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« Ozodi Osuji Weekly Series on Psychology 2006, #33 of 52: Psychological Assessment | Main | Ozodi Osuji Weekly Series on Psychology 2006, #35 of 52: Leadership Psychology »

April 04, 2006

Ozodi Osuji Weekly Series on Psychology 2006, #34 of 52: Political Psychology

by Ozodi Thomas Osuji, Ph.D. (Seatle, Washington) --- Harold Lasswell and others tried very hard to establish a field to be known as Political Psychology but failed. What is left of their efforts is found at many universities, where, occasionally, a brave professor, either in the department of psychology or political science, offers a course entitled political psychology. He might find a few interested students or he might not.

Every now and then some one writes a book under the rubric of political psychology.

What is political psychology? Since there is no legitimate academic discipline called political psychology, it would, therefore, seem that the political psychology is whatever the writer says that it is? I once did a literature search on the subject and found that each writer provided his own idiosyncratic definition of the subject.

I tend to accept Harold Lasswel’s approach to political psychology. Lasswell was influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis and tended to approach political psychology from the individual’s standpoint. He studied the psychology of individual politicians and appreciated how their presumed psychopathologies affected their political behaviors. Thus, from his perspective, political psychology is the study of the individual psychopathologies of political actors and how those psychopathologies affected their political behaviors.

However, it is possible to approach political psychology from a sociological perspective and show how pathological individuals are products of their pathological societies; that is, show that the political system itself is the sick entity and that it produces sick politicians.

Nevertheless, I tend to concentrate on individual psychopathology and will, therefore, not focus on the general political system’s pathology, although that too is germane in political discourse.

Human beings live in political communities. It is frivolous wishing that they did not live in political communities; the fact is that they do. Anarchy may fascinate youth but adult reality is that wherever human beings are found they have political systems. Human beings operate and live in political systems.

Individual human beings bring their personal psychopathologies into the political systems that they are operating under.

The political system has its own independent qualities that affect the individual. Thus, all things being equal, what exists is a dynamic relationship whereby the political system affects the individual and the individual affects the political system.

Consider Nigeria. Corruption is endemic in Nigeria. Nothing ever gets done in Nigeria without some one bribing some one. Do you want to obtain a job with a Nigerian government bureau? You had better bribe some one if you seriously hope to obtain a job. Do you want to secure a contract from the government to perform certain services for it? Are you serious? Then figure out what officials are in charge of making such awards and bribe them. Do you want to get into a good school? Bribe the school officials. Do you want a passport from the ministry of foreign affairs? Don’t kid around just bribe the officials in charge of issuing passports. Indeed, to obtain the form to apply for your passport or for any services delivered by the government one must bribe some one.

It is obvious that in the Nigerian context, any individual who seriously wants to get anything accomplished in Nigeria and wants to get his foot into the door must participate in corruption. The alternative is to stay outside the government circles and criticize the government.

Governments are operated and changed from within, not from academic seminars. To be part of the ruling class in Nigeria one simply must bribe some one and that is all there is to it. To be part of the ruling group in Nigeria one must be socialized into its corrupt culture. In the process the system has co-opted one and transformed one into its type of person, corrupt official.

Simply stated, it would seem that the political system, if sick sickens people. The system affects the individual.

Despite the truism that a pathological political system produces pathological political actors, I prefer to look at the individual rather than the pathology of the polity itself. I do not deny the sickness of the political system but I choose to delimit my focus on the individual, for the polity is a collection of individuals.

Individuals bring their personal psychopathologies to their positions in government and those interact with their positions to affect what they do while in office.

Democratic political systems, such as the USA and Britain, tend to screen out persons with serious psychopathologies. Many of the checks and balances of a democratic society make sure that those who make it to the top of the political system pretty much tend to be normal persons. Moreover, these days’ folks seldom rise to the top of organizations without having taken some psychological tests that might call attention to serious psychopathologies in them.

I simply cannot see a schizophrenic or manic making it to the top of the political system in the USA or Britain. What is possible is for folks with personality disorders to make it to the top of the political system. Joseph McCarthy of the “Red scare” is an example of a man who escaped the radar of the system and made it to Congress with a serious mental disorder. Richard Nixon made it to the presidency with mild paranoid personality traits.

Persons with serious personality issues are likely to make it to the top of the government in underdeveloped political systems. All over Africa many of the political leaders are, in fact, disordered personalities. Many of these see public office as avenue from which they gratify their desire for personal importance, pride and vanity. They seem motivated by narcissistic goals rather than by burning desire to do something for their people and country. Being seen as the most important person in the country seems to be all that they care for. Having gratified their grandiosity they proceed to eliminate whoever seems to threaten their positions.

Many African leaders are narcissistic cum paranoid personalities. These folks seek admiration and attention from the people, exploit people to get to high positions and destroy those they believe threaten their position of social importance.

Of course, not all African leaders have serious psychopathologies. Some are normal persons.

For our present purposes, however, the salient point is that many politicians are motivated for public office by desire to gratify their personality disordered issues. These folk’s personal psychopathologies play themselves out in the political arena.

Consider Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Both were paranoid personalities who imagined that there were enemies under their beds and killed whomever they imagined was out to get them. In addition to their persecutory complex was their grandiosity, their desire to be the most important and powerful persons in their world. Both could not brook opposition to their psychotic will. Oppose Hitler or Stalin and you wound up at concentration camps and if you did not recant, and do so quickly, you were dead.

Those two men initiated a reign of terror that humanity had not seen before and has not seen after. As Laswell saw it, those two men were enacting their personal psychopathology on the national and international arena.

