Psychology and Politics

This overview of various uses for psychology in politics is written by Sue Kerbel, consulting partner of Cognitive Policy Works who brings a wealth of insight into psychological theories and practices to the political world.

From the Couch to the Culture: How Psychological Analysis Can Strengthen the Progressive Agenda

By Susan G. Kerbel

During my travels in recent months, I have had some interesting conversations with fellow progressives from a variety of walks of life regarding the startup of Cognitive Policy Works. It was not more than a handful of months ago that Joe Brewer and I sat in a café and began to sketch out our astonishingly similar ideas on the need for an action-oriented think tank – a “think and do” tank, if you will – that could put the understandings and techniques of the behavioral and social sciences into the hands of progressive activists. Through the use of techniques grounded in the scientific study of human functioning, we reasoned, progressive values and messages could be articulated in a more effective manner; our policies could be given a fairer hearing by the public; and our democracy, economy, society, and culture could begin the lengthy and difficult process of being restored to more human and sustainable dimensions.

Since that time, I have talked with quite a few people who instantly understood the connection between my background as a clinical psychologist, and the pursuit of political and social change that underlies the mission of CPW. In its simplest form, it seems obvious: politics is about people, and so is psychology. Understanding the workings of the human heart and mind, it would seem, could only be an advantage in figuring out how to help people make a society that works better for them. All in all, not rocket science, I thought, to sort out the connection.

On the other hand, I also met a certain number of individuals who could not for the life of them see the connection between political and social analysis, and clinical psychological skill. These individuals, it would seem, are part of the problem that CPW seeks to solve: they have lost the recognition that civic life is about actual human beings.

Interestingly, it was more often those who are successful in the current political system that seemed to not get the connection. They had lost the association between people and politics, and so were doing rather well as part of the current system, which divorces the two so efficiently.

So, for those of you to whom this all seems a bit obvious, my apologies. Feel free to skip to the next article, or whatever else may interest you here. For those of you who are truly befuddled by what clinical psychology has to do with political and social change, read on.

What does Clinical Psychology Have to do with Politics?

There is much that can be brought to the table from the world of clinical thinking that can illuminate the events of our time, and help to plot adaptive and effective responses to them.

There are at least six elements of clinical theory and practice that are immediately relevant to understanding political and social events and discourse. There are probably more than six, but for the time being, I’ll review six of them, so that at least a basic relevancy of the discipline to the work of CPW can be established. They are:

  • Knowledge of the psychology of change;
  • Principles and practices of behavior change that can be used to influence our allies and opponents;
  • Clinical practice of listening for metaphor, narrative, and emotion, and its usefulness in parsing political speech and action;
  • Communications expertise;
  • The relationship between models of healthy human development and the values of the progressive movement;
  • The relationship between psychopathology and political behavior.

Each of these topics is an essay in itself. Please consider the current list merely a brief review, to give a flavor of what is possible in applying clinical thinking to social and political issues.

(1) The psychology of change: This is one of the great hidden powers of clinical psychological thinking that the progressive movement would do well to understand. Clinical practice is all about creating change, in individuals, couples, families, and groups of people; organizational change is sometimes a part of the equation as well. In all these instances, there is a dynamic at work that is essential to understanding the nature of changing the beliefs and choices of other people. There are the forces that seek change, and those that fear and resist it. Both elements are always present. There is a constant interplay between those aspects of the individual, or group, or society, that desire to do things differently, and those that do not.

In our political lives, we often act as if this is not the case, or wish that to be so, but it never is. Both impulses are always at work, and both must be addressed before forward motion can occur.

Being able to recognize and anticipate the presence of resistance to change is at the heart of the psychological change process, and a tremendous strategic advantage if one can understand it and work with it. This is part and parcel of the work of any competent clinician. If you know where and how resistance will play out in response to a given initiative for change, one can plan for it, address it, and harness the power of resistance to eventually join the forces of change, if addressed effectively enough. At the very least, resistant forces can be minimized or neutralized so that forward motion is not impeded.

Progressives seem to have much to learn about this. As a political body, we seem to be in a constant state of surprise when the forces of resistance to change emerge, and often seem unprepared to respond to it. There is a predictable arc to the process of creating change that is apparent once one knows how to read the signs of resistance. For activists who are interested in generating social change, or in persuading others to consider a new viewpoint or policy proposal, understanding the psychodynamics of creating change can and should be an essential tool. Once one can understand the change process from a dynamic psychological perspective, one can act to harness the inevitable drag of resistance, and minimize its impact on moving the agenda forward.

