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A social psychological view of voting

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Thursday, 18 May 2017, 10:50

In this week's blog, the module team for Advancing social psychology (DD317) offer some timely social psychological reflections on voting in elections.

Undoubtedly, voting is a very important form of political action. It is one of the principal ways that citizens voice their political views and participate in the processes of democratic governance.

Voting can signify agreement with the way things are, or alternatively it can be a sign of protest against the status quo. For example, the Brexit vote, which was a surprise to many, can be said to symbolize dissatisfaction with the political establishment. On the other hand, the recent vote for Emmanuel Macron in France illustrates that French voters showed a preference for established centre politics as opposed to the far-right politics of Marine Le Pen and the Front National.

How can we understand how people vote? Given the failure of recent polling to predict electoral results (such as Brexit and the 2015 general elections in the UK), it appears that voting behaviours can be quite complicated.

From a social psychological perspective, we can approach voting in terms of the kinds of groups that people are affiliated with. For example, if someone identifies as a socialist, they are likely to support the Labour Party in the UK. If on the other hand, they identify as a social conservative, they would be more likely to support the Conservative Party. The role of identities in political action, and particularly identities that are politicized (such as activist identities), is examined in detail in work in the social identity theory tradition, for example in the social identity model of collective action, which is discussed in DD317.

Other social psychological work can also be very useful for understanding voting and political behavior more generally. For example, social constructionist approaches, such as social representations theory and discursive psychology, examine the ways that citizens construct knowledge about their social and political worlds and how this ‘common sense’ knowledge is connected to the history, politics and culture of particular communities. Such approaches also emphasise the ideological underpinnings of what we can call ‘common sense’. They suggest that common sense is not neutral and a-political but that it is ideological and consequential. Gaining a deep understanding of how people think about politics, not just their attitudes to specific issues, can give us insights into their political orientations and voting behaviours.

Social psychologists would also note that voting is a form of action, and interaction. It is one of the actions associated with citizenship, along with carrying a particular passport and paying taxes to a national government. It can therefore be understood as a way of enacting or performing citizenship, a form of belonging associated with the nation. The academic theorist Benedict Anderson described a nation as an 'imagined community' because its citizens feel that they belong together, as a community, yet there are too many of them to be personally acquainted: the community can't be directly experienced but only imagined. Voting is an individual action that is meaningful because the voter imagines many other individuals voting at the same time, participating in the same election. Obviously it wouldn't be an election if there was only one voter! The action of voting therefore reinforces the imagined community and idea of the nation, even though there is disagreement about who should win the election.

In addition, we may also note the social psychological significance of the role and perception of political leaders. Contests are not always as much about individuals as in the case of the US or the French election, yet personality is inevitably an element of any election contest. In fact, in the present British election arguments abound that the decisive factor might prove to be the perceived difference in the personality of the party leaders – all the policy details will pale in contrast. Thus, there exists a “special relationship” between voters and leaders. Leaders often embody idealized or wished-for aspects of voters’ selves. The “care” the leaders profess with regard to those who are to be governed is not completely unlike that of caregivers in a family.

Finally, the recent US presidential election and the UK referendum raised some other thorny issues about the relationship between social psychology and voting. There has been a lot of discussion about the involvement of certain companies who specialise in using psychological knowledge of personality profiles to predict and influence various online behaviours and preferences. Some of these companies focus explicitly on steering the outcome of elections by using psychological knowledge to influence how, and indeed whether, people vote. A common strategy is to send messages designed to tap into individual emotional dispositions, playing to voters’ hopes, fears, desires and prejudices. This controversial idea of using social psychology as a means not just to describe, but to deliberately shape and change people’s opinions and conduct is addressed in DD317 under the label of ‘humaneering’.  This humaneering mission of social psychology raises many ethical and political issues, especially when such companies are funded by powerful and rich individuals seeking to manipulate elections for their own profit. Should social psychologists let their knowledge become a tool for such manipulation, and if not, how should they resist?   


To learn more about how you can use social psychology to understand voting and political action, check out our new module DD317 Advancing Social Psychology.

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Doctor Who Part 2: Social psychology and psychoanalysis

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Our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317) introduces psychoanalysis as a distinctive social psychological approach. What insights can it offer? As an example, a member of the DD317 module team continues a previous discussion of Doctor Who by offering a psychoanalytic interpretation of one particular episode.

