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The Impact of Personality on Politics: An Attempt to Clear Away Underbrush

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2014

Fred I. Greenstein*
Wesleyan University


There is a great deal of political activity which can be explained adequately only by taking account of the personal characteristics of the actors involved. The more intimate the vantage, the more detailed the perspective, the greater the likelihood that political actors will loom as full-blown individuals influenced by all of the peculiar strengths and weaknesses to which the species homo sapiens is subject, in addition to being role-players, creatures of situation, members of a culture, and possessors of social characteristics such as occupation, class, sex, and age.

To a non-social scientist the observation that individuals are important in politics would seem trite. Undergraduates, until they have been trained to think in terms of impersonal categories of explanation, readily make assertions about the psychology of political actors in their explanations of politics. So do journalists. Why is it that most political scientists are reluctant to deal explicitly with psychological matters (apart from using a variety of rather impersonal psychological constructs such as “party identification,” “sense of political efficacy,” and the like)? Why is political psychology not a systematically developed subdivision of political science, occupying the skill and energy of a substantial number of scholars?

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 1967 

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1 In my own efforts to do this I find that much of the existing research can be considered under three broad headings: psychological studies of single political actors, such as political biographies; studies which classify political actors into types, such as the literature on authoritarianism; and aggregative accounts, in which the collective effects of personality are examined in institutional contexts—ranging from small aggregates such as face-to-face groups all the way through national and international political processes. Needless to say, it is one thing to suggest that clarification of such diverse endeavors is possible and another thing actually to make some progress along these lines.

2 A standard discussion by Allport notes a full fifty types of definition of the term (apart from colloquial usages): Allport, Gordon, Personality (New York: Holt, 1937), 2454.Google Scholar

3 Riesman, David and Glazer, Nathan, “The Lonely Crowd: A Reconsideration in 1960,” in Lipset, Seymour M. and Lowenthal, Leo (eds.), Culture and Social Character (New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1961), p. 437.Google Scholar For examples of discussions that are in varying degrees critical of personality and politics writings see the essays by Shils and Verba cited in note 17, Bendix, Reinhard, “Compliant Behavior and Individual Personality,” American Journal of Sociology, 58 (1952), 292303 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Spitz, David, “Power and Personality: The Appeal to the ‘Right Man’ in Democratic States,” this Review, 52 (1958), 8497.Google Scholar

4 Inkeles, Alex, “Sociology and Psychology,” in Koch, Sigmund (ed.), Psychology: A Study of A Science, VI (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), p. 354.Google Scholar

5 It is a matter of convenience whether the terms “personality” and “psychological” are treated as synonymous (as in the present passage), or whether the first is defined as some subset of the second (as in my discussion of the fifth objection). Given the diversity of uses to which all of the terms in this area are put, the best one can do is to be clear about one's usage in specific contexts.

6 My criticism of the second objection would of course not stand in any instance where some acquired inner characteristic (such as a sense of class consciousness) was being defined as a social characteristic, and it was being argued that this “social” characteristic was “more important” than a “personality” characteristic. In terms of my usage this would imply an empirical assertion about the relative influence of two types of psychological, or “personality” variables. My remarks in the text on the meaning of terms are simply short-hand approaches to clarifying the underlying issue. They are not canonical efforts to establish “correct” usage.

7 Hyman, Herbert, Survey Design and Analysis (Glenooe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1955), 254257.Google Scholar

8 Bronfenbrenner, Urie, “Personality and Participation: The Case of the Vanishing Variables,” Journal of Social Issues, 16 (1960), 5463.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 Hyman, Herbert, Survey Design and Analysis (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1955), 254257.Google Scholar Italics in the original. Also see Blalock, Hubert, “Controlling for Background Factors: Spuriousness Versus Developmental Sequences,” Sociological Inquiry, Vol. 34 (1964), 2839 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for a logical Inquiry, Vol. 34 (1964), pp. 28–39, for a discussion of the rather complex implications of this distinction for data analysis.

