News Story

The Psychology of Politics

Georgetown College psychology professor Fathali Moghaddam is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Political Behavior, released this year by SAGE Publishing (Book cover photo courtesy Fathali Moghaddam).

August 29, 2017 — Much of modern political science scholarship relies on the study of political systems and quantitative measurements associated with politics. But what if researchers took an approach that factors in the psychological basis of political decision-making and political actions?

That’s the question the SAGE Encyclopedia of Political Behavior, edited by Georgetown College psychology professor Fathali Moghaddam, aims to answer. The two-volume reference book compiles articles from experts in political science, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and communications, painting a comprehensive picture of how human behavior affects politics across the world.

“For me, all politics is psychology,” Moghaddam said. “But this differs from a lot of political science in that we’re also concerned with implicit processes, irrationality, and decision-making that the individual is nor aware of. In traditional terms, we refer to this as ‘unconscious.’”

Each article in the Encyclopedia features brand new content from the leading voices on each subject it covers — from charisma to dictatorship, political attitudes to political ideology. Moghaddam sourced and edited all of the content for the book’s first edition, drawing on his expertise in the field of political psychology.

“It was a hard task selecting the topics, because ‘political behavior’ can be defined very broadly,” Moghaddam said. “It can be any behavior based in political values, or any behavior that influences the distribution of resources. It encompasses individual and collective processes. If you think about all that, it’s a very broad span.”

Moghaddam has high hopes for the role the Encyclopedia might play in educating people outside university classrooms on the way politics works. He hopes examining politics through the lens of human behavior will help dispel some common misconceptions — starting with the ideas that someone can be “apolitical” and that all political decisions are rational.

“Firstly, politics is for everyone. What foods we choose to eat, what cars we choose to drive, what charities and causes we support — all these things are political,” he said. “Secondly, politics is not always rational. We often fail to recognize and act on our collective or individual interests accurately.”

Because the Encyclopedia’s contributions come from academics who have spent years or decades researching their fields of expertise, editing the book for a general audience was at times a daunting task.

“The contributors are among the top 400 or so political scientists in the world,” Moghaddam said. “We had to convince them first to write in an accessible way, and then to make revisions to make it more accessible.”

But thanks to his experience editing academic journals — along with some help from Georgetown students, and occasionally even family members — Moghaddam believes the final product is accessible to most people who might come across it in a public library or through the Internet.

“We have political problems that we have to solve, and better information and education is a big part of the solution,” Moghaddam said. “We need to help people to think about political issues more deeply, more critically. So I approached this encyclopedia thinking about public education, and I envisioned something that could be found in libraries and on the Internet, where all different types of people can access it and inform themselves.”

A trained psychologist who has risen to prominence in applying psychological concepts to politics, Moghaddam was a natural fit to edit the Encyclopedia. He sees a behavioral approach to politics as more relevant than ever, as elections and movements in governments across the world have proven in recent years that the arc of history is not a rational march toward liberal democracy.

“We raise questions about times we’ve gone backwards, including the last 10 years,” Moghaddam said. “That’s a theme that goes through a lot of the sections.”

Moghaddam believes the Encyclopedia’s global perspective, interdisciplinary approach and service-based goals make it an ideal project to be affiliated with Georgetown.

“This is a very Georgetown project — it fits in with our mission, and that’s a big part of why I took it on,” Moghaddam said.

— Patrick Curran