An earlier entry on this blog pondered some of the social psychological angles from which to shed some light on the unique cultural phenomenon that is Doctor Who. Yet, given that the longest-running science fiction series in the world embodies an almost Shakespearian quality of engaging many people on many levels, some further thoughts might be welcome. Here I utilise the psychoanalytic distinction between fantasising (in the sense of conscious daydreaming) and unconscious phantasies that result from our inability to tackle some real (and really frightening) emotional dilemmas.

The relevance of this distinction to Doctor Who occurred to me during the Matt Smith era, when I was watching the episode Night Terrors. As I recall, the episode featured the Doctor receiving a psychic message whilst being out and about at the edge of the universe. He takes the message, “Please save me from the monsters!”, with utmost seriousness. It is, he says, only some enormous scare that would make a message like that be delivered that far. It then turns out that the message in question was written by an eight-year-old child by the name of George, who, despite living amidst the mundane surroundings of a British estate, is convinced there are monsters living in his cupboard. Whilst we (but not the Doctor, of course) all know that this is completely impossible, we are also not utterly surprised when the Doctor’s two companions, Amy and Rory, disappear into the cupboard to be chased by some freakish looking giant dolls with a lovely chuckle and a not-so-lovely lethal embrace.

Now these dolls are monsters and the thrill of the episode may be attributed to their monstrous attributes. Yet, as we subsequently learn in the episode, they are mere products of the child’s phantasy. The child, you see, is not quite what he seems to be. As the Doctor figures out, he is a Tenza child, an empathic and otherwise benevolent alien who needs a host family to survive. George’s “parents” on the estate, Alex and Clare, were not able to have a child of their own – yet they really wanted one. This is what the Tenza creature could sense and it then turned itself into the embodiment of Alex and Clare’s wish: George. Using a “perception filter”, he made Alex and Clare believe that he was really their biological son and forget that they never had one, that Clare was never pregnant (this is what the Doctor spots when looking at family photographs!) and the likes.

What no magic can achieve, though, is to assuage George’s (i.e., the Tenza creature’s) profound fear that his hoax will one day come to light and he will then be got rid of. His way of coping with his fear is to put it in the cupboard. Yet, as you may suspect by now, this strategy rather backfired as it gradually transformed the cupboard into the giant container of all sorts of monsters and evils – some of whom are right now chasing Amy and Rory!

So what exactly is my point with all this?... It is that the Doctor’s realisation that as the monster dolls are actually arising out of George’s fear they will only be pacified if George faces up to his fears is essentially a psychoanalytic insight. For the fear and its objects (i.e., WHAT or WHO George is afraid of) will indeed become fantastic if banished to phantasy. They will grow out of all proportions and acquire all sorts of characteristics they would never have in broad daylight. And when George becomes able to open his eyes and replace the frightful magical mantra (“Please save me from the monsters”) that reached the Doctor at the other end of the universe with the action of facing up to those phantasy monsters – they immediately disappear.

What does not disappear, of course, is George’s original fear of abandonment. And even without being coloured by his fearful phantasy, that is no small issue either (after all, if it was, it would not have had to be pushed into the cupboard!).  As Alex and Clare were tricked into “adopting” the non-human creature George originally was (or still is?), how will they react on learning this? We have recovered from the relief of Amy and Rory surviving the doll scare, but we suddenly focus on George. His feelings are no longer banished from consciousness and therefore phantastically frightening. But recovering them into conscious thought also exposes him to the original fear, and indeed some frightening reality, that he couldn't previously face. What is now in the open is that he is not a human but a Tenza, as is the prospect that he was originally defending himself against: that upon learning this and realising they have been tricked, Alex and Clare will show him the door.

How does the episode end? We all know how. The common family history which Alex, Clare and George have shared proves stronger than blood. Alex and Clare's original wish has really made the Tenza creature into George and they would never ever contemplate giving up this George, their son.

Look up more information about our new  Level 3 module Advancing social psychology (DD317) (which unfortunately doesn't feature Doctor Who)

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Theresa May and chips

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Saturday, 6 May 2017, 09:34

This week's blog from the module team of Advancing social psychology (DD317) considers the significance of some of the election news coverage.

As the election campaign progresses, there was extensive coverage this week of the Prime Minister, Theresa May, eating chips in the street (to be precise, fries dipped in ketchup). So what was that all about?

