Lecture Outline: Perspectives and Approaches in Studying Political Psychology


I.                   Perspectives

A.                 Why should we study Political Psychology?

1.                   It’s interesting.

2.                   Because all of politics is human behavior.

3.                   Objections to political psychology

a)                  When studying elites, broader historical and social forces are more important than individual elites.

b)                  When studying mass behavior, political psychology is not “political” enough.

B.                 What is Political Psychology?

1.                   As a subfield of political science, political psychologists draw from (selective) theories and concepts in human psychology to explain political phenomena.  E.g., Sears, Huddy and Jervis outline 6 traditional approaches in psychology and a few recent developments.

a)                  Gordon Allport:  “no single sovereign theory will do.”

b)                  Our coverage of theories is very selective.

2.                   Historical context

a)                  Three broad eras of research in political psychology.

(1)                First dominated by studies of personality, often with roots in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, 1940s to 1960s.
(2)                Social cognition I: Attitude theory and change: use of social psychological theories to explain mass public opinion and voting behavior, 1960s to 1980s.
(3)                Social cognition II:  Human cognition and information processing:  following the “cognitive science” revolution in social psychology, in the 1980s. 
(4)                4th Phase: Biology, Personality, Emotions & Motivated cognitions

C.                  How should we study Political Psychology? Not spoon-feeding, but attention to the process of scientific inquiry and methods.

II.                Approaches of Political Psychology

A.                 See Table of “Strengths and Weaknesses of Different Methods.” The trade-off between internal & external validity.


B.                 Survey research: problems and limitations arise at every stage of the survey research process

1.                   Sampling

a)                  Is the sample some variant of a probability (random) sample? Does everyone in the population have an equal chance of being selected? If not, there may be problem with sampling bias and generalizability. SLOP examples.

b)                  How large is the sample? Smaller sample have larger amounts of sampling error that reduce our ability to generalize the results of the sample to the population.

c)                   Is the polling firm reputable?

2.                   Question Wording

a)                  Is the question "loaded" or biased in some way?

b)                  Is the question susceptible to social desirability biases?

c)                   Is the question clear, unambiguous, simple and straightforward?

d)                  Are responses affected by the context of the question--i.e., previous questions, question order, and the like?

3.                   Analysis of survey results

a)                  Superficial commercial analysis vs. Slow scholarly analysis of “why?”

4.                   Interpretation of results

a)                  Beware of polling organizations or sponsors with an axe to grind.

b)                  What "model" of polling and public opinion do pollsters and reporters have in mind when describing and interpreting poll results?

5.                   Fixes and alternatives to limitations of the traditional cross-sectional survey.

a)                  Response biases

b)                  Lack of social context

c)                   Superficial responses

d)                  Lack of internal validity


C.                  Experimental Methods (see McDermott and Sears)

1.                   Before reading David Sears & Rose McDermott’s articles, take a quick look at two experiments,

a)                  “Going Negative,” conducted by political scientist Shanto Iyengar at UCLA on the tendency for negative political ads to demobilize independents and polarize partisans, here, and

b)                  “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” conducted at Stanford University by Philip Zimbardo in 1971 here.


a)                  What are the important aspects of experimental design? What are these?

(1)                Standardization
(2)                Randomization
(3)                Placebo effects (Control Conditions)
(4)                Things to avoid: Experimental bias
(a)                Expectancy effects
(b)                Experimenter bias
(c)                Demand characteristics

b)                  Threats to internal validity: know the first 3

c)                   Threats to external validity: know the first 4

d)                  Advantages of experiments: give examples

e)                  Disadvantages of experiments: give examples

f)                    *Why have political scientists been so slow to adopt experimental methodology?

3.                   Sears:  “College sophomores in the laboratory,” Sears is unusual for a social psychologist because he uses survey data instead of experiments, and he’s critical of one aspect of the external validity of experiments in psychology: the ability to generalize from college sophomores to the general population.

a)                  What are some of the problems associated with the “almost exclusive reliance on college sophomores” in experiments by  social psychologists, according to Sears?

b)                  *Why are college sophomore a “narrow database,” according to Sears? In other words, “How Is the College Student in the Laboratory Unusual? (p. 521).

c)                   In your view, are some kinds of political behavior and attitudes more susceptible to the potential problems associated with relying on college sophomores as subjects (e.g., racial attitudes, media influence, etc.)?

d)                  Note: Sears produces no evidence of these problems, only an argument. This is a real problem only under certain conditions: but what are they? 


D.                 Triangulation of methods; methodological pluralism

1.                   Both: Survey & experiment

2.                   Replication of experiments across types of people and settings

3.                   Survey experiments

4.                   Internet surveys (i.e., realistic stimulus materials in an internet survey)

5.                   Depth interviews & focus groups to supplement surveys