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This post is by associate Triage Practitioner, and guest blogger, Matthew Savage 

Political thought and political beliefs are something that many people believe to be extremely important in their lives. Political beliefs fall across a broad spectrum, and people often place themselves either “on the right”, “on the left” or “in the centre”. As a broad claim, most on the right would consider themselves more traditional, conservative, perhaps more individualistic people, whilst those on the left more “progressive” and socialist with more collectivist ideals. However, despite what seems to be a never-ending debate over which political ideology is the best, there are often striking similarities on the “left” and the “right”. Both often believe their ideas to be in the best interests of most people, often wanting to impose their ideas over the entire populace, by the use of policy, taxation to pay for measures to reach the desired goal or by restricting freedom of choice (Baum, 2021). So why does this occur when similarities exist across the spectrum? Why do some people get extremely passionate over their love for certain groups, parties or public figures and what causes them to feel this way?

The Question of Political System

Political systems have existed for thousands of years, originating from ancient desires for people to live in tribes for survival. From ancient Egyptian Pharos, to the republics of Greece and to the democracies of the 21st century, societies have been structured in different ways for a variety of different reasons. These structures are responsible for making important decisions for “the masses” or the population as a whole but rarely will the whole population agree with the decisions made. Public opinion is vitally important in the decision-making of governments, though stronger in certain systems, such as democracies compared to authoritarian states. Today, the biggest debates rage around the following categories:

  • Constitutional monarchy vs. republics – such as in the UK and debates around the existences of the royal family
  • Democrats vs Republicans – With polarization a major concern in the USA
  • Democracy vs. Authoritarianism – Such as the controversy of Putin’s Russia
  • Communism vs. Capitalism – China as a hybrid Communist state vs. the USA, or North Korea in comparison to South Korea
  • Individualism vs. collectivism – such as the structure of national health systems vs. private health care

With so many different ways for societies to be structured and for economies to be controlled, it is clear to see why so many different disagreements can take place. But what is very interesting is the similarities in psychological thought that take place within people with such opposing beliefs and the tactics used by politicians and the media to convince people of the merits of a particular thought.

Similarities in Psychological Thought

Interestingly, those who support Labour vs. Conservative, Democrat vs. Republican and Communism vs. Capitalism will nearly always fall prey to the say political techniques and psychological manipulation by political influencers and leaders. These include:

  • Power of Celebrity and parasocial behaviours – As people are inherently social creatures, we can often fall prey to becoming emotionally invested in celebrity figures, sports teams or political parties. Prime examples of this behaviour include Donald Trump’s celebrity status influencing voting in the US election of 2016, people’s interest in the British Royal family and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un who are all regularly celebrated in the media across different countries. This constant media exposure causes a feedback loop, whereby the media can create an image of someone, which can get people interested, which then leads to more coverage and more emotional investment from individuals. Both sides of the political spectrum fall prey to this infatuation. Dr Frank Farley (2018) suggests that this parasocial behaviour and celebrity influence is dictated by conscious and unconscious beliefs about wealth, power, fame, happiness, style and social influence and all of these things can lead to a “deep-seated attraction to heroism”. Donald Trump was often hailed as the protector of American ideals, Jeremy Corbyn developed a strong following of young, student voters often described as a “cult”, Putin is seen by many Russians as a strong man who protects Russia from the “evils of the west” or the British Royal Family as protectors of British tradition. All are often seen as “heroes” to their supporters and it is this emotional connection that can lead to passionate, often biased support.

  • Unification and a sense of belonging – Many people desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, part of a group and feel a sense of belonging. It is said that having strong social support is one of the biggest protective factors against depression (Gariepy, Honkaniemi and Quesnel-Vallee, 2018) and is vital for positive mental wellbeing. In a political sense, whether a person believes they are a supporter of individualism (a belief that everyone should take care of themselves, without influence from government) or a supporter of collectivism (the belief that government should regulate society and provide services for all), both beliefs will often be underpinned by a belief in a “bigger picture” of some kind, and an affiliation with a larger group or purpose. Social identity theory suggests that a person’s self-concept is often based on one’s membership of groups, whether that’s a political party, religious affiliation, corporate affiliation, gender, support for certain sports teams or all of the above, leading to a bias towards your group as you desire it to be reflected positively (Weir, 2019). With 22% of the 193 UN member states still holding onto their monarchies, support appears to still be strong across both sides of the spectrum for the sense of unification monarchies provide. In addition to this, religious monarchies exist also, with the Pope of the Catholic Church, the Patriarchates of the Orthodox Church and the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili Shai Muslims providing political influence across borders and on people of all kinds of political affiliations.

