Psychological Approaches to Cognition and Rationality in Political Science


The theoretical basis of information processing in politics comes largely from psychologists studying other issues and from fields outside the realm of psychology. We assume that the task of translating available information into sets of focused, legally consistent beliefs, judgement and commitments is a subtle process, not at all a straightforward or an obvious issue, and furthermore, although political reasoning may take place largely outside a person’s awareness, political cognition is a very active mental process. Cognitive theories in politics are largely bent on understanding as to how people selectively attend to, interpret and organise information in ways that allow everyone to reach coherent understandings. For various reasons known or unknown to all of us now, such understandings may deviate substantially from the true set of affairs and from whatever mix of information or disinformation is available to be considered.

The two terms ‘belief’ and ‘system’ have been a familiar part of the language of attitude psychology for decades. Let us define ‘belief system’ in a three point structure:

  • a set of related beliefs, attitudes together
  • rules of how these contents of mind are linked to one another
  • linkages between the related beliefs and ideologies.

Now to model a belief system is an attempt to create an abstract representation of how someone’s set of related beliefs are formed, organised, maintained and modified.

In the cognition of psychology, or vice versa, a commonality of two terms is being used nowadays in the form of schemas and scripts with the former being the building blocks about peoples’ beliefs about the globe, and the latter being the working assemblages of those building blocks, with an adequate emphasis on sequences of actions involving various schematised objects. Scripts are our images of events routinely take place; events involve objects and activities for which schematic representations are available. For e.g., we might have a script of leadership in mixed age groups. Men routinely expect to exercise leadership over women and bristly at having to be subordinate, while women expect the same status differentiation and fear the wrath of others if women acquire leadership responsibilities. This hypothesised script incorporates schemas about the nature of leadership, about gender differences and about emotions such as resentment and fear. Just as schemas organise our understanding of concepts and objects, scripts organise our understanding about about activities and events  that involve and link those objects and concepts.

Much of the modern social psychology is concerned with the attribution processes. These refer to subjective connections people make between cause and effect. Attribution processes, by their nature involve going beyond the ‘information given’ in the direct observation of events. They are inferential process that allow us to understand what we think are the meaningful causes, observations and motivations underlying the observable behaviour directly. they are the central elements of the broader constructive processes through which people find meaning in ongoing events. Regardless of how well our attributive reasoning corresponds with objective reality, attribution process provide us with an enhanced sense of confidence that we understand what is going on around us. two kinds of attributive processes are heuristics and biases, when the former can be considered as mental short-cuts, by which one is able to circumvent the tediousness of logically exhaustive reasoning, or to fill in lacunae in our knowledge base and reach conclusions that make sense to our already made up assumptions.

Biases can be thought of as tendencies to come to some kind of conclusions more often than others. We have to often take the short cut of relying on representations of some bit of information, while ignoring other factors that also should be taken into account. We have to attach probabilities. Suppose a foreign service analyst anted to know whether a move by a foreign government to increase security at border was part of a larger plan to prepare for a surprise military attack across the border. the cue for the analyst is border clampdown; one possible meaning is that a military invasion is about to begin. The analyst must decide how likely it is. If the analyst uses the representativeness heuristic, she would decide how typical a border crackdown is as a early sign of a coming invasion. The more typically she feels the border clampdown is a sign of coming invasion, the more credibility she would attach to that interpretation of the change. In fact, representativeness, the degree to which some cue resembles or fits as part of the typical form of an interpretation, is an important and a legitimate aspect of assessing probabilities. The representativeness of heuristic however is the tendency to ignore other relevant information and thereby overemphasise the role of representativeness. Representativeness is one of the most prominently and actively investigated cognitive heuristics. Of course in most real life settings it cannot be proven that we credit or blame the actor too much for her behaviour or consequences. However, in carefully designed experiments in which hapless actors obviously have very little control over what happens to them, observers nonetheless hold the actors responsible for their actions and circumstances.

Now moving on to integrative complexity, it is a combination of two distinct mental activities, differentiation and integration. Differentiation refers to person’s recognition of multiple issues or facets in thinking about a political problem. Undifferentiated thinking occurs when an individual sees a problem as involving very few distinct issues, or that all of the issues nearly lead to the same conclusion. Differentiating one’s understanding of political situation gives one a better grasp on that situation, but it can cause difficulties too. different aspects of a political problem may contradict each other or may lead to contradictory actions. differentiating a problem can also lead a decision maker to the discovery that she really does not have a full grasp on the relevant information, which can be an unpleasant awareness, especially when decisions are to made immediately.

Integration on the other hand refers to the careful consideration of the relationships among parts of the problem. as a political actor formulates opinions and possible choices, integrated thinking allows the person to see how various courses of action may lead to contradictory outcomes, how goals might be well set by actions that violate one’s presuppositions or outcomes. Integration moves the thinker away from all or nothing oversimplification of issues. thus it improves the chances for political compromise, the heart of successful diplomacy. furthermore, by opening up the eyes of the decision maker to the complex interconnections of many political problems, it enables her to anticipate the complicated consequences that may follow from her choices. Obviously, high levels of integration can occur when an individual or a group has successfully differentiated the various issues involved in a problem. without the identification of the issue, there is nothing to integrate. however, simple awareness of all of the potentially conflicting aspects of a problem does not guarantee that a decision maker will pull these elements meaningfully. On can recognise any number of ambiguous qualifications, contradictions and non-sequitors, yet ignore most of them in deciding what to believe and what to do. Thus integration requires differentiation, but generally vice versa does not follow.

