Does Political Psychology Make Sense?

Voxcorvegis cites a very weird study in the field of political psychology that says the following:

Liberals reported greater openness, whereas conservatives reported higher conscientiousness. This means that liberals (at least in their own estimation) saw themselves as more creative, flexible, tolerant of ambiguity, and open to new ideas and experiences. Across the political personality divide, conservatives self-identified as more persistent, orderly, moralistic, and methodical.

OK, let’s use me as a case in point. I don’t mind confessing (because everybody has noticed this already, I’m sure) that I’m inflexible to the point of rigidity, incapable of entertaining or appreciating ambiguity, endlessly moralizing, extremely judgmental, persistent like a bulldog, and thrive on order and routine. As much as I’d like to see myself as creative, flexible and tolerant, there is too much self-delusion that needs to happen for me to have this image of myself. Yet I’m a Liberal of the kind that condemns President Obama for being too conservative for my tastes.

But wait, there is more:

Evidence suggests that these personality differences between liberals and conservatives begin to emerge at an early age. A 20-year longitudinal study by Jack and Jeanne Block showed that those who grew up to be liberals were originally assessed by their preschool teachers as more emotionally expressive, gregarious, and impulsive when compared to those who became conservatives, who were considered more inhibited, uncertain, and controlled.

We don’t have any of my childhood teachers reading the blog but we do have people who knew me at 4, 5, 6, etc. They will confirm for you that, as a child, I was painfully shy, extremely inhibited, and silent. The music teacher I had at the age of 6 told my mother that I would probably grow up to be a serial killer because my lack of affect was sociopathic. (The word “autism” was unknown at that time.)

At the same time, my sister, who is and always was gregarious, emotionally expressive, impulsive, creative, flexible, tolerant of ambiguity, and open to new ideas and experiences in a way I could never hope to be, consistently votes Conservative back in Canada.

Obviously, this is anecdotal evidence but the descriptions of the liberals and conservatives offered in the article make no sense to me. Is political psychology even a legitimate field?

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26 comments on “Does Political Psychology Make Sense?

  1. I think it is about as legitimate as evolutionary psychology. To expand this assertion, both are very young sciences and their early work sounds, and is, mostly silly. I predict that in a pretty short time (less than a century, probably) both will have some unexpectedly important things to say.

  2. I thought the field already existed, and was mostly BS. I had a class in college named “Political Psychology”. We read Wilhelm Reich, Kojeve, etc. The professor failed the whole class in one of the papers because the day he had to return them, Argentina was eliminated from the 1998 World Cup (I am not kidding). I pass the course because I run into the T.A, who was in charge of the final oral exam, smoking pot the day before the exam. He offered me some, and when I said no and faked indignation, he freaked out and asked me not to tell anybody.
    Fun times.

  3. Political psychology and evolutionary psychology both sound like two flavors of bullshit. I used to be shy, now I call it “misanthropic.” I dislike being overly emotional. I prefer doing “creative” things like writing, art… I used to think I was politically conservative until I realized I was just reacting to the fake liberalism of the Democrats. Like you, I find Obama way too conservative, and you couldn’t make me vote for Romney at gunpoint.

    As for evo-psych, I’ve never been interested in any of the things the bozos who believe in that stuff think women want. I never wanted kids or to marry a man for his money, and arrogant loudmouth egotistical abusive assholes (a.k.a. “alpha males”) turn me off. So either I’m yet another exception that proves the rule, or else the “rule” is just another lie.

    • I should have said poli-psych and evo-psych *are* two flavors of bullshit. They’re not “young fields of study,” they’re the latest snake oil.

      • I suppose they do serve a kind of “purpose” then! Like, if someone starts talking about them as if they sincerely believe their conclusions, you know not to date or otherwise associate with this person.

    • I agree. I keep hearing about all these things I’m supposed to want as a woman and always discover that I want the exact opposite. So I’m either a man, or the “science” is crap.

