationship between these areas should be reciprocal. The goal is to provide a genuinely interdisciplinary approach to the interaction of psychological processes and political outcomes.

This book provides an overview of the relevant methods and theories that have been used in the examination of political psychology in international relations in chapters 2 and 3. Explanation concentrates on the particular strengths and weaknesses of these concepts for specific purposes. The impact of people's thoughts, actions, and emotions on political judgment, decision making, and behavior are discussed in chapters 4, 5, and 6. Finally, the roles of psychobiography, leadership, and groups are analyzed in chapters 7, 8, and 9. Chapter 10 provides a summary of potential extensions and notable implications of these findings. The purpose of this approach is to offer a critical overview of the major literature and central issues and questions in the field, as well as to offer suggestions for promising directions in future research.

What unifies political psychology and makes it distinct from other forms of political analysis is the search for explanation, description, and prediction at the individual level of analysis (Jervis 1976). The individual level of analysis informs and affects the kinds of questions that are asked, the forms of evidence that are sought, and the natures of inferences about causality that are made by political psychologists. This attentional bias is not always limited to the individual, for sometimes it incorporates the individual acting in concert with other individuals in group settings, but nonetheless it privileges the individual over organizational, bureaucratic, domestic institutional, economic, international, or other levels of analysis that diminish the significance of the individual. In this regard, political psychology provides a particularly humanistic slant on politics by asserting the importance of individual psychological processes to political outcomes.

This chapter offers a background for the specific findings discussed later. Historical context provides a foundation for the emergence of the defining characteristics and central issues and questions that have preoccupied inquiry in this field. Resolutions and new research agendas that have emerged from this scholarship pose challenges for researchers who wish to understand the intersection of psychological and political processes.


Political science as an academic discipline distinct from history really emerged with analyses of institutions such as Woodrow Wilson's Congressional Government in the late nineteenth century (Davies 1973). Modern psychology is often assumed to have begun with Freud's expansion of neurology into psychology at the turn of the twentieth century in Vienna. But the combination of the two fields did not really begin until much later in the twentieth century. Charles Merriam, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, initiated this integration in the 1920s (Davies 1973). Because Merriam was not too successful in his own applications, his efforts might have been forgotten except for the seminal contributions of his best-known student, Harold Lasswell. Lasswell is commonly considered the father of American political psychology, and his work explicitly focused on the impact of psychological processes on political outcomes (Deutsch 1983). Lasswell's approach, which applied psychodynamic concepts to political behavior by arguing that people projected their unresolved or unrecognized psychic conflicts onto the external political world (1930), significantly impacted the direction of future research in political psychology for several decades. In particular, Lasswell's preoccupation with finding the source of political behavior in individual psychological processes, particularly pathological processes, set the stage for the largely unidirectional production of research that followed (Deutsch 1983). Specifically, most scholarship focused on the impact of psychology on politics rather than the impact of politics on individual psychology. Despite subsequent widespread academic disillusionment with psychoanalysis as a causal explanation for political behavior, Lasswell's directional bias continues to influence scholarship. He has continued to exert an influence through the students he trained, including Fred Greenstein and Theodore Lowi, who in addition to their own contributions have gone on to influence many of their students in this perspective as well.

As an academic discipline, political psychology reached its adulthood in the late 1970s. The International Society of Political Psychology (ISPP), which sponsors annual conferences, was founded in January 1978 (Deutsch 1983). Members come from a wide range of interdisciplinary backgrounds. Its journal, Political Psychology, began publishing in 1979. The first comprehensive reader in political psychology, entitled Handbook of Political Psychology, was edited by Jeanne Knutson in 1973. This was followed about a decade later by another well-received anthology, Political Psychology (1986), edited by Margaret Hermann. A third volume also entitled Political Psychology (2002) has been edited by Kristen Monroe. Despite early concerns regarding adequate training of political psychology graduate students (Merelman 1979), there are now six universities where students can major in political psychology at a variety of levels: University of California, Los Angeles; University of California, Irvine; Ohio State; University of Minnesota at Minneapolis; City University of New York; and State University of New York at Stonybrook. In addition, since 1990 Ohio State has been conducting an interdisciplinary summer institute in political psychology.

