In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Psychology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Foundational Texts
  • Anthologies: Foreign Policy
  • Leaders’ Personalities
  • Leaders’ Perceptions of Others
  • Leadership Style
  • Social Approaches
  • Biological Approaches
  • Methodology
  • Political Psychology of Scholars

International Relations Political Psychology
Brent E. Sasley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0150


Political psychology is the study of psychological processes that shape political behavior and of the process by which political events influence the psychological reactions of individuals and groups. Though the study of politics and psychology is centuries old (for example, Machiavelli’s The Prince, published in 1532, is considered a precursor), it became a better-defined and popular field in the early 20th century, particularly after the First World War. But it was not established as a formal academic field until 1978, when the International Society of Political Psychology was founded. Despite the broad subject matter, membership remains relatively small. Political psychology is extremely wide ranging, and covers a variety of issue areas, including the impact of a leader’s personality on politics or public policy, the influence of ideology on a population’s voting patterns, and the stereotypes social groups hold regarding other groups. Indeed, this range is a handicap to the field, because specific sub-areas are often self-contained units with little theoretical crossover. There is also uncertainty over the proper institutional home for researchers, and not many academics forums for cooperation and conversation. As the discussions in the various sections indicate, there is also some faddishness in the field, as particular models and approaches become popular for a time and then fade in prominence. In international relations (IR), researchers have typically narrowed the study of psychology and politics to (a) individuals or small groups, and (b) cognitive psychological processes and approaches in order to understand foreign policy and other behaviors in international politics. This narrowing has led to considerable overlap between political psychology and theories of foreign policy; the former has provided a basis for many of the models and approaches used in the latter. The concentration in IR has changed in the last two decades, as in response to broader changes elsewhere in the discipline, scholars have moved away from these predominant approaches to also explore how large groups—such as national societies—and non-cognitive processes—such as emotional states—have shaped and driven international behavior. One prominent element of the field that has not changed all that much is an emphasis on trying to understand how psychological constraints and mental processes produce “bad” decisions by individuals and small groups and, consequently, how these deficiencies can be avoided or overcome, to produce “good,” or optimal, decisions. Emotions researchers have begun to address this element by studying the quality of the outcomes in reference to the goals decision-makers themselves set out. The field has also become increasingly multidisciplinary. In addition to psychology and political science, researchers increasingly draw on biology, neural science, and cultural studies.

General Overviews

Because political psychology is such an expansive field, even within the narrower discipline of international relations, it is difficult to find a definitive statement that covers everything. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are the key pioneers in constructing, on the basis of clinical experiments, a variety of decision-making models that IR scholars have used. These models are collected in Kahneman and Tversky 2000 and Kahneman, et al. 1982 (for an example of a specific application of these models to IR, see Prospect Theory). For a broad introduction to political psychology’s origins, prominent approaches, and major developments and trends, Monroe 2002 is very good, though it has not been updated. Huddy, et al. 2013 compensates, and provides a good discussion of various theoretical approaches and empirical cases for both IR and political psychology more generally. A textbook on political psychology designed specifically for college students, Cottam, et al. 2016 is in its third edition, and covers considerable theoretical ground, though with a focus on group psychology. For IR in particular, McDermott 2004 is a good source to begin with. Goldgeier and Tetlock 2001 is more explicit about using political psychology to study specific issue areas in IR.

  • Cottam, Martha K., Elena Mastors, Thomas Preston, and Beth Dietz. Introduction to Political Psychology. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 2016.

    A textbook designed for university audiences, with a focus on group psychology in politics. There is also a chapter on group psychology in the international context.

  • Goldgeier, J. M., and P. E. Tetlock. “Psychology and International Relations Theory.” Annual Review of Political Science 4 (2001): 67–92.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.4.1.67

    Explicit effort to tie specific psychological models to specific IR paradigms and approaches (realism, institutionalism, constructivism), on the basis of theoretical fit.

  • Huddy, Leonie, David O. Sears, and Jack S. Levy, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199760107.001.0001

    An updated version of previous volumes, designed to introduce the reader to the history of the field, highlight major issueareas of study and theoretical approaches, and identify recent theoretical, methodological, and empirical trends.

  • Kahneman, Daniel, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, eds. Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511809477

    A collection of the authors’ findings from experiments on psychological models of decision- making. It is a good starting point for understanding the various heuristics (mental shortcuts) individuals use to structure their choices and decisions. Among the more popular are the representative heuristic and the availability heuristic.

  • Kahneman, Daniel, and Amos Tversky, eds. Choices, Values, and Frames. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    An anthology of the authors’ early work on assessment of risk and decision-making, which critiques rationalist models of behavior. It is supplemented by updated research and a wide range of applications to human behavior in economic transactions.

  • McDermott, Rose. Political Psychology in International Relations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

    Discusses major approaches in political psychology but specifically applies them to concerns in IR. McDermott’s work is rooted in both political science and psychology, and seeks to inform both fields of study. The book also emphasizes McDermott’s firm belief that cognitive and emotional processes are individual-level, not social, phenomena.

  • Monroe, Kristen Renwick, ed. Political Psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002.

    Useful summaries of how the field has developed over time. Several chapters are written by those who introduced the field to political science and IR. Covers only up to the beginning of the 21st century, but the debates and overviews highlighted remain important for beginners and those building on foundational approaches.

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