In Chapters 10  and 11of the Advancing social psychology textbook, we discuss the concept of performance. This proposes that in daily life people perform identities through how they speak and move, the appearances they present and the ways they relate to others. To perform an identity successfully, it's usually necessary to conform to an established image by looking and sounding 'right' and generally doing what people expect. This can be difficult. For example, we suggest that a woman Prime Minister might have some problems performing the identity of an authoritative political leader because there are fewer established social expectations attached to that identity for a woman than a man. It's less clear what she should look like or do in order to be a proper Prime Minister.

On the other hand, there are now plenty of expectations about performing the identity of a UK political candidate. You are required to wear a high vis vest and hard hat on a construction site, talk to small children at a primary school, visit an elderly person in sheltered housing, deal cheerfully with a heckler (without hitting them) and eat messy food in public. Perhaps there is a logic to these expectations. They have to be carried out in front of the cameras so they could be seen to demonstrate a relevant political skill: effectively managing the media.

But Theresa May's chip-eating can be understood in another way. There is a vague and unconvincing association of class, as if the PM is identifying with 'ordinary' people who don’t eat anything but chips. (Really?) Forty years ago, the equivalent for Mrs Thatcher was to visit a butcher’s shop during her first election campaign. She bought sausages, a chicken and an enormous quantity of mince. This was an unlikely range of meals for a millionaire household and of course no one really believed that she did her own weekly shopping or cooked the family dinner, yet the event gave an immense boost to her popularity.

Perhaps the point of this, and the chips, is exactly that the politician is doing something that is not her normal behaviour. Is it a rather cruel test, as if the electorate enjoys humiliating the candidate by asking her to do something she may find uncomfortable? (Revenge for all that boring tv coverage?)

More subtly, perhaps this is a test of confidence, requiring the candidate to deal smoothly with an awkward situation. In another piece of media coverage this week, the actress Maxine Peake, a woman from a working class background, referred to the confidence (and likeability) of Old Etonian actors she’d worked with (Guardian 29/04/17). She asked why the state education system doesn't give people 'that sense of entitlement, that you can'. Her comments suggest that confidence is a classed attribute. In other words, it may have become a marker of a certain class identity.

If that’s the case, then performing confidently in an awkward situation might take on an additional meaning. Of course it's silly for these (woman) politicians to pretend that they do their own food shopping or have chips as a meal, but if they can carry off that silly behaviour, without looking uncomfortable, then they will be performing the confident identity that is also associated with the traditional ruling classes. Perhaps they need to accomplish that performance successfully in order to prove that that's where they belong.

There's more discussion of identity and performance in Advancing social psychology (DD317).

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Social psychology and 'Doctor Who'

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Saturday, 29 Apr 2017, 05:20

In our continuing series of blogs from the production team of the new module Advancing Social Psychology (DD317), Stephanie Taylor brings a social psychological perspective to 'Doctor Who'.

There's a new series of 'Doctor Who' so we're off again in the TARDIS with a different woman companion, played by the wonderful Pearl Mackie, and the same old superior Doctor (check the comments on male-female relationships in the earlier DD317 blog on Vogue magazine).  But I do like watching Peter Capaldi and I enjoy the series enough to keep dipping in.

The new companion, Bill Potts, has had quite a hard life but she's been liberated by education (a point for all OU students to note, although be reassured that the Doctor is not typical of OU tutors). We're told that she wants to travel to the future and her journey In the first full episode, to an Earth colony on another planet, raises some interesting questions about how we imagine future worlds. There's a clear message that improved technology is not enough to make life good. Social psychologists would agree with that. We reject the idea that technological developments dictate how society will change (the idea known as technological determinism), arguing instead for a more complex interplay between the technological and the social.

Like all the Doctor's woman companions, Bill Potts is presented as an ordinary contemporary woman and, like the others, it's noticeable how free she is. These women may have their problems – Bill has to serve chips in the university cafe – but they tend to dress as they want, follow their lives and loves as they choose, and of course go wherever they want in the TARDIS, leaving other responsibilities behind, including the job in the cafe.

