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Psychology and Politics

How insights from political psychology can mediate the debate between the political right and left

Prof. Gilad Hirschberger, Vice Dean, the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology - Photo Gabriel Baharlia
Prof. Gilad Hirschberger, Vice Dean, the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology - Photo Gabriel Baharlia

Research has found that people with different political ideologies perceive threats differently. Compared with the political right, which prioritizes physical threats and threats arising from deliberate malintent, such as rockets and terrorism, the political left prioritizes symbolic threats such as identity threats and demographic threats, as well as global threats that tend to develop slowly and exponentially, such as global warming or pandemics. The political left also sees opportunities to make peace with other groups. According to Prof. Hirschberger, Vice Dean at the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology, a group cannot exist without both political sides, as both sides have their advantages, without which the group cannot survive. Different political ideologies all serve as a survival means of the entire group, says Hirschberger, “believing that in political discussions only one side is right and therefore must win and thus the other side is wrong and must lose, is indicative of “Naive Realism”. Naive Realism is a tendency to think that we see the world objectively, and that other people are uninformed, irrational, or biased. The Group Survival Motivation Theory of Prof. Hirschberger suggests, however, that an optimal balance between different political ideologies is adaptive for the entire group and promotes its motivation to survive and thrive.

According to Hirschberger, “if we agree that all these different threats exist and that each group must recognize both threats and opportunities, then the political discussion is not about “who is right?”, but “what is the best balance between the different ideologies”? People intuitively understand that ideological diversity is advantageous for the group and when asked to decide what percentage of each ideology would be best in a specific setting, such as a parliament committee they always show a small preference for the group that they identify with over the opposite political ideology, but also recognize the need to include the other ideology and even use the balance between ideologies strategically. For instance, in the context of group security and safety, even political leftists understand that it is advantageous for the group to increase the percentage of right-wingers in a committee dealing with this issue. Similarly, right-wingers also prefer to increase the percentage of left-wingers in committees that deal with issues such as human rights, the environment, and democracy. Winston Churchill recognized the need to use ideological diversity strategically when he famously remarked, “I have always urged fighting wars and other contentions with might and main till overwhelming victory, and then offering the hand of friendship to the vanquished. Thus, I have always been against the Pacifists during the quarrel, and against the Jingoes at its close”.

According to Hirschberger, people with different political ideologies who appreciate the value of the other side, understand the need for ideological diversity and this intuitive understanding benefits the entire group. This is mostly true in times when there is a balanced political discussion; the political left contributes to the group by promoting relations with other groups, safeguarding the groups’ moral image, maintaining human rights and supporting progression through technology and science. In addition to being vigilant about homeland security, the political right contributes to the group by focusing on its history and traditions. Ideally, these fundamentally different ideologies may complement each other and offer adaptive advantages.

Recent years have been marked by radical political polarization; a phenomenon that has been observed in many societies across the globe. This political polarization takes the political discussion to the extreme, which can be witnessed in the current state of affairs in Israel, or the riots that surrounded the inauguration of President Biden in January 2021. These unfortunate events not only prevent people from recognizing the advantages of other political ideologies, but they also turn their advantages into weapons against the other political side and by doing so can be seen as an autoimmune reaction that poses a threat against the group as a whole.

Hirschberger says that “Émile Durkheim, the French sociologist who formally established the academic discipline of sociology, saw the group as a superorganism: a society is like a living organism and as in any complex living organisms, there are many cells that are not aware of each other, they still work together in perfect synchronization, to promote the organism’s survival”. “In this way,” says Hirschberger, “you can view different groups in a society; they can feel antagonism towards each other and represent different survival strategies, but under normal conditions, they work together to promote the group’s survival. Under abnormal conditions, such as in Israel today, the groups work against each other, and society is at a survival risk.”

When asked whether all extreme ideologies have room in a society, Hirschberger says that as long as these extreme groups are small and kept in check, they may serve a role to the survival of the society, each in its own way, as they balance each other and the rest of the political ideologies in the group (for instance, the reaction they elicit may actually move the group away from extremism). As long as they are balanced, these ideologies will help a society to maintain the delicate balance between tradition and progression.

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