Introduction: Using Psychology to Understand Politics and Elections.

Public Opinion Quarterly, Volume 82, Issue S1, 11 April 2018, Pages 209–212,

The outcome of the 2016 presidential election stunned political pundits and ordinary Americans alike. How did it happen? Why didn’t we see it coming? When surprises like these occur, human beings operate as “intuitive psychologists” (Ross 1977), spontaneously searching for causal explanations. Causal explanations allow us to understand how past events unfolded, provide us with a sense of control in taming the present, and inform what we do in the future. The roots of causal understanding emerge among infants (e.g., Leslie 1982), and people spontaneously engage in causal thinking, especially in the face of novel, negative, or unexpected events (e.g., Hastie 1984), probably across every domain of life. As Danks (2010) notes, “causal cognition is … ubiquitous” (p. 1).

This search for causal understanding certainly emerges in the domain of politics. Intuitive political psychologists—at both the elite and mass levels—develop folk explanations for political outcomes, especially on the heels of unexpected, or negative, events. These intuitive political psychologists share their theories in heated conversations over the dinner table, in conversations around the water cooler, in anonymous online commentaries, and in journalistic narratives, to name a few places. Academic political psychologists often subject these folk theories to scientific scrutiny. In doing so, they draw from existing psychological theories and evidence to theorize and test the micro-logic that underlies observed political opinions and behaviors. Much contemporary political psychology research focuses on causal explanation—on identifying the causal role of (often presumed-to-be-fixed) individual differences (such as personality), the causal role of particular aspects of the social context (such as elite rhetoric or journalistic narrative), or, more frequently, the interaction of individual differences and context in shaping political opinions or behaviors. This causal focus comports well with the causal identification revolution that has taken over the social sciences.

By peering into the “black box” of opinion and action, political psychologists invite dialogue regarding how well actual citizen judgment and decision-making processes stack up against our normative ideals about citizenship. As a few examples, political psychologists who identify the roles of racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism (and other “-isms” in politics) shine a spotlight on the tension between the temptations of political entrepreneurship and democratic norms of tolerance and egalitarianism. Political psychologists who examine the degree to which vertical (elite) and horizontal (peer-to-peer) networks influence political opinions and behaviors speak to questions of individual agency and elite manipulation. And political psychologists who examine citizens’ strategies for decision-making speak to age-old questions regarding the role of reason and emotion and citizens’ competence for self-governance.

Political psychology also dialogues with the intuitive political psychologists. The psychology of politics and elections feeds back to inform the protagonists in politics: elected officials, political candidates, interest groups, journalists who disseminate the news, and the mass public.

The articles in this special issue collectively reflect one of the major approaches in political psychology by examining how the intersection of individual differences with the information environment shapes political outcomes such as candidate evaluations, electoral choice, information-seeking, and social judgment. By individual differences, psychologists refer to those characteristics of individuals (often presumed to be stable) that orient individuals to respond to situations in particular (though not predetermined) ways. For political psychologists, these individual differences include, but are not limited to, predispositions such as authoritarianism, sexism, and ethnocentrism, political interest, as well as personality traits, cognitive styles, and group identifications.

Valentino, Wayne, and Oceno’s piece exemplifies this approach, as they examine the role that long-lasting predispositions (authoritarianism, sexism, and ethnocentrism) played in vote choice in the 2016 election. The 2016 election possessed all the classic elements to trigger spontaneous causal explanation and thereby rouse the intuitive political psychologist. Valentino, Wayne, and Oceno put the journalistic narratives and folk theories regarding the 2016 election to scientific scrutiny. Through a trio of studies, they assemble triangulating evidence suggesting that sexism and anger may have been more influential in marshalling support for Trump than authoritarianism and fear. This work suggests that the campaign environment triggers some individual differences over others, raising normative concerns regarding the electoral temptations of exploiting emotions in order to override democratic norms of tolerance and egalitarianism.

Prior and Bougher also probe the intersection of individual differences with campaign environments. They ask whether journalists were correct in characterizing the 2016 general election as extraordinarily engaging for the mass public. Across a variety of measures, and in contrast to the dominant journalistic narrative, they find that levels of citizen engagement in the 2016 general election were not exceptional (although attention to the contested primary was a bit out of the ordinary). Here, Prior and Bougher find evidence to suggest more stability than variability in the predisposition of political interest.

Also examining the intersection of context with predispositions, Joshua Boston and four colleagues raise the intriguing possibility that one set of predispositions (the five-factor model of personality as measured through the increasingly popular Ten-Item Personality Inventory) might not be as stable and fixed as many political psychologists assume. The panel data analyses by Boston et al. suggest that while there is a good deal of cross-time stability in these measures of personality, the political environment may still influence an individual’s personality, at least as commonly measured. This suggests that the conclusions of many prior studies that assume stability may merit reconsideration.

Group identifications also inform how individuals respond to the people and political stimuli around them. Mason notes that in contemporary politics, liberals and conservatives seem to be more at odds with each other than ever. Mason inquires whether this divergence reflects group-based identities or issue-based positions. She finds that affective polarization across liberals and conservatives is more about identity (who we see ourselves as) and less about issues (what policies we prefer)—a finding that raises normative concerns about the potential for democratic civility and the quality of democratic decision-making.

Also examining group identifications, Searles, Smith, and Sui probe the role that horse-race coverage in partisan media might play in shaping wishful thinking among mass partisans. Two complementary survey experiments uncover nuances in how partisan news sources shape citizens’ acceptance of information regarding which party is likely to win an election. Citizens do not blindly follow partisan news, nor are they blindly led by wishful thinking that their own party will win. Instead, Searles, Smith, and Sui find that citizens navigate horse-race coverage by heeding trusted sources—even when those sources provide inauspicious news about how their party will fare.

Finally, Lau, Kleinberg, and Ditonto focus our attention on individual differences in how citizens navigate an increasingly complex news environment. While some accounts treat citizens as passive recipients of news and political information, the authors develop a scale to measure the strategies citizens use to tame the information tide. They trace the implications of those strategies, suggesting that the information-seeking strategies people use may amplify and intensify affective polarization across partisans.

The six essays in this issue cover a wide swath of work investigating the psychology of politics and elections. With their utilization of panel data, cross-sectional survey data, experiments on various platforms, and opportunistic use of secondary data along with original data collections, these articles reflect the methodological pluralism of the field. It is worth noting that there are fascinating and important streams of work that do not happen to be represented within this issue. These include work on the biological, neurological, and physiological antecedents of public opinion; group-level psychology; socialization and development; cross-cultural psychology; and evolutionary approaches. Finally, although the essays in this issue happen to be limited to applications in the United States, the psychology of politics and elections clearly transcends social, economic, and political boundaries. Political psychology is an internationally flourishing field of study brimming with exciting discoveries for scholars, pundits, practitioners, and the intuitive political psychologist.

Cindy D. Kam holds the William R. Kenan, Jr. Chair in Political Science at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, USA.


Danks, David. 2010. “The Psychology of Causal Perception and Reasoning.” In The Oxford Handbook of Causation , edited by HelenBeebee, ChristopherHitchcock, and PeterMenzies. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199279739.003.0022.

Hastie, Reid. 1984. “Causes and Effects of Causal Attribution.”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 46:44–56.

Leslie, Alan M. 1982. “The Perception of Causality in Infants.”Perception 11:173–86.

Ross, Lee. 1977. “The Intuitive Psychologist and His Shortcomings: Distortions in the Attribution Process.”Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 10:173–220.


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