Despite the emergence of these institutional forums concentrating on political psychology, it has remained an often fractured and diffuse discipline. Certainly some of the explanation for this lack of cohesion derives from the nature of academic incentive structures. Oftentimes, young scholars in particular might be concerned about getting tenure while pursuing less traditional disciplinary paths. When career standards require publishing in mainstream journals in one's own field, it can be problematic to conduct interdisciplinary work. Part of this lack of cohesion in the discipline may be due to budgetary constraints; it can be difficult for a discipline to agree to give up money for programs that are not entirely within its control. However, some of the responsibility lies with the practitioners as well. Much scholarship is theoretically inconsistent or empirically underdeveloped; little work speaks to or builds on other related work. Certainly some of these difficulties are the result of the wide variety of questions that are addressed and the methodological and theoretical discrepancies between disciplines. However, some of these difficulties are inextricably linked to the nature of the central issues that have defined the field: it has developed from one concerned with the impact of psychic processes on political outcomes to one that seeks to investigate in more detail the nature of those processes and the causes of those outcomes.

Central Issues

Before we can analyze the findings of political psychology in international relations, it is important to define political psychology itself, using two important factors: defining characteristics and potential limitations. Defining characteristics describe what political psychology is and does as a field of inquiry, including its methods and approach. Potential limitations are those concerns and criticisms that question the relevance and importance of findings in political psychology to the scholarly, policy-making, and interested public communities at large.

Defining Characteristics

There are several defining characteristics of political psychology in addition to the focus on the individual level of analysis already noted. Several concern methods, others concern content, but all are characteristic of the best work in political psychology. These characteristics are the multidisciplinary and multimethod nature of the inquiry, the focus on context and process, and the importance of applied relevance.

The multidisciplinary nature of the field is true by definition. Just as there are many subfields of political science, there are many subfields of psychology. Most political science departments have divisions incorporating political theory, American politics, comparative politics, and international relations. Similarly, most psychology departments contain developmental, social, cognitive, physiological and/or biological, and sometimes neuropsychology or personality subfields. In addition, some research universities offer training in clinical psychology, while others do not; and some professional schools focus exclusively on clinical training. For purposes of political analysis in international relations, most scholars have adopted clinical theories of psychopathology or psychoanalysis, or, more recently, findings from social and cognitive psychology.

Each subfield brings distinctive methodologies and theories to the questions it seeks to answer; combining disciplines leads naturally to combining methods as well. Greenstein (1973) has noted that political psychology inquiry is thus pluralistic by nature. The use of multiple methods is not inherently advantageous or detrimental, though of course each method has its relative strengths and weaknesses (chap. 2). Sometimes, the use of multiple methods merely confuses the central question being addressed. More often, however, multiple methods can increase one's confidence that the observed finding is in fact based on a real phenomenon, not a laboratory artifact or a specific historical anomaly (Tetlock 1982).

What the use of multiple methods suggests, however, is that stimulus-response inquiries will not be enough. When a scholar invokes multiple methods in examining a particular phenomenon, she assumes that the connections she seeks to establish are not simple or direct, but instead are influenced by a variety of cognitive and emotional factors (Jervis 1989c).

The assumption that many connections of interest are related in complicated ways leads to another defining characteristic of political psychology, one related to context. Most political psychologists believe that contextual effects are crucial for understanding phenomena of interest. Psychological approaches to politics assume that history, development, and learning are as important to the dynamic political process as they are to the psychological process of growth and change. Less emphasis has been placed on how political processes constrain individual and group psychological processes. Obviously this occurs, for example, when public policies affect social programs like welfare or other social services in ways that can drastically affect the quality of life for millions of people. In additional, strong political movements can change people's beliefs and ideologies. Political terrorists and members of religious cults are not the only people whose lives become controlled by their political beliefs and actions. Mainstream political movements, such as fascism or communism, greatly altered the lives of those who lived under such systems. Therefore, in seeking to understand the path by which a particular individual arrives at a specific action or decision, both personal and political history matter. The particular beliefs, hopes, fears, and expectations of the actor come into play in explaining or describing behavior. As Jervis (1989c) has noted, in order to understand what someone will do, analysts may need to understand where he has been and what he has done.


Excerpted from Political Psychology in International Relations by Rose McDermott Copyright © 2004 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

2.Forms of Methodology in Political Psychology21
3.Theoretical Concepts in Political Psychology45
4.Cognitions and Attitudes: What We Think We Know and Why77
5.Behavior: Do Actions Speak Louder Than Words?119
6.Emotion: Why Do We Love to Hate?153
9.Group Processes239

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