Week One at the Summer Institute for Political Psychology

So the second week of my three weeks at the Summer Institute for Political Psychology (SIPP) has gone by. The last two weeks have been absolutely astounding, getting to hear from so many experts in the field, and getting to learn about their research and having the ability to talk to them about their work is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Although I still have another week of lectures, I would like summarize the lecturers I heard on the first week, and later this week I will summarize the second week’s lectures.

On Monday, July 12, we heard from Jon Krosnick of Stanford University, who was not only our first lecturer, but also the man who originally came up with the idea of SIPP, and is still running it 19 years later. His first lecture concerned what political psychology really is. In this lecture he set up a dichotomy between “political psychology” and “psychological political science.” Political psychology, true to its name, is a subfield of psychology, where psychologist use politics as a context for furthering our understanding of psychological theory. Psychological political science, on the other hand, is a subfield of poli sci, where we use established psychological theory to further our understanding of politics. Jon argued that this dichotomy exist because political psychology hasn’t coalesced into its own independent field yet, and that there is nothing wrong with that. He says that as scholars who wish to research politics and psychology, we should make a conscious choice as to which of these two we want our research to be (for me, it’s definitely “political psychology”). He also touched on some research methods that both fields employ, and how we may, in the future, amalgamate these two subfields. Jon’s second lecture (each lecturer give two, 2.5 hour long, lectures each day, often on different topics) concerned his main area of research, the psychology of attitudes. He discussed how attitudes are gained, manifest in our behavior, how we strengthen our atitudes, how our attitudes motivate us, and how we express our attitudes in our political behavior. He also challenged the idea, often held in poli sci, that only about 15% of the population pays close attention to politics and stays informed about current events. He instead proposed that most people in the population instead focus on one issue in which they devote most of their cognitive energy to. He talked about the idea of “issue publics,” or small groups of citizens that care strongly about a particular issue, as a model of political attitude in the public.

On Tuesday, July 13, we heard from Mike Milburn of UMass Boston. For Mike’s first lecture, he discussed political ideology, and how it relates to authoritarianism and Affect Displacement Theory. He first talked about authoritarianism as a personality trait, and how it correlates to political conservatism and support for punitive measures in politics and law. He then presented us with the idea of a “poisonous pedagogy,” which is a punitive way of raising children, including humiliating them, spanking them, punishing them for crying, and other forms of physical and emotional abuse levied against children. He then presented research that suggests that these punitive childrearing practices correlate to political authoritarianism in later life. The theoretical basis for the research is Affect Displacement Theory, which as the name implies, hypothesizes that when people have frustration and aggression that they cannot direct towards the source of these emotions, they displace it elsewhere. So children who were physically and emotionally punished by their parents displace the fear from those experiences into not only their political ideology, but also their personality. At first I though this theory was a little farfetched, but he had a significant amount of data to back it up. His second lecture pertained to television, news and emotions. He discussed the evolution of political advertising, and how it has employed different psychological tactics over the years, and the public perception of these advertisements. He also talked about the media, and how they often commit the “actor/observer bias of attribution.” This refers to what the media attributes individual’s/government’s behavior to. For instance, when someone, say a terrorist, hijacks a plans, the media often attributes that act to the individual motivations of the terrorist, instead of the circumstances that led the terrorist to make that decision. So you will often hear the news speak about how a terrorist is “evil,” “psychotic,” “unapologetic,” “murderous,” and so forth, yet there is often little to no discussion of what led the terrorist to that decision. So maybe the terrorist grew up in Gaza, where his brother and other family members were killed by the Israelis, and he lived his entire life in poverty and hunger? On the other hand, when a country or government, or agent of the government does something violent, say like attack a foreign nation, it is always explain in terms of the situation that led up to the events. He also discussed priming effects in how the media reports, and the triggering of political schemes. He also discussed how when the dramatic nature of the news goes up, its cognitive complexity goes down.

On Wednesday, July 14, we heard from Eugene Borgida of the University of Minnesota. In both of his lectures, he discussed implicit processes, and their implications for everyday life, politics, and law. He discussed how implicit processes, thoughts, and feelings can affect almost everything we do. For example, he showed research that looked at women and their performance on math and science test. He found that women who embrace the stereotype that men are better than women at STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) are less interested in STEM disciplines. More profound however, he presented research that showed that in a test-taking scenario, if you subtlety prime girls with the idea that men are better then women at STEM, the women will do worse on the tests then men. And that if you reappraise girls of this idea, then they will do just a good as the men.  He also talked about implicit versus explicit racism, and how they can be measured. He also discussed how the place in which we vote (a church, community center, school…) can trigger certain implicit processes that can have a measurable effect on how people vote. He also discussed the primacy and recency effect on ballot voting. He also discussed voter turnout, and how the perception of expected voter turnout can implicitly affect someone’s likelihood of voting. He also discussed at length the problems with trying to incorporate an understanding of these implicit processes into law.

On Thursday, July 15, we heard from Elizabeth Levy Paluck of Princeton University. In both of her lectures, Elizabeth discussed her work in post-conflict reconstruction. She has performed extensive field experiments in Rwanda, DR Congo, and Southern Sudan. Her work focuses on how the media, particularly “entertainment-education” media programs, can help reconciliation efforts and help shift the political culture. She performed field experiments using radio programs that not only had a compelling narrative and story, but also a messages about politics, economics, health, and social life. She was able to show that in general, these popular radio programs were able to shirt norms about intergroup relations, norms about open expression, perceptions of civic responsibility, norms about cooperation, and reduce prejudice. Her works is even more impressive when you consider that the majority of it was done while she was still in graduate school, including her many trips to central Africa.

On Friday, July 16, we heard from Martha Crenshaw, who is a leading expert on terrorism. In her first lecture, she discussed the psychology of terrorism. First she discussed what the definition of terrorism is, the historical roots of terrorism, and an overview of how terrorism has been studied by academia and states. She then went on to discuss some of the major findings in the field of terrorism research. She discuss how despite efforts to find one, there is no “terrorist personality,” or “terrorist pathology.” She discussed how terrorist organization recruit, and how when someone joins a terrorist group, they often do it with a group of friends. She also discussed the psychological dynamics that occur within terrorist groups, including “mechanisms of moral disengagement” and groupthink. She also discussed how the field of terrorism studies if very uninhabited, has little leadership within it, lacks cumulativeness, and how difficult it is to empirically study terrorism. In her second lecture, she discussed suicide terrorism. First she dismissed the myth that suicide terrorism is fundamentally a “new” type of terrorism, fueled by religious extremism. Then she went on to discuss the psychological and social variables that lead someone to perform an act of suicide terrorism. And she made sure to point out that suicide terrorism represents a very small minority of terrorist attacks throughout the world.

All of these presenters were excellent, and I am still looking over my notes from those days and trying to assimilate all the information I obtained! If anyone has any question about the material that was presented, or would like me to elaborate on any of the things I mentioned above, feel free to ask 🙂

And I apologize for the “He/she also discussed…….He/she also discussed” structure of my post, it’s difficult to condense five hours of lecture into a paragraph!


One thought on “Week One at the Summer Institute for Political Psychology

  1. Sounds like your having fun! I think it’s great that you find this stuff engaging! I expect to learn a lot from your experiences!


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