(2) Principles and practices of behavior change: One of the rudiments of psychological practice is the principles and practices of behaviorism. These are a set of conceptual tools and techniques that are rooted in the power of reward and punishment. They can be applied to virtually any scenario, and used to strategic advantage to influence allies, potential allies, and opponents. Modern behavioral techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral interventions, focus on how we think about a given situation as much as on attaining specific actions or results. When combined with knowledge from social psychological research, such as studies of social influence and persuasion, these principles can be powerful tools for creating social change.

Historically, advertisers and marketers have made a habit of using behavioral principles (and other psychological techniques) to influence consumer behavior. Commercial uses of psychological influence techniques, including behavioral approaches, have typically focused on using these tools to increase monetary gain for businesses – also known as separating the consumer from the contents of his or her wallet. The intent of CPW, in part, is to repurpose the public use of these tools in the service of increasing just, sustainable and human-scale solutions to social problems, rather than to continue their use in the name of manipulating the public primarily for corporate financial gain.

(3) Listening for metaphor, narrative, and emotion: One of the cardinal aspects of psychodynamic clinical practice is listening for the hidden content in what others are saying. In our daily lives, most of us listen to and think about what we are saying in terms of content, i.e., the information that is being relayed. However, there are usually other aspects of communication that are going on simultaneously with the conveyance of content.

At the simplest level, there is typically an emotional aspect of the message that is being expressed along with the facts of the content, which the speaker may or may not be aware of. In addition, there is often a narrative involved; there are heroes and villains, goals and obstacles, etc., an entire storyline, in fact, implicit in the person’s take on events, that the speaker is usually not cognizant of. Further, there can be metaphor and symbolism at work; the speaker may be speaking about the topic at hand as well as other seemingly unrelated topics simultaneously without realizing it, illuminating their beliefs about one topic by discussing another.

Hearing these hidden messages – the emotional content, unconscious plotline, symbols, and metaphors – is another key aspect of clinical work, along with sharing insights about those hidden messages that allow understanding to grow. The job of the clinician is in part to identify the affect, narrative, and metaphors that the person may or may not be cognizant of, and bring them into greater awareness so the individual can better understand what they believe and why.

It bears noting that developing an ear for narrative and metaphorical communication is not unlike listening for the framing of political messages. When my colleagues at CPW discuss George Lakoff’s notions of the “nation as family”, for example, they are identifying unarticulated assumptions and thought patterns grounded in metaphor; how we were raised as children and our early experiences of family drives our interpretation of political events because one is being projected onto the other. When we talk about politics, we are talking metaphorically about family matters. Framing and listening for metaphor are two sides of the same coin.

Notably, listening for emotional content is a somewhat different skill, but just as germane to the political world, since it, too, is often functioning as the ghost in the machine. It is unusual for emotions to be acknowledged in the course of discussing social or political issues, despite the fact that there is typically much emotion indeed that is present in and generated by such discussions. In American culture, we often seem to believe that political and societal decisions should be dispassionate ones. While it may be debatable whether that cultural norm will change any time soon, understanding the role of emotion in political communication, and becoming skilled at detecting and responding to it, are strategic advantages that progressives could certainly prosper from having.

There is much that is metaphorical in the political theatre of the modern age. Unacknowledged narratives and feelings often drive our political and social decisions. These are important elements of public communication that progressives intent on parsing political speech and action, and altering the conversation, would do well to better understand.

(4) Communications expertise: One of the defining skill sets that allows clinicians to influence the choices of clients is knowing how to find just the right words to attain certain effects. Some of this comes from training, but much of it is developed via trial and error, during years of listening to clients. Eventually, one can develop an intimate understanding of the workings of language, and how to use it with directness, subtlety, and intention.

Moreover, an extensive body of research in psychology has examined the variety of factors that impact the effectiveness of communication, such as choice of words, timing, inflection, credibility of the messenger, medium of presentation, characteristics of the listener, etc. Taken together, there is much that psychological practice and research can do to inform the use of language in political contexts.

Successful progressive campaigns – policy or political – depend on the crafting of effective messages. From interpreting focus group and survey data, to choosing which words will best persuade, helping progressives better articulate their values to the public and to policy makers by applying a psychologically informed perspective is one of the primary missions of CPW.

(5) Models of healthy functioning and the values of the progressive movement: One of the more compelling, and usually unarticulated, aspects of progressivism is that the values implicit in progressive thinking are ultimately the same values inherent in healthy psychological functioning.