    • I don’t think that Poli-Psych has *all* of the same problems as Evo-Psych. I regard evolutionary psychology as a pseudoscience because it’s fundamentally unfalsifiable; I mean, you can make an argument that some behaviour or other could have helped a hunter-gatherer society survive on the plains of Africa; it might even be a plausible argument. But unless you have some *very specific* paleontogical findings, I don’t see how you can prove that one way or the other. Political Psychology at least seems to be based on analyzing actual people, rather than just making up ideas.
      There is one flaw that appears common to both, however: namely, they both seem to treat social constructs (whether it be gendered behaviours or the left-right political spectrum) as if they are in some way intrinsic to human nature. Unless I am greatly misreading the situation.

  4. The idea that everyone has a fundamental nature that never changes, and that all of their politics, religion, intellectual concepts stem from this, is extremely prevalent. I think it is itself based on a psychological need for security and reassurance. If learning can change people, the world isn’t as predictable as we would like to assume. This possibility causes some people to feel considerably agitated. I think those, in particular, who have committed themselves to a job or career where it is not permissible to change, resent those who are still learning and developing.

  5. The problem with political psych is that the people researching it usually have strong biases, which influences the results. This particular study had some of those problems, in addition to the sample size being small (only about 100 people very few of whom were actually conservative).

    http://ironshrink.com/2007/02/how-to-spot-a-broken-study-the-baby-conservative-project/

    Often, the definition of conservative (or right) and liberal (or left) are very screwed up. For example, in another study, conservatism was more or less defined as evil (Stalin and Hitler were both conservative) while liberal was defined by everything good (ie. all the communists or “evil” left-wingers were excluded).

    http://ironshrink.com/2007/01/a-methodology-critique-in-defense-of-those-wascally-wepublicans/

    So it’s often barely above pseudo-science at this point.

  6. The problem with political psych is that the people researching it usually have strong biases, which influences the results. This particular study had some of those problems, in addition to the sample size being small (only about 100 people very few of whom were actually conservative).

    http://ironshrink.com/2007/02/how-to-spot-a-broken-study-the-baby-conservative-project/

    Often, the definition of conservative (or right) and liberal (or left) are very screwed up. For example, in another study, conservatism was more or less defined as evil (Stalin and Hitler were both conservative) while liberal was defined by everything good (ie. all the communists or \”evil\” left-wingers were excluded).

    http://ironshrink.com/2007/01/a-methodology-critique-in-defense-of-those-wascally-wepublicans/

    So it’s often barely above pseudo-science at this point.

  7. Haven’t you posted something similar to political psychology before? I think I recall something about how anti-abortionists only hate women’s choice because their mommy never loved them enough, or something. o:

    • The desire to rummage in other people’s uteri has nothing to do with the realm of politics. It is being sold to us as THE political issue of the day by politicians who need to manipulate people’s psychological issues because it’s easy. Why come up with complex programs that will address the unemployment, for example, when you can just screech about non-existent dead babies?

      In itself, the burning desire to invade other people’s bodies lies exclusively within the realm of individual psychology. Psychology is, of course, a respected and fully legitimate area of study.

      You have got to agree that there is something deeply wrong with a Congress that, in the midst of a horrible recession, does nothing to alleviate the economic burden and instead discusses literally hundreds of anti-abortion bills.

      My students can’t find jobs after graduating and all I hear is impotent screeching about legitimate rapes and so on. We are being sold a bill of goods here by diseased freaks who want to make this election about abortion instead of about the economy and we are buying into it.

      I’m sorry for the rant but I just had a conversation with somebody who hasn’t been able to find a job in almost 2 years yet will vote for Romney because “abortion is murder.” So I’m understandably angry. (Not with you, of course).

      • Oh yes, I understand and agree completely. If I’m being honest, I used to be pro-life ages ago (like, when I was 12), but I changed my mind when I learned more about the reproductive system and foetuses and such. So I wasn’t deranged, I just need to learn more about the issue. But it definitely seems to indicate a mental disturbance in those who carry that belief into adulthood, especially when presented with the same kind of evidence I was. And it’s definitely ripe for exploitation from politicians.

