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The marriage between psychological science and politics


My friend and colleague, Tor Levin Hoffgaard, President of the Norwegian Psychological Association, once contrasted the thinking styles of politicians and scientists. The scientists tend to prefer rigorous, theory-based, statistical, context-free, evidence, while politicians tend to prefer contextual, practically relevant, readily comprehensible evidence. Scientists, he suggested, tend to work to long time scales, as long s the problem demands, while politicians are dictated by the rapid electoral and news agendas. Scientists tend to communicate in measured language, using technical terms, while politicians need clear, even catchy, messages. And while scientists are, of course, swayed by the influence of funding requirements, their reputations and career advancement, at least they pride themselves on the objectivity and validity of their findings. Politicians focus on meeting the immediate (and longer term) needs of citizens, as well as the demands of their political parties and the media.  

political science I like that analysis. But then I like both science and politics. I have now attended both the Liberal Democrat and Labour Party Conferences on behalf of the Society, and I hope I can appreciate the benefit of the marriage between psychological science and politics.

While I tend towards the academic approach, the political stance has merit. It is genuinely good to value contextual, readily comprehensible evidence, presented in clear and accessible language. I see little wrong in addressing issues of practical relevance, of direct interest to the needs of citizens. And I am as impatient for rapid change as the next person.

The obvious response is to marry these perspectives, and to value and understand them both. As I listened to the speeches of politicians, it’s fair to say that some of them were merely vacuous hot air, Trumpesque promises of sun-lit uplands, fluffy bunny rabbits and effortless progress consequent upon no particular discernable policies. But I was also impressed by men and women who were passionate about improving their communities and helping their fellow citizens, who had coherent theories about what sort of change was needed, and what was required to bring that about and who were prepared to listen as well as talk. I’ve said before that psychology, because it’s about human behaviour, is the stuff of politics, and have I found that politicians tend to want to engage with the mirror of their profession – the rigorous, theory-based, statistical, evidence, gathered objectively over an appropriate time-span and reported in measured, defensible, language. Of course… I have the Conservative Party Conference still to attend…