Progressive values are rooted in a desire to create a more just and humane world. These values, in turn, are derived from what George Lakoff has termed the “nurturant parent” model of the family and nation. In the “nurturant parent” worldview, empathy and responsibility (toward oneself and others) are esteemed as the primary moral guideposts to political choices. This stands in contrast to the conservative “strict father” model of family and nation that esteems authoritarian control and discipline through punishment as the guiding values in family and political life (For more on this, click here).

When we examine these two models of the family from the perspective of psychological development and parenting style, it becomes clear that the “strict father” approach falls short when it comes to creating optimally healthy citizens. Studies of parenting have shown that authoritarianism in families typically cultivates a lack of independence, poor social skills, low self-esteem, and greater levels of depression on the part of offspring. A parental emphasis on controlling others, rather than negotiating boundaries, robs children of the developmental experiences needed to learn how to solve problems on their own and compromise with others – important skills in a democratic society.

The “nurturant parent” model, on the other hand, appears to be supported by psychological research that suggests it is quite effective in creating healthy citizens. Parents that are guided by empathy and a sense of responsibility towards other people support their children in developing important social skills, such as the ability to work together with others to find solutions to problems. Children learn how to communicate with respect from observing the behavior modeled by their parents.

Moreover, the “nurturant” model includes the notion that the parent is authoritative without being authoritarian; the children accordingly can learn appropriate boundary setting. Indeed, studies of authoritative parenting – parenting that combines setting clear standards of behavior with responsiveness to the child’s needs – have shown that children from these families typically develop better social competence and academic attainment than children from other types of parenting.

It is worth noting that the “nurturant parent” model is exactly that – a model, and not an exact representation of all progressive families. Moreover, psychological typologies of parenting include other variables and types of families not noted here for the sake of brevity (click here for more).

Nonetheless, it seems that the progressive model hews more closely than the traditionally conservative approach to what we know works best in parenting well-adjusted and productive children.

Creating citizens with healthy social, emotional, and personality development has myriad benefits to society. The entire field of positive psychology is dedicated to documenting this empirically. With roots in the humanistic notions that relational capacity and life purpose have value both individually and collectively, positive psychology examines individual traits, such as compassion, courage, and integrity, as well as institutional issues, such as justice, responsibility, nurturance, and teamwork, drawing connections between the two.

Clearly, there is a strong association between progressive values and psychological health. It is yet another dimension of the political argument that progressives have yet to wield to their advantage.

(6) Psychopathology and political behavior: One of the best examples I can think of to illustrate how knowledge of psychological disorders can inform understanding of the political landscape is included in Mark Achbar’s documentary “The Corporation”, based on Joel Bakan’s 2005 book.

In the movie, Dr. Robert Hare, a well-regarded forensic psychologist, explains the criteria for diagnosing an individual as a sociopath (i.e., a person with anti-social personality disorder), and then “assesses” the behavior of modern-day limited liability corporations using the same criteria. Point by point, he demonstrates that both individual sociopaths and laissez-faire corporations exhibit the same qualities and behavioral patterns: a focus on short-term self-interest; manipulation of others for one’s own gain; lack of responsibility and remorse for harming others; grandiose self-importance; superficial attachment and disregard for others; and a history of regularly breaching social and legal standards. His conclusion is that corporations in their current form (which, incidentally, have been granted the legal status of personhood) meet the diagnostic criteria for sociopathy.

A brief glance at the headlines, unfortunately, provides extensive opportunities to apply this perspective to other issues. We needn’t look much further than the latest crisis, scandal, or indictment for an example of disordered motivations in action. Illuminating the political process from the perspective of psychopathology can add further strength to a progressive analysis of events.

In sum, there is much in clinical psychology research and practice from which progressives could profit: the psychodynamics of creating change; behaviorist principles and techniques; metaphorical and emotional aspects of communication; strategic use of language; and models of psychologically healthy human development and psychopathology.

Understanding and applying knowledge from these areas to progressive framing and messaging, issue analysis, and campaign design can lead to creating attitude and behavior change in our allies and opponents; forging more effective coalitions; making more persuasive policy arguments; and, ultimately, building the progressive movement into an effective force to be reckoned with in creating social change.

Additional Note: For those of you who are well versed in clinical or psychological endeavors, a small technical addendum: As a clinician, I typically take an eclectic approach. My doctoral clinical training was primarily in psychodynamic psychotherapy, although I have since added elements of family and cognitive-behavioral therapy. My Masters studies focused primarily on experimental social psychology, as well as the behavioral genetics of psychopathology. As an undergrad, I combed through tomes in philosophy, especially the existentialists and phenomenologists. As you read the list above, elements of all of these past experiences are apparent in my rendition of what comprises clinical psychological skill.


Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

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