10 Allport, Gordon, review of The American Soldier, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 45 (1950), p. 173.Google Scholar Nothing in this discussion is intended to gainsay the use of controls. “I am not, of course, arguing against the use of break-downs or matched groups,” Allport adds. “They should, however, be used to show where attitudes come from, and not to imply that social causation acts automatically apart from attitudes.” Often a control, by suggesting the source of a psychological state, helps explain its dynamics and functions. A good example can be found in Hyman and Sheatsley's well-known critique of The Authoritarian Personality. The critique shows that certain attitudes and ways of viewing the world which the authors of The Authoritarian Personality explained in terms of a complex process of personal pathology are in fact typical of the thought processes and vocabulary of people of lower socio-economic status. Hyman and Sheatsley are therefore able to suggest that such attitudes may be a learned part of the respondents' cognitions rather than a psychodynamic manifestation serving ego-defensive functions. It should be clear from what I have said in the text, however, that Hyman and Sheatsley's thesis cannot legitimately be phrased as an argument that such attitudes are social (or cultural) rather than psychological: Hyman, Herbert and Sheatsley, Paul B., “The Authoritarian Personality—A Methodological Critique,” in Christie, Richard and Jahoda, Marie (eds.), Studies in the Scope and Method of “The Authoritarian Personality” (Glencoe: The Free Press, 1954), 50122.Google Scholar

11 Hook, Sidney, The Hero in History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1943).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

12 Compare Leontief's, Wassily interesting essay “When Should History be Written Backwards?The Economic History Review, 16, (1963), 18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13 For an account of European politics in the 1930's that is consistent with this assertion see Bullock, Alan, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (New York: Harper, rev. ed., 1962).Google Scholar Needless to say, any attempt to seek operational indicators of environments that “admit of restructuring” in order to restate the present proposition in testable form could not take the circular route of simply showing that the environment had been manipulated by a single actor.

14 Tucker, Robert C., The Soviet Political Mind (New York: Praeger, 1963), 145–65Google Scholar; quotation from Turgenev at p. 147.

15 Tucker, Robert C., “The Dictator and Totalitarianism,” World Politics, Vol. 17 (1965), p. 583.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16 In other words, the skill of the actor may feed back into the environment, contributing to its instability or stability. To the degree that we take environmental conditions as given (i.e., considering them statically at a single point in time), we underestimate the impact of individuals on politics. For examples of political actors shaping their own roles and environments see Gerth, Hans and Mills, C. Wright, Character and Social Structure (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), Chapter 14.Google Scholar

17 Easton, David, The Political System (New York: Knopf, 1953), p. 196.Google Scholar

18 Strictly speaking, it is not the actor who is dispensable in this formulation, but rather his personal characteristics. In an earlier draft I referred to “actor substitutability,” but the antonym, “non-substitutability,” is less successful than “indispensability” as a way of indicating the circumstances under which an explanation of action demands an account of the actor. On the other hand, “substitutability” is a very handy criterion for rough and ready reasoning about the degree to which the contribution of any historical actor is uniquely personal, since one may easily perform the mental exercise of imagining how other available actors would have performed under comparable circumstances.

19 Lane, Robert E., Political Life (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1959), pp. 99100 Google Scholar; Shils, Edward A., “Authoritarianism: ‘Right’ and ‘Left’,” in Christie, Richard and Jahoda, Marie, (eds.), op. cit., pp. 2449 Google Scholar; Goldhamer, Herbert, “Public Opinion and PersonalityAmerican Journal of Sociology, 55 (1950), 346354 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Levinson, Daniel J., “The Relevance of Personality for Political Participation,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 22 (1958), 310 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Verba, Sidney, “Assumptions of Rationality and Non-Rationality in Models of the International System,” World Politics, 14 (1961), 93117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

20 Shils, op. cit., p. 43.

21 This is a quotation from a well-known passage in Popper's, Karl The Open Society and Its Enemies (New York: Harper Torchbook edition, 1963), II, p. 97 Google Scholar, arguing that sociology is an “autonomous” discipline because psychological evidence is so often of limited relevance—compared with situational evidence—to explanations of behavior. For a critique of Popper's analysis see Lichtman, Richard, “Karl Popper's Defense of the Autonomy of Sociology,” Social Research, 32 (1965), 125.Google Scholar