  8. I also think some people may vote conservative because they really don’t understand the subtext of conservatism, or they underestimate its value in terms of defining the conservative agenda. A lot of what many conservatives say can seem like random ideas or speculations, not necessarily coherent, until you unpack them.

    Consider the following poster I made from the leader of the Australian opposition party’s words. Try to ignore the images, in the first instance, which I supplied to indicate the ramifications of this conservative’s agenda.

    http://unsanesafe.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/who-said-this-and-why.html

    On the surface of it, the speaker is simply calling for honesty and for balance in our thinking. We could read his words as saying, “Let’s not get all overwrought just because a boss, or other male representative does something wrong, sinning a little bit. Instead, let’s open our hearts and realize that he does more good than harm.”

    In actual fact this seeming call for leniency and kindness hides a fundamental patriarchal ideological structure which is directly patterned by those right-wingers in the US who argue that it’s not so bad to be raped because at least that brings a child into the world.

    So, in reality our opposition leader is arguing that male energy, no matter how forcefully or wrongfully applied, is always for the good. This is a traditional, metaphysical view that female energy is only ever passive and reactive, so it requires male energy to give it meaning, force and shape. That is why having a rapist’s child can be a good thing — because a rapist is the embodiment of male energy, and women need male energy if they are to become something other than dark matter.

    Similarly, even a vicious boss or wife-battering husband is still doing her some good, by exposing her to the necessary male energy that she needs in order to come into being in a meaningful way.

    This is actually the conservative ideology that underlies a text that could seem benign or even genteel to some ears.

    • I would say a bad boss or a bad husband is bad precisely because they do more bad than good.

      So once that flaw in logic has taken place there is no point in continuing, anything can be proved from that point.

      Abbot is a moron, I wish we could ship him to Alaska where there are others who think like him.

      “This is a traditional, metaphysical view that female energy is only ever passive and reactive” Tell that to all the men who are chivied into doing stuff around the house on weekends. A prime example of proactive female energy drawing out the reactive male energy.

      • Hey, I was just saying it was a traditional, metaphysical view. Metaphysical means imaginary. It has no relationship to reality. Nonetheless many people live their lives as if metaphysical notions about the world were true. If enough people do that, it can change the actual texture and experience of reality for a lot of people. That is, if women believe they are inherently passive, they will wait for men to act, rather than enjoying life on their own terms. That is why metaphysics is so sordid.

  9. Like you, I was shy and inhibited at school, and I became a card-carrying Liberal. I think that much psychology is crap. I discover that most of the things I learnt in Psycho I are now regarded as wrong. They either have different names or have been reclassified. And in 50 years time autism will probably be passé too. Is this progress in knowledge, or does it just mean that most psycho profs just don’t know what they are talking about?

    • Psychology is the classification of people according to how useful they are deemed to be to society in its present state. The present state of the economy requires people who are compliant, predictable, flexible but not on the basis of orchestrating change themselves, moderately innovative but not creative, with intellectual development in the low to moderate range, sunny dispositions, sociable, credulous.

      • “Psychology is the classification of people according to how useful they are deemed to be to society in its present state.”

        – Deemed by whom, exactly?

        “The present state of the economy requires people who are compliant, predictable, flexible but not on the basis of orchestrating change themselves, moderately innovative but not creative, with intellectual development in the low to moderate range, sunny dispositions, sociable, credulous.”

        – SUNNY dispositions?? Come on, haven’t you noticed the Pharma lobby and its need to sell anti-depressants? Sunny dispositions are out of fashion and make everybody extremely suspicious. Fake depression and constant sighing about how horrible everything is – that is what sells nowadays.

        • I was being facetious with my “deemed”. You should know that about me. Most of my writing has a hint of that, which can’t exactly be wrung out of it, making me the bane of examiners everywhere.

          As regards the aspect of people descending into misery, perhaps they are rebelling against the necessity of having a sunny disposition, which is deemed.

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