A black and white etching shows a crowd of people storming a prison during the French Revolution. Smoke rises and chaos reigns.
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The Political Pitfalls of Human Psychology 

“We’re in a time of very grave danger for democracy,” says psychologist Fathali Moghaddam.

Moghaddam, a professor in the Department of Psychology, is unnerved by the increasingly authoritarian tendencies he sees in liberal democracies and seeks to understand their roots in the human psyche. In his new book, The Psychology of Revolution, Moghaddam explores the intersection of the human mind and the antidemocratic aftermath of political revolutions. 

The Psychology of Revolution looks at how and why revolutions have failed to lead to democracy,” said Moghaddam. “Psychologically, what is it about humans that inhibits the development of a democracy after a revolution?”

The Revolving Door: Revolution and Status Quo

The cover of a book titled The Psychology of Revolution. It bears abstract images of individual faces with bold colors overlayed.

Professor Fathali Moghaddam’s latest book, The Psychology of Revolution.

“Globally, democracy is under attack,” Moghaddam said. “In a few decades, liberal democracies could be seriously diminished and, in their place, dictatorships could be the dominant force in the world. I see this as a serious, imminent danger and I think that the core of this is psychological.”

The history of revolutions, Moghaddam argues, reveals that when authoritarian governments are overthrown they are, more often than not, replaced by authoritarian governments. Some of the most notable revolutions of the past century, from Russia in 1917 to Iran in 1979, held the promise of widespread political participation but ultimately paved the way for undemocratic regimes.  

“Psychologically, our political behavior changes very, very slowly,” Moghaddam said. “Democratic citizens develop very, very slowly. In the aftermath of a revolution,  people have a chance to change to become more democratic, but before that potential is realized another dictator takes over and ends that possibility”

It is the lack of political plasticity – the topic of Moghaddam’s last book – that prevents democracies from forming after a revolutionary period. Even revolutions that many people think of as successful merely set the stage for democracy to arise at a later date. 

“Some people would claim that the American Revolution was an exception, but I don’t believe it was –  It gave the vote to free, landowning men,” said Moghaddam “That is what the Athenians had more than 2,500 ago. It took the United States until the 20th century for women and minorities to seriously participate in politics.”

The Long Shadow of the Iranian Revolution

A bespectacled man wearing a patterned bow tie, crisp white shirt, and formal suit jacket sits at a table and talks with his arms outstretched.

Professor Fathali Moghaddam speaks to an audience.

For Moghaddam, the question of political plasticity in the face of a revolution is both deeply personal and widely practical. 

After completing his formal education in England, Moghaddam returned to his home country of Iran to conduct psychological research in the nation’s universities. Amid the turmoil of the Iranian Revolution, Moghaddam briefly left academia to work in journalism and international aid, bearing witness to a period of radical change and social upheaval. 

 “I was a young man just out of a psychology laboratory studying conflict and minority rights issues and here I was with a real revolution and possibility that we could be moving towards democracy,” said Moghaddam. “But within a year of the 1979 revolution we were back to a dark dictatorship and that experience really changed my life.”

For Moghaddam, we live in a moment that can either buck or conform to that trend. 

“Most human beings for most of human history have lived in dictatorships,” Moghaddam said. “Our psychological characteristics have been shaped in dictatorships, but we can change and become active participants in democracy.”

Moghaddam sees bedrock investments in civic education and civic participation as necessary for the commonwealth. 

Despite limitations in political plasticity, Moghaddam remains optimistic: “The example of women in higher education demonstrates that progressive change can be brought about relatively quickly.”

Published by Cambridge University Press, The Psychology of Revolution is the latest in Moghaddam’s book series, Progressive Psychology. The series, which publishes books from an array of authors, seeks to understand the overlap of social and structural issues with psychology. 

-by Hayden Frye (C’17)

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