22 Shils. op. cit., p. 44.

23 Lane, op. cit., p. 100.

24 Shils, op. cit., p. 43.

25 Riesman and Glazer, op. cit., pp. 438–439.

26 Lane, op. cit. p. 100.

27 Goldhamer, op. cit., p. 349.

28 Sherif, Muzafer, “The Concept of Reference Groups in Human Relations,” in Sherif, Muzafer and Wilson, M. O. (eds.), Group Relations at the Crossroads (New York: Harper, 1953), p. 30.Google Scholar

29 Budner, Stanley, “Intolerance of Ambiguity as a Personality Variable,” Journal of Personality, 30 (1960), p. 30.Google Scholar

30 Shils, op. cit., 44–45.

31 Goldhamer, op. cit., 346–347.

32 Levinson, op. cit., p. 9.

33 Lane, op. cit., p. 99.

34 Levinson, op. cit., p. 10.

35 Verba, op. cit., p. 100. By “non-logical” Verba means influences resulting from ego-defensive personality needs, but his point applies generally to personal variability.

36 Wildavsky, Aaron, “The Analysis of Issue-Contexts in the Study of Decision-Making,” Journal of Politics, 24 (1962), 717732.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

37 Shils, op. cit., p. 45.

38 Goldhamer, op. cit., p. 353.

39 Verba, op. cit., p. 103.

40 Goldhamer, op. cit., p. 349.

41 Levinson, op. cit., p. 10.

42 Shils, op. cit., p. 45. The term “role” is com monly used so as to have both an environmental referent (the prevailing expectations about his duties in a role incumbent's environment) and a predispositional referent (the incumbent's own expectations). For a valuable discussion see Levinson, Daniel, “Role, Personality, and Social Structure in the Organizational Setting,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58 (1959), 170180.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

43 Wilcox, Henry, Portrait of a General (New York: Knopf, 1964), ixx.Google Scholar

44 Lasswell, Harold D., Psychopathology and Politics, originally published in 1930 Google Scholar, reprinted in The Political Writings of Harold D. Lasswell (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1951); Fromm, Erich, Escape From Freedom (New York: Rinehart, 1941)Google Scholar; Adorno, T. W., et al., The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper, 1950).Google Scholar

45 For the present purposes a detailed conceptual side-trip into the meaning of “ego-defensive needs” will not be necessary. In general, I am referring to the kind of seemingly inexplicable, “pathological” behavior that classical, pre-ego psychology psychoanalysis was preoccupied with. A rough synonym would be needs resulting from “internally induced anxieties,” a phrase that appears in Katz's, Daniel remarks on ego-defense. “The Functional Approach to the Study of Attitudes,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 24 (1960), 163204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Also see Greenstein, Fred I., “Personality and Political Socialization: The Theories of Authoritarian and Democratic Character,” Annals, 361 (1965), 8195.Google Scholar

46 Berelson, Bernard, et al., Voting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954), p. 184.Google Scholar

47 The quotations are from Lane, Robert E. and Sears, David O., Public Opinion (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1964), p. 76.Google Scholar Also see Hartmann, Heinz, “The Application of Psychoanalytic Concepts to Social Science,” in his Essays on Ego Psychology (New York: International Universities Press, 1964), p. 90f.Google Scholar Lane and Sears also suggest that “irrational” opinion formation is fostered where the “referents of an opinion” are “vague,” where the issue is “remote” and it is “difficult to assess its action consequences,” and where the “terms of debate” are “abstract.” These are points which, in terms of the present discussion, apply generally to the possibility that personal variability will affect behavior (actor dispensability), as well as more specifically to the possibility that ego-defense will come to the fore.

48 But see Srole, Leo et al., Mental Health in the Metropolis, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962).Google Scholar

49 Ackerman, Nathan W. and Jahoda, Marie, Anti-Semitism and Emotional Disorder (New York: Harper, 1950).Google Scholar