Monday, February 12, 2007

Psychology and Politics

"Fear of death has the highest correlation with being conservative" says scholar and author Frank Sulloway.

Many recent studies prove that the fear of death drives people to demonize those who hold different world views or beliefs about life and death. Tragically, most people are willing to sacrifice themselves in war to preserve their nation’s or religion’s particular symbols of immortality in a desperate attempt to achieve a sense of mastery over death. On a lesser scale, people can be – and are – manipulated using pseudo fears that elicit the same psychological reaction(s). Thus the title of this message: Psychology and Politics.

There are many studies, and many government-funded ones after 9/11, that delve into the psychology of politics. Particularly, that identify characteristics which differentiate between liberal and conservative ideologies.
  • Three books by George Lakoff: Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think; Metaphors We Live By; and Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives.

  • Other books by Jost (Political Psychology: Key Readings (Key Readings in Social Psychology)), Kruglansky (The Psychology of Closed Mindedness (Essays in Socialpsychology)) and Sulloway (Born to Rebel) provide in-depth research useful to identify distinguishing characteristics of conservative and liberal personalities.

  • The Origins of Ethic Strife, Mind and Human Interaction, Vol 7, #4, 1996, Robert W. Firestone.

  • In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, Pysczynski, Solomon, Greenberg.
Consider these examples from a NY Times article by Patricia Cohen:
  • Most liberals think about morality in terms of two categories: how someone's welfare is affected, and whether it is fair. Conservatives, by contrast, broden that definition to include loyalty, respect for authority, and purity or sanctity.

  • There is a whole dimension to human experience best described as divinity or sacredness that conservatives are more attuned to.

  • Offices and bedrooms of conservatives tended to be neat and contain cleaning supplies, calendars, postage stamps and sports-related posters; bold-colored, cluttered rooms with art supplies, lots of books, jazz CDs and travel documents tended to belong to Democrats.
Thinking cynically, this is wonderful material for political strategists. Imagine what they could do with a presidential campaign budget and these targeting tidbits. They could slice and dice messages that would inflame religious fervor, patriotism, fear of terrorism, and loyalty to either enlist the conservatives or provoke the liberals (depending on who the consultant was working for). And they could match their voter and cable channel databases against consumer purchasers of jazz CDs, members of book clubs, etc. to further enable accurate demographic targeting.

I wasn't always this cynical. I used to be a believer, particularly in Democrats and their social consciousness. But dirty politics has bred dirty politicians on both sides making them indistinguishable in their infighting and fundraising; only in their positioning are they different -- they are still Democrats and Republicans with major differences in beliefs and wants and an inability to compromise for the common good.

When people are fearful or exasperated, they forget that we're all just like one another. They forget that if other people have different colored skins or religious practices that, nevertheless, they are human and have human desires and aspirations, that they're fragile, hurting, have a limited life span - that they're just like us.

As psychologist Robert Firestone said in his interview with Fred Branfman, "It's madness to be rigid: to define God in your own terms in a way that excludes other people's beliefs. It's madness to think that our way is right and everybody else is wrong. It's even the definition of insanity where you think everybody's wrong and you're right."

Click to see the 5-minute video clip from the interview:

It's time to remember that we're all the same. It's time to teach it in our schools and secondary media (like movies and commentaries) and from our pulpits and bully pulpits. It's time to teach people a world view full of complexities yet that we're all the same, that to be at odds about belief systems and to be defensive is criminal when it leads to destroying other people. This I believe and this I hope will happen when we get a different administration.