Saturday, July 28, 2012

What in the world is political psychology?

One of the first questions people ask each other is, "What do you do?" Some of us have jobs where the answer is simple, and a lengthy discussion is unnecessary. Firefighter. Secretary. Traveling circus clown. One sentence and people generally understand what you do. This is not true for political psychologists.

When we tell people that we are political psychologists, we might as well be telling them that we are Geological Engineers. They haven't got the foggiest idea of what that might mean. If someone says "psychologist," most people tend to think of a guy with a cigar sitting in a leather chair listening to a patient discussing their problems while laying on plush leather couches. If someone says "political scientist," most people tend to think of slick white males yelling about poll numbers on cable news shows. But, when these occupations are combined, most people do not have a readily-accessible stereotype to glean information about their conversation partner. Confounding matters more is the fact that most political psychologists do not have a simple explanation for what they do either.

So, what in the world is a political psychologist?!?

In a recent presentation to the Summer Institute in Political Psychology at Stanford University Jon Krosnick raised this very question and proposed a few ways to find an answer.

Perhaps we can look to the educational and occupational backgrounds of people who claim to be political psychologists. This approach shows us that and 2/3 of political psychologists earned their doctorates in political science and, among those who work in universities, most are listed as core members of the political science departments.

Regardless of the pesky university bureaucracy that may force a mythical segregation between psychologists and political scientists, all political psychologists publish. Where they publish may tell us more about what they are. To examine this, Krosnick looked at who was publishing in edited volumes on political psychology. Across the different series and volumes, he found that generally there were about 2 political scientists for every 1 psychologist, and there were occasional historians and sociologists contributing, too. Krosnick reports that applicants and attendees to this Summer Institute tend to reflect these proportions. About 60% of attendees are political scientists and about 30% are psychologists, with some variation in each of the previous 21 summer institutes.

It sounds like political psychologists are more political and less psychological. The linguistic structure, though, seems inappropriate. The title implies that these people are psychologists who practice psychology in a political way. Would it be better to call them psychological political scientists? Or, maybe there are two approaches to studying psychology and politics. One, preferred by psychologists, tests specific psychological concepts in political contexts, and the other, preferred by political scientists, loosely applies psychological ideas (not necessarily even citing the literature) to understand specific political events.

The majority of political psychology is done using the latter approach. Jamie Druckman co-authored a phenomenal paper (essential reading for anyone interested in doing political psychological research and doing it well) analyzing how this type of research is done. Not surprisingly, he reports that political scientists take more ideas from psychology than psychologists take from political science. He also finds the disturbing trend that political scientists take an idea from psychology and then morph it into something that it is not. This tendency eerily resembles the child's game of telephone, where one participant is given a message and the message is dramatically different by the end of the line.

For example, psychologists think of heuristics as cognitive shortcuts that often lead to bad, faulty, and irrational reasoning (see Gilovich, Griffin, and Kahneman's 2002 work on this). Political scientists took the idea of heuristics and mostly speak of them as good, shortcuts to informed political behavior (see Sniderman and colleagues' 1993 work on this). This loose usage of terms can lead to much confusion for people looking to do crossover research.

Druckman and Krosnick both propose that to avoid this confusion, those of us looking to do truly interdisciplinary work should try collaborating with an expert in the field which we are trying to incorporate into our work. For graduate students looking to get into political psychology, they should immerse themselves in both fields by taking advanced courses in both fields and attending summer workshops like SIPP (although this latter suggestion is a bit self-serving, ahem!). By doing so, political psychologists will be doing better-informed interdisciplinary research and may come to agreement over what in the world a political psychologist is. 

For the time being, though, political psychologists are generally political scientists and psychologists interested in using phenomena and tools from each others' disciplines to answer some question about human social behavior.

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