The Psychology of the Presidential Election


The presidential debates of last week sparked a lot of dialogue.  Romney won.  Obama lost.  Obama looked tired and was passive.  Romney was presidential and assertive.  Romney viewers felt they won and basked in the supposed victory and Obama viewers digested the bitter taste of alleged defeat.  Apparently: One team won.  One team lost.  The analysis to follow is not about politics or the meat of the campaign.  It’s not about the economy or the job rate or Obamacare.  Rather, it’s about the psychology of how people get entrenched in staunchly affiliating themselves with one side.  How does that happen? What does it mean?  How does it shape the person and this country?

 Big questions with no clear cut answers but definitely worth exploring.  On one hand, there is the rational assessment.  People have vastly diversified views of these critical issues and support the candidate that best represents those views.  Fairly simple.  And frankly, also true.  Don’t really need a psychologist to sort that out.  But in some cases, there is more.  Some additional psychological factors at play that can potentially account for people’s deep emotional attachment to their candidate and their political affiliation.   Individual’s need for belongingness has been well documented over time.  One needs to look no further than the animal kingdom to collect such evidence.  But on the human side, people like to feel they are a part of something.  It not only fulfills a sense of affiliation but also creates a sense of power.  Clubs, fraternities, sororities, are just the tip of the iceberg.  People gather together in droves for or against causes and to root for sports teams.  And while the import of the issues being debated or the team being lauded is valid, there is an additional unconscious component occurring.  People want to belong.  And if their team, issue, candidate, club “wins”, it fosters a sense of personal success, esteem and empowerment.  Those sets of feelings are compelling, seductive, and addictive.  So people fight hard to facilitate and keep them.  People fight hard for such victory.  Some people even fight dirty…bending rules, skewing truths, slinging mud, cheating, disenfranchising, misleading, misrepresenting…just to secure the “w”.   This dynamic might help explain the consistently growing phenomenon of dirty politics.  Of individuals, organizations, and candidates, at times, feeling quite comfortable, nee justified, insulting or deluding other people to ensure their side prevails. 

Facebook, social media, talk shows and television commercials are deluged with negative talk about candidates and the people that support them.   In such discourse, many go beyond canvassing the issues and instead attempt to debate the characters and intellect of those who have opposing beliefs.  In these moments, it is akin to childhood playground dynamics.  Children engage in this kind of behavior to feel included, to find their place, to deal with awkward social differences.  The hypothesis here is that sometimes this occurs in the political arena.  It is critical to teach ourselves, as we do our children, to be kind to those that are different than us, those that don’t know as much as us, those that we don’t agree with or even like very much.  We tell our kids to be gracious, state your point, and move one.  It would be ideal if we saw more of that as we move into the peak of the campaign season and the critical mass enters the discussion.

If we don’t, our country gets colored with a brush that none of us should feel good about.  That we as a country are divided and separate in a way that makes us vulnerable, weakened and unfocused.  The precious right of free speech should be fiercely protected-- that is non-negotiable.   But we would all benefit from checking in with how we deliver our own personal message around our political beliefs.  And why.

To connect with Dr. Goldsher on this or other issues, please contact her here.