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The Psychology Of Politics

The Psychology of Politics – Biases of Circumstance

What is politics? Politics deals with groups of people, and how they make collective decisions. It deals with the acquisition and justification of the use of power. Politics affects everyone, everything that is touched by human competition and cooperation. While we may like to dress it up with amorphous notions such as ‘the state’, ‘the nation’, or ‘the community’, these things aren’t real in a true physical sense. Where is the state? Is it the ground within its borders? If I take a clump of dirt and throw it over the border, has the state been moved? No, the state exists only as a state of the mind. It is a social construct, an idea, perhaps even an ideal, arguably a myth created to explain the relationships of power between individuals.

Yet no one denies that the state is powerful. Just ask the victims of war. How can something that isn’t strictly real have such influence over the real world? It’s because it exists in the minds of people, this myth. And because people believe in it, they act upon the real world such that they make it essentially real. So the state functions like it exists, even though it may be nothing more than a shared delusion, it exists enough to have an enormous effect on people’s lives.

And yet, underneath the veil of the state, all there are is people. And people are complex, their behaviour often difficult to understand. Because of this, the state and its effects on people, the whole of society can be thought of as a sort of collective psychological phenomenon. So what if we attempt to apply human psychology to human societies? Well, since much of psychology is focused on individual behaviour it can be difficult to generalize to collective behaviour. But we can perhaps apply these insights to explain the ideologies of individuals.

Let me explain. Take the ever controversial welfare question. Ask the most extreme hard-right economic conservatives and you’ll find they see welfare beneficiaries as lazy bums, while the payees for whom welfare is a tax on their pay checks are honest hard working individuals being coerced by the heavy hand of the state. Inherent in these beliefs is a simple bias. The bias is that people have full control of their circumstances and get what they deserve.

On the other extreme, we have hard left liberals and socialists who see welfare beneficiaries as innocent sufferers of misfortune, the payees of welfare as greedy bastards who don’t want to share in their fortune. Underlying this belief is the reverse bias from the conservative bias, which is that people have little or no control of circumstances.

In psychology, there is concept called the Locus of Control. People with an Internal Locus of Control believe they have full control of their circumstances, and also are more likely to be successful. This doesn’t necessarily mean that having an internal locus causes success, it may well be that more successful people come to believe that they are responsible for their own success. Either way this matches the current right-wing economic ideology.

On the other hand, people with an External Locus of Control believe that something outside them controls most of their circumstances. Such people tend to be less successful, but again, the correlation could go either way. Maybe because they think they can’t do much to change things, they don’t try as hard, or maybe since they’ve experienced failures despite trying, they feel powerless. Either way, this matches the current left-wing ideologies.

Thus, both sides are inherently biased to favour the circumstances they most sympathize with, and form caricatures of the other that they resent. But these biases are actually oversimplifications, unfair generalizations that require re-examination. For fundamentally, these notions are incoherent and inconsistent in their judgment of other human beings. They are unrealistically optimistic about one group, and unrealistically pessimistic about another.

There are two alternative balanced views that depend on how optimistic or pessimistic you are. An honest, consistent optimist would see welfare beneficiaries as innocent sufferers of misfortune, the payees of welfare as honest hard workers being coerced. Genuinely cynical pessimists would see welfare beneficiaries as lazy bums and the payees of welfare as greedy bastards. In the former case, well it becomes clearer that both groups have a legitimate concern. In the latter case, well either group are equally vulgar.

In reality, these people we’ve caricatured are all human, mostly the same kind of people in different circumstances, with similar but different experiences, affected by slightly variant genetics. The truth of circumstances is that degree of control isn’t all or none. Rather we have some control, but are not gods. Instead, the reality is that some people deserve their circumstances, and others do not, it depends on the individual circumstances.

And once you disregard all the biases and variables, the question becomes: Should duly elected government intervene to redistribute material wealth from people in better circumstances, to people in worse circumstances, regardless of how much control those people had over their circumstances.

I do not pretend to answer this question for you. I just want you to realize that this is the real question behind the welfare question, apart from the bias of either side. It can only benefit you to know the biases that have the potential to colour our political thinking, because once you know about them, you are free to act independently of them. Take that or leave that as you will. Thank you for your time.

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Page last modified on July 23, 2014, at 03:18 PM