This fits with a common narrative of gender, that people today have left behind the constraints of past gendered roles, and that women in particular are now confident and empowered. But narratives can be widely accepted without necessarily being accurate. In DD317 we approach this one critically. We present the work of social psychologists of gender who question the supposed freedoms of women, and men, in the UK today. This is part of the discussion of New femininities and masculinities in Block 4 Contemporary social psychological subjects.

The Doctor Who writers generally suggest that the Doctor's companions take a distinctive, and superior, 21st century world view wherever and whenever they travel, although they may empathise with people from other times. It's as if the high point of human understanding has been reached right now, in the present day. The people of today, represented by the companions, are normal and everyone else in time and the universe is 'other'.

Social psychologists point out that the concept of the 'other' is subtle but important, and dangerous. By emphasising the normality of 'us' and the strangeness of 'them' (and on Doctor Who yes, they do often look quite strange), the concept encourages a blindness, and deafness, to 'their' point of view, and their possible protests about how they're being treated by 'us'. The 'other' is part of a way of thinking associated with cultural encounters through the ages, including in situations of war and colonialism, and it can become a justification for contemporary inequalities and divided societies, two major concerns for social psychologists, as we discuss in DD317 in Block 2 New encounters across cultures in a globalised world.

And there's so much more to be said about 'Doctor Who'. Watch this space for the next episode of this discussion.

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A social psychological view of Brexit

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In our continuing series of blogs from the DD317 module team, Eleni Andreouli writes about a social psychological view of Brexit:

It was one of the defining moments of 2016 when British people voted to leave the European Union, against the so called ‘political establishment’. Alongside the election of Donald Trump in the US, Brexit is seen as marking the beginning a new political era in Western democracies. In seeking to explain this ‘political earthquake’, several academics and other analysts have pointed to the rise of the far-right, the growth of populism, authoritarianism and xenophobia, and a more general ‘crisis of democracy’ and of liberalism.

There are certainly many threads on could pick up when discussing what Brexit means, its symbolism and its repercussions. What has become clear is that we need to take into account both social and psychological factors to understand these new political movements. For this, we need social psychology. What concepts could be useful in starting to unpack Brexit politics? These are many, but here are some that are particularly important:

Identity, a central social psychological concept, has been extensively used to understand why some social groups voted for Brexit while others did not. Unsurprisingly, national and European identities have taken centre stage in this discussion, but also the role of class identities, gender and ethnicity has been discussed in some depth.

Similarly, the role of cultural values, for example endorsing more liberal or more communitarian value systems, appears to be central in explaining new political orientations in the Brexit era. Like identity, culture is also an important social psychological concept, developed particularly within cultural and cross-cultural psychology.

Ethnocentrism and prejudice, both established subjects of social psychological study, have also been important for understanding the tensions and challenges arising in the post- EU referendum era in the UK.

Social psychology can further help us understand how new political movements develop and gather momentum. For instance, how did leaving the EU, from a rather marginal issue, become a political cause that could mobilise people? And, equally, how can the surge of pro-European movements, following the Brexit vote, be understood?

To learn more about these topics from an integrated social and psychological perspective, check out our new module DD317 Advancing Social Psychology.


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Can positive thinking make you unhappy?

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Tuesday, 18 Apr 2017, 16:27

In our continuing series of blogs from the module team, Paul Stenner writes:

In a recent instalment of the Today programme on Radio 4 (February, 2017), John Humphrys interviewed the Danish psychologist Professor Svend Brinkmann on the topic of positive thinking.

Professor Brinkmann is author of a recent book called ‘Stand firm: resisting the self-improvement craze’. As this title might suggest, he made some interesting critical observations about the widespread tendency amongst managers, positive psychologists and business gurus to urge the importance of positive thinking. If there are negative things in our world, Brinkmann argued, then it is very important that we acknowledge and understand these things if we are to challenge and change them. We must concretely address the negative, and not sugar-coat it with reassuring positive thoughts.

Brinkmann’s voice is in the minority amongst psychologists, but the social psychological point he makes is important. The interviewee who followed him, for example, was incredulous and simply repeated the position that positive thinking is healthy and to be encouraged. Brinkmann’s argument requires that we move beyond a consideration of individual psychology, and take into consideration the interpersonal, cultural and societal context within which a new discourse of happiness has become established over the past 10 years or so.

