Understanding politicians and voters

Ella Rhodes reports from the Political Psychology Section Symposium 'Revealing and concealing in and beyond the pandemic', at BPS Conference 2021.

Covid, Brexit, the rise of populist authoritarian regimes, low trust in governments and changing ideas about political leadership have all brought the psychology of politicians and voters to the forefront of our collective minds. The BPS Political Psychology Section symposium at the 2021 conference explored some of these issues. 

Dr Madeleine Wyatt (University of Kent, soon moving to King’s College London) explained that political psychology can better our understanding of leadership in politics and shape this leadership in the post-Covid era. She said psychology can help us understand who stands for election, voter behaviours, what political leaders do while in office, and even how to develop political leaders once they are in office. 

Wyatt said politicians tended to score higher on personality traits such as openness, extraversion and a need for power. ‘US presidents and UK Prime Ministers who have a higher need for power, are more likely to be rated as great by observers.’ 

Since the pandemic started, we view political leadership very differently, Wyatt said – research suggests that voters prefer leaders who are strong and decisive in times of crisis. ‘It could be that good political leadership is about compassion. There's been plenty of coverage suggesting that female leaders have coped very well in the pandemic… And there's some stats suggesting that states led by female leaders have had lower fatality rates.’

Wyatt said there was potential to develop politicians in office through mentoring, culture change and wellbeing initiatives, many of which are being explored by the Political Psychology Section. She said all areas of psychology could contribute to the future of political leadership post-pandemic. 

‘I’m an Occupational Psychologist, I look at the recruitment and selection of politicians, leadership and career development of politicians. We might look to clinical and counselling psychology for things like personal and professional development, mentoring and coaching, health psychology for the wellbeing of politicians, forensic psychology for the deviance and transgressive political leadership we’ve seen more recently, and even sports and exercise psychology looking at pursuing political goals and competing in competitions such as elections.’

Trust in western governments, and voting rates, have declined over time. Professor Gavin Sullivan (International Psychoanalytic University and Coventry University) has been working alongside Dr Tereza Capelos (University of Birmingham) and Dr Mikko Salmela (University of Copenhagen and University of Helsinki) to explore trust in the UK government in handling the pandemic.

Sullivan and his colleagues looked at support for populist ideas or political reactionary stances – or anti-political views and a strong desire for backwards, rather than progressive, change, which Capelos has shown is underestimated and under-examined in exploring support for populism. They used a new scale of reactionism and its relation to three variables – whether people endorsed the statement that the government had handled the pandemic well, whether they felt an inquiry should be carried out into the UK’s Covid death toll, and when advice on Covid varied, whether they trusted the recommendations of scientists the most. They asked these questions in a two-wave representative survey of 486 people eligible to vote in the UK. Participants were also asked about their resentment, left-right orientation, whether a Brexit identity was still salient and collective emotions.

Sullivan outlined some of the characteristics associated with endorsing the statement that the UK government had handled the pandemic well. ‘A [Brexit] leave identity, feeling heard by politicians, having a right political orientation, having higher income and a reactionist stance – wanting to change things backwards and not be progressive, and having a sense of confidence, betrayal and the need for pride, predicted positive support for the government’s handling of the pandemic.’

Those people who felt there should be an inquiry into the UK’s Covid death toll tended to have a 'remain' Brexit identity and have concern about the global financial situation. Populism was also related to this feeling, which surprised Sullivan and his colleagues, but he said that an anti-government populism could explain this. Wanting an inquiry was also associated with a sense that dignity had been forgotten, resentment, a feeling that people could be trusted in general, a belief that things would improve, and being male. 

When advice on Covid varied, Sullivan said the people who were more likely to trust the recommendations of scientists had generally positive views of science, including a belief that climate change required decisive action. They had lower levels of reactionism and populism, a sense that things would improve, and have higher concern about the financial situation nationally but lower concern about the financial situation in their communities. 

Dr Sharon Coen (University of Salford) called for collaborators on a study into protest and the media landscape which she is running with colleagues Dr Cristina Zogmaister and Dr Michela Vezzoli (both University of Milan Bicocca). Coen explained that according to previous research, in countries where the media feature the voices of people who are not part of the establishment, the public are more willing and able to engage in politics and protest. The opposite is true when news coverage focuses on established politicians.  

If you are interested in collaborating on this project please email Coen on [email protected].

- Catch up with BPS Conference 2021. Get access to talks from some of the greatest thinkers in psychology including 5 keynote presentations, 3 student stream talks and 3 symposia. Register for £50 – watch anytime in July.

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