For a political psychologist, this election cycle has provided plenty of fodder for discussion. From the rise of a true political outsider to the first woman in line for the top spot on a party ticket, to the role of the media in reporting, and affecting, political outcomes, the presidential election of 2016 has been a game-changer.
New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter spoke with Elizabeth P. Ossoff, Ph.D., professor and chair of the psychology department at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, to discuss some of what she sees as key components of the current cycle. She talked about her research, her own path to working in the field and the effect of the media on the elections.
Q: How did you get involved in political psychology?
A: My family liked to discuss the topics of the day. I was one of the youngest of six so I got to hear my brothers argue with my father about various issues like Watergate. My parents were friends with individuals who were close to the Nixons and they had met them several times, so we got to hear about it a lot.
With my doctoral dissertation, I wanted to look at specific kinds of messages presented in the news, whether the messages were more factual based, issue-oriented as opposed to more emotionally based or image-oriented, to see whether there would be a difference in the ability of those messages to set the political agenda for the individuals in my study. I did see some differences and that led me to continue to have a curiosity about how we understand political behavior.
Q: You have done research in gender and politics and this year must be more interesting than ever before.
A: We are going to have a woman who will be the first nominee of a major political party. It will have an impact somehow and I think it is interesting to watch it all play out. Combine that with the Trump phenomenon and it makes for a very interesting season from a psychological point of view.
Q: How would you say the media affect politics?
A: The average lay person likes to think we are being controlled by the media: “those evil people over there are doing things to us.” But, what we find is that they only do what we let them do. The trouble is, most of us don’t have time or the inclination and we gravitate towards information that confirms our view of the world. People are kind of lazy when it comes to that and they want to think they are right.
Q: It seems like with the question of who is going to control the world, it should be a very logical decision. Who is more equipped to get the job done?
A: Ultimately, one of the things we come back to when we look at politics and psychology is that it is not rational. Research shows it is an emotionally-based reaction rather than a more executive function reaction.
It is much easier to react. I heard a report the other day with a man saying that he didn’t agree with Trump but liked his bravado and respected that and so, “I will probably vote for him.” I thought that was fascinating. He doesn’t agree with him but because he likes his style, that is enough.
Q: Do you think people don’t value their own vote so they don’t spend more time digging deep or they don’t think the president has any real power?
A: No, I think they think the president can do way more than he can. Most people are not educated enough on our system. They say, “I agree with the idea that we want to bar Muslims because they are scary and that makes me feel better and so I am going to vote for that. Trump seems to be smart and he is really brash and no one seems to be able to touch him so I think, yah, he can get it done.” Without understanding that it is basically unconstitutional what he is suggesting and it will never happen.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A colleague and I run a leadership program for college-aged women called NEW Leadership, National Education for Women, to educate, empower and engage them in the political system. It is important for women to make themselves heard. We do this in partnership with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
I am also working with this same colleague on a research project to understand the political impact of being a parent. Does it matter if you are a mother or father running for office? We have gathered an initial round of data with a student population and so this summer we have to tease apart those data. We also measured the level of ambivalent sexism. That has not been looked at before.
It is very timely with Hillary Clinton running as a mother and as a grandmother. This is becoming that soft spot she is trying to hit with people and it will be interesting to see if that resonates.
Q: Do you think the mistrust and dislike Clinton receives is the result of her being female?
A: There are certain things that have been directed at the Republicans that have gone away that if it had happened to her we would still be talking about. If she had impersonated her own press secretary the way Donald Trump supposedly did, for instance.
I do think that the fact that she is a woman comes into play with some of the intensity of the vitriol that is directed against her much in same way that a lot of the negative attitudes towards Obama from certain groups was extreme and I believe that had to do with his race.
People can say it has nothing to do with that. Baloney. You can’t look at somebody and not react to them based on their race or gender. It is an incredibly prominent social clue that directs a lot of social behavior. So, if you say you are gender blind, you are lying.
Q: Is Trump being unfairly treated by the media?
A: Trump is incredibly good at interacting with the media. He knows how to work them and if they push back, he attacks. If Clinton pushed back that hard, they would be all over her as being manipulative and cold. She is not going to say you can’t talk to me or threaten to sue whereas Trump can do that and the press will back off. They know that their bosses want him on the air and “it is my ass in a sling if he denies access.”
Q: How does the media affect Bernie Sanders’ campaign?
A: What the media haven’t reported on as much is that he hasn’t gotten as many votes as Clinton has. Every time they point that out, the Sanders supporters scream and say, “You are not being fair.” Yet, when you look at the total number of votes cast and the total number of delegates, she is ahead of him.
What I think is interesting in the Bernie Sanders thing, and this is not a new perspective, but they are a group of people who are equally as dissatisfied as the Trump supporters but they happen to be on the other end of the political spectrum.
Q: How can people be encouraged to get more informed, to pay more attention, do the work themselves and listen to both sides?
A: We are all guilty of it – we all love to to watch stuff that reinforces our view of the world. I have to remind myself, “Let me think about that, let me listen.” And that is the thing, people don’t listen, they just shout at each other.
If you are frustrated with politicians and you don’t like it, there is a way of changing it and if you want a good result you have to do the work. If you are not willing to do the work, then shut up.
By Catherine Robertson Souter