  • Motivated reasoning – Appealing to people’s emotions is always important when delivering a political message. This is because emotions and instincts can bias our decision making and information processes and led to individuals ignoring strong evidence if it does not fit their desired narrative. Motivated reasoning is often unconscious and is the process of deciding to accept information that fits with a belief already held, with the motivation often to keep a certain self-image or to not cause cognitive dissonance, something that is effortful to resolve. This mental shortcut often leads to further bias and can lead to polarization between groups or individuals. For example, scapegoating has been used for centuries to influence peoples voting patterns and to encourage a “divide and conquer” mentality. Immigrants to a country are often used as scapegoats, with Hitler (originally part of the National Socialist party) blaming the Jews for Germanys economic problems, Donald Trump calling the COVID-19 virus the “Chinese virus” or Brexit campaigners declaring that immigration in the UK was out of control and voting to leave the EU would allow British people to “take back control” of their borders. Scapegoating allows political parties and individuals to shift blame and preserve their self-image.

  • Political rhetoric – No side of the political spectrum is immune to political rhetoric and all political parties use similar persuasive techniques to convince people to follow their ideals. The three main types of political rhetoric; Logos, a way of appealing to peoples logic (such as the use of facts and figures getting your audience to “think” ), Ethos, appeals to a speaker character and their status which can be used to convince others of their credibility (such as Hillary Clinton declaring her 25 years’ experience or an ethos attack on Donald Trump calling him a racist), and Pathos, an appeal to people’s emotions and sympathetic imagination, beliefs and values. A prime example of the latter is Martin Luther Kings “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, whereby Dr King uses metaphor, repetition and allusion to appeal to his audiences’ emotions or pathos (Vail, 2006).

  • Media influence and fear – Many political researchers agree that political polarization has got worse over the last few decades, with the media responsible for sparking hostilities in many countries across the world. The media is rarely impartial these days, and the popularity of social media has further deepened the divide in many countries. For example, the case of Cambridge Analytica harvesting data for political advertising shocked the world in 2018, using Facebook data to target individuals with political messages with the intent to persuade and indoctrinate them to a certain way of thinking. Many people were continually served articles, adverts and, in some cases, fake blog and newspaper articles to persuade them of a particular “problem” in the USA and to influence the way they would vote in the 2016 election. This type of influence preys on people’s fears and anxieties, a political technique that can be used across the whole spectrum. The media has always had the power to influence and manipulate the masses, and the more a convincing, curated message can be served to one person, the more likely they are to believe what is being served to them.

Conclusion

As noted, research by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and The Atlantic (Najle, M., & Jones, M., PRRI, 2019) in the USA suggests that 45% of Democrats and 35% of Republican supporters would be disappointed if their child married someone who supported the opposing political party, an increase from figures of 4% for both parties in 1960 (Almond, G., & Verba, S., Civic Culture Study, 1959–60). This increased polarization can be seen across many countries of the world today, with the media, corporations, political parties, advertisers and celebrity figures all using similar tactics to persuade the general public to support their ideals and values. These tactics are still similar to those used since the birth of societies, with celebrity and hero worship, unification and group membership, fear and scapegoating and political rhetoric seen across every level of the political spectrum. Today however, the media is now far more influential than before and this leads to new challenges whereby all information must be fact checked, hopefully with individuals being aware of the tactics and psychological tricks used above. But one thing is clear, whatever your political persuasion, you have likely succumbed to these tactics consciously or unconsciously in the past. But being aware of these in the future may allow for less bias, more logic and a greater understanding when reaching across the partisan divide.

About Matt Savage

Matthew Savage is an associate triage practitioner and neurological personal trainer. He has two masters degrees, one in psychology, another in clinical neuroscience at the distinction level and is also a Level 3 Personal trainer. Matthew combines his knowledge and interest in neuroscience, cognitive and physical rehabilitation and general wellbeing to provide positive physical and mental support to his clients.

References

Baum, N. (2021). Is Individualism vs. Collectivism the new Left vs. Right? Fee Stories. Doi: https://fee.org/articles/is-individualism-vs-collectivism-the-new-left-vs-right/

Ducharme, J. (2018). Why People Are Obsessed With the Royals, According to Psychologists. Time Magazine. Doi: https://time.com/5253199/royal-obsession-psychology/

Rees, J. (2014). Like it or not, monarchies are enduring for several reasons The Psychologist. Doi: https://theconversation.com/like-it-or-not-monarchies-are-enduring-for-several-reasons-26588

Gariépy, G., Honkaniemi, H., & Quesnel-Vallée, A. (2016). Social support and protection from depression: Systematic review of current findings in Western countries. British Journal of Psychiatry, 209(4), 284-293. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.115.169094

Weir, K (2019). Politics is personal. American Psychological Association. Doi: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/11/cover-politics

 

The Psychology of Political Belief

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