Integrating complexity may affect the careers of political leaders. It may also help shape the outcome of entire political and military conflicts, not just the future carer of leaders. For e.g., intense diplomatic activity between the US and the USSR averted a potential WW3, which arose in 1962 when the US objected to the Soviet missile deployment in Cuba. Taking the above case, it was hypothesised that in very complex political situations, highly integrated thinking is necessary in order for leaders to discover the availability and superiority of non-military solutions.

Everyone knows that attitudes about a political problem influence our political actions. Exceptions are there, but people usually act in ways that further their beliefs avoid acting in ways that contradict their beliefs. We no longer claim that the causal link from beliefs to behaviour is simple; instead, attention is now directed towards understanding the complex and subtle ways in which beliefs influence decision-making. General beliefs are considered to be less general in predicting actions such as voting behaviour. Some also maintain that general beliefs are important influences on specific actions, though the influence is not a direct cause-effect link. Instead, general beliefs produce subtle tendencies to favour some interpretation of events over other plausible interpretations, and to favour some general styles of political action over others when choosing a specific political action. Talking of political actor’s operational code, there are diagnostic propensities which are tendencies to interpret ambiguous events in some ways rather that in others, to search for certain kinds of information rather than others, and to exaggerate or ignore the probable role of chance and uncontrollable events. For eg. one national leader may immediately look for the hostile intentions behind any important diplomatic move on the part of arrival nation. Such a person would search for other evidence confirming his or her initial presumption, by contrast, another leader might be aware that the rival nation has severe internal problems, and presume that any important foreign policy initiatives from that nation are attempts to distract its citizens from those problems. Choice propensities are tendencies to prefer certain modes of political action to others. Diagnostic propensities are the expressions in political reasoning of leader’s general views about how to act effectively in political arena.

Politics in its very essence is an impersonal activity. The vast bulk of political planning, commitment and actions take place among groups of people, whether these people come together to pool resources, squabble, or negotiate compromises among their conflicting group interests. What is then the psychology of rationality in political groups? But groups are different. Groups do not negate the picture about the nature of political cognition; they complicate it instead. Groups themselves do not think. It is still the individual people who share or hide their personal beliefs and goals.

What is a camel?
It’s a horse driven by a committee.

This old joke is a cynical comment on the creativity of committees. It is easy to point to mediocre decisions made by groups, but there is a more serious problem than middling decisions. Groups are capable of profoundly bad decisions. Some of the worst decisions in world history were made by groups that would seem to have been assembled in producing rational, creative policies and judgments.

What characteristics make groups particularly susceptible to poor decisions? First and foremost, the group is highly cohesive. Group members know, trust and like each other; they often share common or similar histories; they enjoy being part of the group and value working in it. Second, the group isolates itself from possible influencing of the others. A strong sense of identification with the group leads to lost ties with others who might have some valuable information to share. Third, the group lacks any systematic way of doing things. without formal guidelines for procedure, agenda decisions are made casually and are subject to influences that cut full deliberations. Fourth, the leader of such groups tend to be directive. Fifth, the group is experiencing stress, with a sense of urgency about some crises in which acting quickly seems critical. The choice may be among some unpleasant activities, the available information may be very confusing and incomplete and the group members may be fatigued. Thus solidarity, isolation, sloppy procedures and directive leadership in a stressful situation make some groups vulnerable to groupthink. Two features describe groupthink. First set contains working assumptions and styles of interacting that group members carry with them into the work setting. The second set features describe faulty deliberations as the group sets about its task. The group members lack adequate contingency plans to be prepared for quick response if the preferred course of action does not work as the group hopes and believes it will.

To avoid groupthink, first the leader of the group should actively encourage dissent; she should make it known that dissenting opinions are valued and they are valued not just for variety’s sake but because that they may be right. Second, the leader should avoid letting her own initials be known. Third, parallel subgroups can be set up early on to work separately on the same tasks. These subgroups will probably develop different assessments and plans, which can be brought to the whole group for consideration. This neatly disrupts the tendency of groups to focus on just option for the upcoming decision. A choice is rational if it follows certain careful procedures that lead to the selection of the course of action that offers the greatest expected value or benefit or utility for the chooser. The group members making a rational decision first identify the opportunity and need for a choice. They then identify every conceivable course of action available to them. They determine all possible consequences of each course of action available to them. They evaluate each possible consequence in terms of,

1) its likelihood of occurrence,
2) its value if it does occur.

Now the decision making group has a problem, and a set of possible solutions. This information is then distilled into a single choice by working backwards. The probability of each consequence is then multiplied by its value; the products of all consequences for each course of action are then added up. The resulting sums are the expected values of each possible consequence. The group then simply selects the option with the largest possible expected value (or smallest negative value if a choice is a no-win situation).

There is something called the posterior rationality, where the choice process is discovered after the choice is made. The world may be too unpredictable and complicated for most well intended plans to have much chance of success. If so, traditional rationality may be irrelevant as a model for complex organisations. However, goals and intentions can still be inferred in reverse, by reinterpreting earlier choices and redefining one’s original goals.

In conclusion, political actors, groups and institutions such as governments do not simply observe and understand political circumstances in some automatic fashion that accurately captures true political realities. Political realities are for most part social constructions and the construing process is built on the philosophy and psychology of human cognition. Political cognition like any other cognition is extremely complex. It is easy enough to find examples of poor political judgments: the wonder may be that politics often seems to be rational, given all the challenges and limitations. To the extent that we can find a sense of coherence in politics and government, we should acknowledge the importance of the social construction process in shaping that coherence. Although political activists devote much more time to the political agenda than does the average citizen, still they rely on the same cognitive resources and procedures and hence are subject to the same biases and distortions as any thinking person.


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