Revitalizing Political Psychology: The Legacy of Harold D Lasswell
By William Ascher and Barbara Hirshfelder-Ascher
Summary written by Brett Reeder, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Ascher, William and Barbara Hirshfelder-Ascher. Revitalizing Political Psychology: The Legacy of Harold D. Lasswell. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlabaum Associates, Inc., 2005.
In the introduction to Revitalizing Political Psychology: The Legacy of Harold D. Lasswell, Ascher and Ascher state that "[p]olitical psychology is in need of revitalization to recapture its capacity to incorporate the emotional and psychodynamic roots of political behavior." This is thought to be necessary because modern psychology is unable to account for "...the impact of long standing deeply seated predispositions and motivations..." According to Ascher and Ascher, the psychodynamic theories that are able to account for such predispositions and motivations have fallen out of favor, due to the contemporary dominance of positivism in social science, which rejects hypotheses that cannot be "proven" through direct empirical observation.
In contrast, Ascher and Ascher favor a pragmatist view in which "...each approach should be valued for its insights, whether or not it is fully valid..." Thus, they view psychodynamic theories as necessary insights into politics and policy, and believe such insights can be found in Harold Lasswell's version of psychodynamic functionalism. The book offers three of Lasswell's psychodynamic insights: the displacement hypothesis, the triple-appeal principle and the dynamics of perspectives, also referred to as the self-system.
The displacement hypothesis postulates that certain unwanted emotions and feelings are "displaced," or redirected from their source. Ascher and Ascher put it this way: "Impulses and affects that are unacceptable on either an individual or a societal level are displaced or otherwise transformed in their focus or nature." Further, some of these displacements are thought to occur without cognitive awareness. Such displacements are problematic, as they cause individuals to act upon the object/individual/value upon which the displacement occurred rather than the source.
The second psychodynamic concept the book introduces is the triple-appeal principle, which borrows heavily from the Freudian divisions of the mind (id, ego, superego). The principle is essentially that "...the meaning of any social object to any particular person is to be interpreted in terms of its appeal to one or more of these main divisions (id, ego, superego)." Thus, political communications can appeal to the id (roughly defined as impulse), the ego (roughly defined as reason), the superego (roughly defined as conscience), or any combination thereof. This is important because the ego is thought to be unaware of much of what goes on in the id and the superego. Thus, political communications, which appeal to either the id or the superego, may be invisible to the ego and its reasoned analysis.
The third major concept introduced is the self-system or the dynamics of perspective. There are three pieces of the self-system, all of which are dynamically interrelated to produce an individual's perspective. The first piece, identity, is the self-identification of an individual in relation to groups and sub-groups. The second piece, demands, is the expression of desired outcomes. The third piece, expectations, is comprised of beliefs about the past, present and future states of affairs. These three pieces interact with each other to shape the "perspective" of an individual.
Using these three psychodynamic concepts (the displacement hypothesis, the triple-appeal principle and the self-system), Ascher and Ascher go on to analyze: leadership, democratic character, mood/climate, and propaganda. On the topic of leadership, Ascher and Ascher are highly critical of contemporary leadership study's preference for "charismatic transformational leadership." They point out that not all situations require transformation, and thus transformational leadership is not always necessary and can at times be problematic. They also reiterate Lasswell's concerns regarding charisma. Charisma is thought to appeal primarily to the id and superego (remember the triple-appeal principle). Thus, as Lasswell put it, "...one problem with the operation of charisma is...that it diminishes the filters of reason and demand for accountability in the selection of leaders." Essentially, charismatic leaders can afford to be indifferent to the demands of their followers (remember the self-system) because they appeal to them on non-rational levels.
Additionally, according to Lasswell, the characteristics and needs of followers are as important as the characteristics and needs of leaders. One of the most important characteristics of both leaders and followers in a successful democracy is thought to be their "democratic character". This "character" is comprised of the self-system (the dynamics of perspective discussed above) and the intensity system. The intensity system is comprised of factors that determine value priorities and intensities, including capacities and the impetus to overcome obstacles. For one to posses a "democratic character," the intensity system must be free of "anxiety" (defined by Lasswell as an umbrella term that encompasses the whole range of unpleasurable affects that impel action). Additionally the self-system must include an identity that is warm and inclusive, demands that display a variety of values, and expectations that reflect confidence in human potential.
