Lisa J. Cohen Ph.D.

Handy Psychology Answers

The Psychology of Politics

How does psychology make sense of the madness of politics?

Posted Jan 15, 2011

The start of the new year brings a large change in the nation's political make up. Control of congress changes hands from the Democratic party to the Republicans and nobody can predict how events will play out. Given the intense passions that political issues elicit and the striking contrasts between different people's deeply held political values and beliefs, it seems only natural for psychologists to turn their attention to political behavior. What does research tell us about the psychology of politics? It turns out there has been a fair amount of work in this fascinating arena, examining the personality traits of politicians, the psychology of voting, and even the different views of morality held by political liberals and conservatives.

Politicians may have certain personality traits

Politicians may have certain personality traits

Do politicians have particular personality traits?

Politicians may have certain personality traits

Politicians may have certain personality traits

Although there has not been much empirical research into the personality traits of politicians, there has certainly been a lot of commentary on this topic from psychoanalysts and other clinicians. The extensive media coverage of politicians' lives provides ample opportunity for clinicians to make inferences about politicians' psychological traits. Notably, the conclusions that different clinicians draw are quite similar. One of the most common traits that clinicians talk about is that of narcissism. In effect, narcissism refers to a very fragile and unstable sense of self. In order to compensate for their fragile self esteem, narcissistic people become preoccupied with their self image and intensely sensitive to perceived shame or humiliation. Typical narcissists have a grandiose sense of self, with an inflated sense of self importance and an elevated need for attention, status and recognition.

What is the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI)?

The Narcissistic Personality Inventory is a self-report questionnaire that assesses a person's narcissistic personality traits. Published by Raskin and Hall in 1979, the NPI has become a widely used test of narcissistic traits. In 1984, Robert Emmons divided the total NPI score into four distinct dimensions, Leadership/Authority, Superiority/Arrogance, Self-Absorption/Self-Admiration, and Exploitativeness/Entitlement.

Do politicians score higher on the NPI than people in other professions?

In one of the few studies to empirically investigate narcissistic traits in politicians, Robert Hill and Gregory Yousey administered the NPI to 123 university faculty, 42 politicians (state legislators from 4 states), 99 clergy (both protestant ministers and Catholic priests), and 195 librarians. Their 1998 study found a statistically significant difference in total scores, with politicians scoring higher than the other three professional groups. In terms of the four subscales, politicians scored the highest on the Leadership/Authority subscale, and clergy scored the lowest on the Exploitativeness/Entitlement subscale. In other words, politicians did score higher than the other three groups in total narcissism, but the differences seemed mainly due to their high scores on the Leadership/Authority scores. Interestingly, although the differences did not reach statistical significance, politicians also had the highest scores on Superiority/Arrogance and Exploitativeness/Entitlement subscales and professors had the highest scores on Self-Absorption/Self-Admiration. Without statistical significance, however, these last differences could be due to chance.

Why do people vote?

Because voter turnout is essential to a democracy, psychologists have joined with political scientists to study the factors that motivate people to vote. If you look at it from a classic rationalist view of costs and benefits, you can argue that it doesn't make much sense to vote. Voting takes time, energy and even money, if you have to miss a day of work to get to the polling place. Yet any single person's vote is unlikely to change the outcome of an election. Nonetheless people do vote and their participation in electoral politics remains critical for the survival of the democratic system. Psychologists and their colleagues in other fields have considered the possible motivations for voting. Among other factors, they have suggested the role of habit, social pressure, altruism, and even genetics.

Does genetics play a role?

James Fowler and Laura Baker have conducted a series of studies on voting behavior in families. They found that the party affiliation of adopted children tended to be similar to that of their adopted parents and siblings, suggesting that party affiliation was culturally transmitted. When the authors compared the voting behavior of a large sample of identical and fraternal twins, they found that identical twins were more similar than fraternal twins in regard to whether or not they voted, but no more similar in their choice of candidate. In sum, this work suggests that voter turnout is related to genetics while party affiliation is related to environment.

What are the five categories of moral instincts?

Cross cultural research has shown consistent themes to people's moral judgments, even across very different cultures. Jonathan Haidt suggested five general categories of moral concerns. These are Harm/care, Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, Purity/sanctity, and Fairness/reciprocity. Across cultures people express disapproval and distress at the thought of harm coming to an innocent person. Betrayal of one's community is likewise judged negatively. A respect for authority and the value of fair treatment for members of the community also appear to be cultural universals. The Purity/sanctity category relates to the emotion of disgust and involves moral judgments about dietary laws, sexual practices, urination, defecation, and other similar issues.

Do political liberals and conservative differ in the way they understand morality?

Interestingly, attitudes toward the 5 categories of moral concerns may also influence political beliefs. In other words, political conservatives and liberals may emphasize different categories of moral instincts from one another. In a large website-based study, Jonathan Haidt and colleagues found that political liberals valued Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity more than conservatives did and conservatives valued Authority/respect, Ingroup/loyalty, and Purity/sanctity more than liberals did. These differences held even after accounting for the effects of age, gender, education and income. This study helps us understand why people with equally strong moral convictions may vehemently disagree on political issues such as abortion, capital punishment and flag burning.

  • If you want to read more about the psychology of politics, group dynamics, or morality (plus many, many more topics), check out The Handy Psychology Answer Book, available at and Visible Ink Press.


Fowler, J.H., Baker, L.A., and Dawes, C.T. (2008). "Genetic Variation in Political Participation," American Political Science Review, 102,232-48.

Haidt, J. and Graham, J. (2007). When morality opposes justice: Conservatives have moral intuitions that libefrals may not recognize, Social Justice Research, 20, 98-116.

Hill, R.W., and Youssey, G.P. (1998). "Adaptive and Maladaptive Narcissism among University Faculty, Clergy, Politicians and Librarians." Current Psychology: Developmental, Learning, Personality, Social, 17:163-169.