On an individual level, and without consideration of context, it is obvious that positive thinking can be a very good thing. But things can become troublesome if ‘happiness’ is foisted upon people as a duty by those in positions of authority. When our bosses and managers oblige us to be positive about changes they are introducing to our work-lives, for example, then happiness becomes something more like an instrument of power.

You'll find more discussion of these and related issues in the new module Advancing social psychology (DD317) in Block 4, Contemporary social psychological subjects, including Chapter 12, Happy subjects and humaneering.

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Social psychology and the new editor of Vogue

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Saturday, 29 Apr 2017, 05:19


Vogue magazine has a new editor, Edward Enninful– the first man and the first black person in this role. Do social psychologists have anything to contribute to the debate around this appointment? Yes!

First, social psychologists would note that the appointment is significant because of the importance of having a variety of voices and viewpoints in a public arena. The new Vogue appointment widens that variety. This matters because the media, including fashion media, shape accepted ideas in society, for instance, about who looks good and why. These ideas, or norms, influence how we judge others, and ourselves (Is my body wrong? Am I too fat, too dark, too old to look good?). So the greater the range of people working in the fashion media, the more likely it is that they will challenge norms, presenting new viewpoints and broadening the range of ideas and images in play. And for just the same reasons, academic disciplines, as another kind of arena, need to represent as much of society as possible. The new module Advancing social psychology DD317 looks at the influence of female voices in psychology, a discipline which was originally dominated by men.

A second social psychological issue concerns the relevance of different social categories. Is the appointment more important in terms of race or gender? Is it more significant that the new editor is black or a man? Yes, the fashion world is overwhelmingly white but the status of gender is more complex. Fashion centres on images of (young thin) female beauty. Most of its customers are women. Although fashion magazine editors have traditionally been women, most fashion photographers and designers are men, as are the CEO and Chairman of Condé Nast which owns Vogue magazine. So does the new appointment challenge the currently powerful people in fashion, or does it reinforce an imbalance between the men who are the fashion decision-makers and the women who accept their decisions, including a male view of their appearances?

You'll find more discussion of these and related issues in the new module Advancing social psychology (DD317) in Block 4, Contemporary social psychological subjects, including Chapter 11, New femininities and masculinities.

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Social psychology and psychoanalysis on DD317

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Saturday, 29 Apr 2017, 05:17

Is it just me, or do quite a lot of us share a sense that there is something in the air and we are living in dark times? Either way, both the Westminster massacre (terrorism or a madman running amok?) and the more recent Croydon attack seem particularly odious manifestations of humanity.

Because many models of (social) psychology these days are either cognitive or focus on language,  social psychology may sometimes look toothless in the face of such atrocities. This is an overly simplistic image of the discipline of course, and the recognition of the cognitively or discursively constructed worldview of humans is indispensable in accounting for their conduct.

However, the manifest irrationality of such attacks  seems to point to the importance of another level: namely, the role of 'affect' (emotion) and motives which may not be directly available to the consciousness of the agents of the attacks. Psychoanalysis is a therapeutic tradition that tries to understand such motivations, but it has also had a great influence on some forms of social psychology as well. The psychoanalytically informed field of psychology and the social sciences is known as psychosocial studies. You will be able to learn more about psychoanalysis and psychosocial studies, and how they can help us understand political conflict and violence, in Block 5 of the new module, Advancing social psychology DD317.

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Advancing social psychology - our new module

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Saturday, 29 Apr 2017, 05:14

It's spring, the time of new beginnings, and appropriately the new module Advancing social psychology (DD317) is about to hatch. The main production team have been OU social psychologists Eleni Andreouli, David Kaposi, Rachel Manning, Paul Stenner and myself, Stephanie Taylor. Our aim was to try to pin down a fluid field, social psychology today. The social world is inevitably in a state of change. (At the moment we could point to the effects of Brexit negotiations, disability benefit changes, wild weather in many locations and new incidents of terrorism, as well as the light relief of new music and tv and spring fashion.) Logically, the psychology of people in their social contexts has to stretch and change to accommodate its subject, or rather its subjects, us, in all our variety. To show how we've approached this, over the next few weeks we'll be posting some short discussions of things that are happening and the connections to the new module. So watch this space!

In the meantime, you might want to look up details of the module itself


DD317 Level 3 Open University module Advancing social psychology

Part of the B.Sc Social Psychology and B.Sc Psychology, accredited by the British Psychological Society

60 points

Starting October 2017




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