Whether one embodies a democratic character is at least partially determined by the collective mood (climate) of the society in which one is a part. Moods are thought to "color the perceptions of events, the attractiveness of alternative policies and the likelihood of unified action." When a mood is collective, it is referred to as the "climate." Lasswell combined his framework of individual psychological traits and dynamics with his theory of symbols and communication to account for collective moods (climate). These climates can be either short term (as in the case of a mob) or long-term pervasive moods.
Lasswell explains short-term crisis climates as a breakdown of the ego's containment of the id's impulses due to symbolic communication between actors. Norms are not static, and are constantly being reinforced through social interaction. In the case of a short-term crisis climate, people communicate to each other that the norms no longer apply. This communication is done through various symbols including actions that violate norms (such as the destruction of property), and language that challenges norms. Such short-term crisis climates tend to be highly visible, because they sharply contrast the existing long-term pervasive climate.
In contrast, long-term climates are much harder to recognize because they seem "natural". Lasswell provides a four-pronged explanation for such long-term pervasive climates. First, objective conditions affect the collective mood. As Ascher and Ascher put it, "...similar impacts on broad populations will have some commonality of impact on perspectives (identity, demands, expectations)". Second, individuals and cultures are thought to be predisposed to certain moods based on their mood and climate history. That is, cultures will tend to re-produce collective moods or climates. Third the Triple-appeal principal re minds us that moods appeal to the different divisions of the mind (id, ego, superego). Thus, different psychological needs will be more receptive to different moods. Finally, Lasswell acknowledged that collective moods can be intentionally manipulated through the use of propaganda.
Key to Lasswell's understanding of propaganda is the concept of multiple associations. That is, symbols are thought to "...evoke multiple and varying associations..." and "symbol manipulation is feasible only because of this potential variability." Essentially Lasswell is pointing out that symbols evoke multiple meanings in a single individual, and that these meanings vary between individuals and over time. Further these meanings can be manipulated and thus, "The study of propaganda becomes a study of these manipulation efforts."
To manipulate the meaning of symbols, propagandists use association, labeling and attribution. In association, the object of manipulation is associated with favorable (or unfavorable), values, objects or individuals, thus "borrowing" meaning from the associated value/object/individual(s). Labeling involves defining the object of manipulation in favorable (or unfavorable) terms. Attribution consists of attributing causation. That is, the object of manipulation is described as causing something favorable (or unfavorable). To be effective, these associations, labels and attributions need to be placed with in the "focus of attention" of the target of the propaganda. This can be done through either careful selective placement or mass repetition.
While Lasswell acknowledges that the use of such propaganda is a manipulation, he does not view propaganda as inherently negative. Rather, propaganda is neither good nor bad, but can be used for either good or bad purposes. He favors a "freedom of propaganda" arguing that "...the practice of propaganda, as the effort to change collective attitudes, is consistent with democracy, as long as many different would-be propagandists have the right to try to persuade. Open, competitive propagandizing creates an open market place of ideas." Essentially Lasswell views propaganda as symbol manipulation, which is inherent in any effort at persuasion.
However, such manipulation is thought to be problematic when both the persuader and the target of persuasion are unaware of the root of their respective motivations. Thus, according to Lasswell, it is essential to provide individuals with insight into previously hidden motivations behind their perception (identity, demands, expectations), due to displacement (the displacement hypothesis), or hidden impulses (the triple-appeal principal). He terms this project the "politics of prevention" and considers this the role of the political psychologists. In Revitalizing Political Psychology: The Legacy of Harold D. Lasswell, Ascher and Ascher seek to revitalize psychodynamic theory in modern psychology by re-introducing the ideas of Harold Lasswell, and in the process allow for such a politics of prevention.