Politics, Psychology, And Your Decision

Unconscious psychological aspects will influence your political decision.

Posted Oct 29, 2012

Art by Alexi Berry

Politics is an excellent example of defense mechanisms at work. As the presidential election draws closer, the candidates, and their advocates, make their push to discredit their opponent, and make their case as the better choice. For many, their minds were made up before any of the advertisements, commercials, or the debates. They vote in line with their party. Some are uncommitted and will make their choice by what they believe is in line with their values. Both of these mindsets have drawbacks due to psychological properties.

For those who are waiting until they hear more about the candidates’ stance, or are watching the debates to determine who will make a better president, there are factors effecting your decision that you might not be aware of. In Neil Postman’s excellent book on how television affects our society, “Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Television” a chapter on politics includes how our perception is often altered by appearance, rather than facts. He uses the study in which people watched a debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon when they were running for president. He notes how those who watched the debate attributed Kennedy the win, while those who read the debate attributed the win to Nixon. Nixon, however, refused makeup, appeared sweaty and pale and seemed to have a five o’clock shadow. Kennedy, on the other hand, was rested and tanned. This debate has been cited as the point in which the American public began to choose appearance over substance.

In his blog post “How Do People Choose Their Political Leaders, Gad Saad, Ph.D discusses how looking like a president, voice characteristics, and other presention intangibles are indicators of who gets elected. To use Dr. Saad’s words, “To summarize the key gist of my argument, I proposed that people are driven by peripheral cues that are largely irrelevant to actual matters of policy.” These two arguments indicate that things one might not be aware of are affecting the voting decision.

For those that have their minds made up, perhaps that is the essence of the problem. There are many dynamics that lead to one’s mind being made up, and staying that way. Defense mechanisms are often at work when someone feels vehemently about an issue. As this election season heats up, many people feel vehemently about their party.

Defense mechanisms protect us from the anxiety that lies within us. According to Object Relations theory, a common defense mechanism is splitting. In splitting, which in cognitive-behavioral therapy has similarities with all or nothing thinking, something is perceived as all good or all bad. Ads have painted republicans as completely against women’s rights, for the wealthy and antagonistic to those in need; democrats are portrayed as spend crazy, ruining the economy, promoting socialism, and bowing to foreign power. Throughout this election (and possibly all elections) the defense mechanism of splitting seems obvious in scenarios where one party is good, the other evil.

Once someone has their mind made up, the phenomena of in-group /out-group bias takes hold. Once in a group (or perhaps a “camp” is more appropriate here), those in the group find reasons their group is better. This often leads to an elevation in their group’s status psychologically, and to lowering the other group’s status. This reinforces the person’s belief in their group, and can contribute to the splitting mentioned above.

A complicated defense mechanism called projection may also be at work in affirming one’s beliefs in a political party. With projection a person takes thoughts or feelings that exist within him or her self and projects them onto another. Often the individual’s thoughts and feelings are denied or uncomfortable for the individual, are unconsciously held, and the person may not even be aware of them.

These thoughts are so unsavory that they are projected outside of the individual and onto another. Carl G. Jung, when discussing encountering an individual you find repellent, stated: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” Jung appeared to be hinting at what might be occurring with projection. Things that we are most repelled by are often what we most dislike in ourselves.

Someone is going to win the upcoming election. Whatever happens, we will go on, and, generally, we will be okay. We will survive. It is unlikely things will be as horrible as anyone is thinking they will be if the opponent is elected. This country has a system of checks and balances that prevent any one party from overtaking the government. Before you vehemently defend your position and feel that your party is the only one that can possibly make things better in this country, remember that on the other side there is a nearly equal amount of people believing the same. They aren’t stupid, naïve, or any of the other negative things one might be thinking about that “out-group”. And remember, possibly most importantly, that you may not even be aware of all the aspects leading to the decision you have made.


Postman, Neil; 1985; Amusing ourselves to death: public discourse in the age of television.

Saad, Gad; 2012; How do people choose their political leaders; Psychology Today; http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/homo-consumericus/201209/how-do-peop...

Copyright William Berry, 2012

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