Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Psychology of Politics

In Psychology there is a term which describes a person’s perception of the ability they have to change the situation around them. This term is “locus of control.”

Psychologists have developed some rather good tests for determining locus of control in individuals. A person who has an internal locus of control sees his or her own actions as the major factor in what happens to them. They tend to have a solid work ethic, a healthy view of self, and an understanding of cause and effect. Because they see the world in terms of guiding principles, these people are less likely to be superstitious and are more willing to view change in positive terms.

On the other hand, those with an external locus of control see the actions of others as the major factor in what happens to them. They tend to see themselves as victims – perhaps not of any particular person, but of fate – and they see themselves as generally powerless to effect change. These people tend to have low self-esteem, see the world as random without any guiding rules, and are likely to get frustrated. People with an external locus of control may be superstitious – it was the “lucky hat” that enabled him to get the home run, not the hours of practice in the batting cage. Change is viewed with fear, since an external locus of control robs the individual of his expectation of making things better.

Of course, these are generalizations. Any individual may have an internal locus of control in some areas and an external locus of control in other areas. There are limits as to how we can effect change on an individual basis. Groups are often more effective, since they combine the power of individual resources toward a goal.
This important attitude of what value one’s own actions have in improving life for themselves and others influences an individual’s political perspectives as well. Progressivism is basically an external locus of control position. It realizes that we can identify problems and do something about them. As individuals, progressives look to make positive changes for themselves and those around them. In groups, progressives realize that they can make positive changes for everyone. Progressivism is a “yes we can” attitude, looking to benefit the whole.

Conservatism, on the other hand, is basically an internal locus of control position. Change makes the conservative feel powerless and uncertain as to what may happen, or where they may fit into the system. Conservatives may not actually like the current situation, either individually or collectively, but because life is random and the consequences of actions cannot be predicted, they resist change. Better to suffer with what we have now than to risk it getting worse.

This may explain why people who could benefit from change may heartily resist it. Fear of the unknown is a strong negative emotion. Even if change is needed, the conservative does not necessarily believe it can be accomplished. The conservative is generally unwilling to let others control or effect change, not because the proposed changes wouldn’t benefit the population as a whole, but because it might not benefit his or her situation in particular. Better to hold onto what control one does have than to let go and see what may happen.

These distinctions explain a lot, politically and morally. Catch a progressive doing something wrong, and the progressive will often show genuine contrition and try to make things right. Catch a conservative doing wrong and the conservative will tend to blame circumstances or others for the situation, or attempt to deflect responsibility in other ways. Remember, an internal locus of control sees oneself as receiving actions, not as responsible for them. Others may be responsible, but not him!

Fortunately, one can change. It is much like “growing up.” When you are young, there are things you can’t do or are not allowed to do. As you grow up you are introduced to a wide variety of different things you can do, should do, and must do. Sometimes, though, as adults we forget these lessons. As a nation, we need to see ourselves as growing up as well. There are things we can do, should do, and must do – and the things we do will make an impact. The more we empower each person to make positive change, the better. The more we restrict corporations from simply imposing their will on others, the better.

I used to be a conservative. It took time and some experience, but I found I can make positive changes for myself and for others. So now I am a progressive. I want a progressive government. I want a progressive faith. God has given me a mind to think with and hands to work with. I can make things better. And God helping me, I will.

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