On the other hand, their national polities, Germany and Russia, were also pathological and contributed to the general social pathology of their era.

The end of the First World War produced lots of dysfunctional behaviors in both the Soviet Union and Germany. Prior to the war to end all wars, both countries had Monarchs who ruled in absolute manner. The people were, more or less, like children and obeyed what their father king told them to do. The First World War ended with the removal of those two powerful monarchs, the Kaiser and the Tsar.

The removal of these two powerful rulers meant that their people were like orphans whose parents had died and they had no one to tell them what to do. The people felt confused, abandoned and did not yet have democratic stills to guide them out of their quandary. Both Germans and Russians were used to taking marching orders from their father like rulers and were not used to being free citizens who ruled themselves.

In addition was the general economic collapse in those two countries. The post WW1 inflation and poverty in Germany certainly played a role in the confusion of the people and in disposing them to seek another absolute ruler to make life less ambiguous for them.

Clearly, a combination of individual and social pathologies worked to produce the political anomalies that characterized the rule of Hitler and Stalin. To explain these rulers, it is necessary to look at their individual personalities, as well as the society they were operating in. It is doubtful that these two monstrous demagogues could have come to power in England.

English democratic politics probably would have caught and removed these undemocratic personalities. Imagine Hitler and or Stalin in the British House of Commons, debating with his peers, trying to convince them that their policy options are what the people needed. Clearly, other MPs would have redirected Hitler when he went on his rambling speeches that manage to say nothing except present a litany of those who are to be blamed for Germany’s problems.

Blaming other people for what is wrong with one and ones group in itself is a sign of mental disorder, for it is as ploy to retain a sense of perfection while being imperfect. Adult human beings know that they are not perfect and do not need to blame other people for their problems; they accept their shortcomings and do their best knowing that their best is never going to be enough. Blaming other people for ones problems is childish behavior engaged in by those with personality disorders (sociopaths and paranoids do that a lot).

Political psychology, as I see it, is that field which studies individual politician’s personal psychologies to ascertain their correlation with their political behavior. It postulates that individuals with serious psychopathologies are likely to produce serious social problems and are therefore best kept out of the political offices.

If I had my choice in the matter, all aspirants to political offices would be screened for personal psychopathologies. I would require that five different psychologists test all persons seeking public offices and ascertain their personality styles. Once ascertained each person would be give a list of books to read that pertains to his identified psychological issues.

Having a psychopathology does not necessarily exclude the individual from office but if attention were called to it, the individual would work to eliminate its negative sides. Let us say that a person tests out as narcissistic and or histrionic. He would be told that such persons seek public attention and admiration, perhaps to make them seem important, and feel unimportant if they were not receiving social attention. Such persons, perhaps, seek social attention for recognition from other persons seems to make them exist and without it, they would experience existential anxiety, aloneness and other issues.

The individual seeking public office ought to know who he is and why he is seeking office. He ought to be clear in his mind what he seeks office for, what he wants to do for society, while still gratifying his residual attention seeking needs.

All personality disorders are weaknesses that also have strength to them, and if the individual understands his weaknesses, minimizes them and accentuates his strengths he is likely to become a blessing for his society.

Psychological testing is not designed to eliminate people from political offices but to enable them become healthy office holders.

Regarding the fear of giving enormous power to those who do the testing, psychologists, this problem can be minimized by building in certain checks and balances into the system. The problem is real enough for psychologists are human beings and, as such, are prone to corruption. If test results are provided as advisory rather than as official records, that would solve the problem.

In addition to studying personalities, clearly, political psychology can study other aspects of the polity. It, for example, it can study human political behavior itself. How do people behave in groups, in politics? What motivates politicians? How do people make political choices? Why do people choose to belong to a particular party, political ideology?

Clearly, social psychology’s findings would supplement and complement the findings of political psychology.

The possibilities of political psychology are unlimited. The amazing thing is that society has not yet explored those possibilities. Given that human beings’ are political animals and just about everything that they do has to do with politics we ought to have made a serious undertaking to understand their political psychology. What we currently have are scant observations by any one who is interested in the subject, but not a systematic study of the field.

In the field of management there is a subfield called organizational behavior or organizational psychology; it systematically studies how human beings behave in work groups. If we can devote that much time and energy trying to understand how people behave in work organizations, we ought to do the same on how human beings behave in political organizations.

We ought to have a subfield called political psychology in every political science department and or psychology department. (The field is clearly an interdisciplinary one, combining psychology and political science.)

Political science seldom makes itself useful to political leaders by actually studying what politicians do. Instead, it dwells on esoteric issues and writes articles and books that no practical politician reads. There is no reason why departments of political science cannot be like business schools, actually studying how to govern and producing those who know how to govern. A master’s degree in public administration ought to be like a master is business administration with studies in finance ( public and private), accounting, management, labor relationships, human resources, productions, strategic management etc, subjects what would actually enable politicians manage their polity. Instead, contemporary political science is like medieval scholastic waste of time; it contemplates how many angels could sit on a pin’s head, not how to run a government bureau.

Political psychology is a field whose time has come. It could enable us to understand our politicians: why they do what they do, why they make the public choices they make. It could enable us select only healthy men and women for political offices. It could enable us make sure that only those persons who are committed to serving social and public interests are recruited for public offices.

It is really unacceptable that unscrupulous characters manage to get themselves elected into political offices and proceed make a mess of our human polity. This situation could be corrected and or averted when we have pool of professionals who specialize in political psychology.

Posted by Administrator at April 4, 2006 12:56 AM


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