My analysis of altruism and collective action, as examples of political behavior that does not easily “fit” into models – such as the rational actor model — based on the assumption of self-interest as the main force guiding human behavior.
My trilogy on moral choice suggested the limits of theories — from rational actor theory and evolutionary biology to economics, and psychology — that assume self-interest is the norm.
It suggested that self-interest does exist as a powerful force driving political behavior but is limited by identity and, more particularly, our perceptions of ourselves in relation to others.
My work on altruism located the critical drive in psychological factors, not the sociodemographic characteristic – religion, ethnicity — traditionally utilized by prior analysts. I treated my work on altruism as an analytical lens through which we can examine work in a wide variety of fields that emanate from the assumption that human political behavior originates in self-interest.
My work provided a valuable counter-point to political explanations derived from theoretical work in economics, evolutionary biology, psychology, and rational choice theory.
More particularly, it revealed the tremendous power of identity to constrain choices by limiting the options we find available, not just ethically but cognitively. The Heart of Altruism and I’s edited volumes — The Economic Approach to Politics (1991), Political Economy and Political Psychology (1995) — were among the first important critiques revealing the limitations in rational actor theory and suggesting how the power of identity frames and sets a menu of choice from which we choose.
I next delved more fully into the moral psychology, asking about the cognitive process by which identity constrained choices. Based on poignant, in-depth interviews with rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, this work introduced my concept of an altruistic perspective that described the critical nature of how our perceptions of ourselves in relation to others influences our treatment of them.
Ethics in an Age of Terror and Genocide (2012) expanded my work to ask if all people have an ethical perspective, with altruists simply falling at one point on the moral continuum.
In this book, I argue that we all have an innate predisposition for ethics that resembles the innate proclivity for language. As with linguistic or mathematical ability, this general ethical frameworks gets filled in differently by what I identify as the critical parts of identity: worldview, integration of key values into one’s sense of self, categorization schema, and a sense of moral salience, defined as the feeling that another’s suffering is relevant for the actor and which therefore demands action not just general expressions of sympathy.
As with my earlier work, this work is based on riveting interviews, this time with Nazis, bystanders, rescuers of Jews and political opponents and supporters of Hitler.
This work is expanded in my latest volume (A Darkling Plain: Stories of Conflict and Humanity during War, Cambridge U Press, 2014) that draws on work on post-traumatic stress disorder and moral psychology to determine how people address moral choices to keep – or reclaim — their humanity during wars and genocides.
A Darkling Plain: Stories of Conflict and Humanity during War (2014) explored the psychology underlying wartime trauma.
It found several interesting and often counter-intuitive results; for example, people with strong needs for control do not fare well during wars and hope can often keep people trapped in life-threatening situations.
We are now exploring these results using long-term data from émigrés from the Third Reich and contrasting them with interviews with refugees from the on-going Syrian war.
Why did you gravitate toward studying political psychology, and how did that interest develop overtime?
I really fell into political psychology by chance although I do believe that the mind has tremendous power to influence our acts.
I was trained as a rational actor/choice theorist and began studying the instances — altruism, collective action — that do NOT fit that model. That got me interested in social identity theory and much of social and political psychology.
In your book Presidential Popularity and the Economy you explain how the economy affects the incumbent president. What explains President Obama’s lack of public support given his strong economic performance during his presidency?
I believe Obama enjoyed wide-spread popular support. His problem was an intransigent Congress that did not want to pass his agenda.
I believe racism lay at the root of the hostility to Obama. Similarly I believe much of the hostility toward Hillary Clinton was pure sexism, which we see continuing today (as in polygyny, in the man-splaining and hectoring of Senators such as Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren, etc.)