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Political psychological rationalization

Political psychological rationalization (PPR) is a phenomenon seen in political warfare and election campaign rhetoric, meant to displace a perceived fault, short coming, mistake, or problem from one political actor, and attach it to another political actor, generally an opponent. While not truly rationalization in the context of psychology—where a problem, short coming, mistake, or fault is justified and allowed to endure—PPR maintains the negative connotation of the original flaw, transfers that connotation to a target actor, and then seeks to destroy the flaw (and consequently the actor) through association with said flaw, but with a political purpose and focus. Political psychological rationalization exploits a number of psychological principles to manipulate the perceptions of different actors including groupthink, cognitive dissonance, and other forms of psychological manipulation. An example of PPR would be "Candidate A" accusing "Candidate B" of having an onerous tax policy for not cutting taxes while Candidate A had already raised taxes previously in his or her career, but having accused Candidate B of having an onerous tax policy is seen as being in favor of cutting taxes. Use of PPR can also run the risk of backfiring against the broadcaster if knowledge of hypocritical behavior on the part of the displacing political actor becomes known. In cases where this has happened, the original negative association can become reoriented back to the initiating political actor. As tool of political warfare, PPR has been used by a wide array of factions, ideologies, actors, and regimes including fascists, communists, religious extremists, electoral campaign rhetoric, and non-governmental organizations.


Psychological influencesEdit

As a tool of political warfare, PPR utilizes a number of psychological and sociological concepts, particularly the construct of rationalization. In psychology, rationalization is defined by the DSM-IV as when "the individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by concealing the true motivations for his or her own thoughts, actions, or feelings through the elaboration of reassuring or self serving but incorrect explanations."[1] Succinctly, this means that people will act in a way that coincides with their thoughts. If people conduct an action that goes outside their beliefs, then the mindset of the action or belief must change to create an internal balance (or rationalization). Claude Steele famously stated that rationalization is a defense mechanism developed to protect the self from dissenting opinions or decisions, thereby reaffirming an individual's own beliefs.[2] This assertion for one's actions or beliefs is also known as self-affirmation. Steele suggests that through self-affirmation, one's actions and beliefs maintain a mental balance. Current research on self-affirmation strengthens this view especially when seeing how people interact with people of similar actions or beliefs. When accompanied in a group setting, people can fall into a group-minded train of thinking called groupthink. In a political context, groupthink can lead to people believing their viewpoints or political beliefs are rational and normal, when really these viewpoints are isolated to the group.

In theory, a political actor using PPR could exploit the phenomenon of groupthink if the group idea has unfounded credibility due to many members of a adhering to the idea in a desire to maintain cohesion.[3]to rationalize a particular political position. A common example is social media. If one's social media network consists of people with only similar opinions, then one will believe that their belief is rational and common. Importantly, they will also be less likely to take dissenting viewpoints seriously, thus feeding the cycle of groupthink.[4]

In some cases, PPR might also be a defense mechanism against being branded with a negative image by an opponent through active exploitation of cognitive dissonance, creating alternative messages to rationalize a real or perceived inconsistency in policy or a previous attack by an opponent.[5] Due to the highly subjective nature of both broadcaster and target audience perceptions, it is difficult to definitively label a particular messaging campaign as being an example of PPR.

Contributing theoriesEdit

Groupthink refers to a state of mind when a group of people overlook their personal decisions and motivations in order to maintain the relationship of the in-group.[6] Using groupthink, individuals are at risk of influence from others. This could result in the individual agreeing with unfounded ideas or credibility because many members of a particular group adhere to it in a desire to maintain cohesion. Janis also found that intelligence did not factor into the likelihood for groupthink; however, agreeableness and self-identification were strong factors. An example of groupthink exists within sociopolitical research across academia. In their famous review, Inbar and Lammers found a bias of research favoring or utilizing liberal participants over conservative.[7] They suggest that this groupthink towards liberal participants may be affecting sociological, psychological, and political research that is being generalized to the overall population. This finding suggests that people across various domains and intelligence are susceptible to groupthink.

Psychological constructsEdit

Cognitive dissonance also plays a strong roll in how the self rationalizes a real or perceived inconsistency with the self's beliefs. When an individual acts in a manner that does not match their internal beliefs, there is a mental conflict.[8] In order to override this dissonance, the person must either change the behavior, or change their beliefs. As seen with groupthink, individuals adapt their behavior in order to maintain status-quo with the group. In a political setting, this could be incredibly dangerous.

In their 2013 literature review, Lodge and Taber looked at the components of a rationalizing voter.[9] Their review touched on the psychological constructs of automaticity, affect, long-term memory, and cognitive bias. They argue that voters utilize their beliefs and attitudes to construct heuristics to make judgments about political decisions. When creating these heuristics and recalling memories, voters utilize long-term memory to construct a cohesive picture that mirrors what they believe to match their political beliefs. This is important when considering voters in the booth trying to recall what they know about the campaigning candidates. Utilizing heuristics, voters will recall items that are the most salient within memory. This ability to recall items can be impacted by the availability heuristic and representative heuristic.

Use in American electoral campaign rhetoricEdit

"Daisy" advertisement

One of the most controversial examples of PPR in American electoral rhetoric is President Lyndon Johnson's use of the Daisy ad against Senator Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential campaign, which was used to create an image of his opponent as belligerent and reactionary in foreign affairs. The ad depicted a small girl counting the petals on a daisy. The camera slowly zooms in on the girl while the counting by the girl is replaced by a loudspeaker counting down to zero, at which point the picture changes from the girl counting petals to a nuclear explosion. Johnson's voice is then overheard saying,

"These are the stakes – to make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die."[10]

The ad also urged people to vote for President Johnson. While no intended target of the ad was ever specified, the implication was that if one voted against Johnson, they would be voting for nuclear war. The ad was only ever aired once due to intense negative reaction from the public, but the association with nuclear war followed Senator Goldwater for the rest of the election.[11] President Johnson by default became associated with moderation and peace, even though he had endorsed the domino theory as John F. Kennedy's vice-president in 1961, creating a predisposition to expanding the Vietnam War in 1965 after the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Use during the Cold WarEdit

A protracted political warfare campaign was waged between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War, in which both sides made extensive use of PPR. It consisted of the multiple accusations of government officials from the Communist Bloc and the West. In particular, the PPR was objectified in the struggle of each side to justify its political shortcomings by vilifying the ideology of the opponent. The ban of Western media and Western culture in the Soviet countries was an attempt by Kremlin to limit any potential for growing Western influence in these societies. Moreover, communist states were becoming more eager for the culture of consumerism and the access to the goods and services available in capitalist societies.[12] In order to frame the censorship into a positive context and to rationalize the it,[13] the Soviet regime was openly opposing Western culture with the argument that it was a source of the detrimental bourgeois influence[14] threatening the values of the communist society. The official and unofficial state measures undertaken against the Western culture were portrayed by the Soviet regime as a mechanism for protection of the population against the low morality of the decadent capitalistic society. Some acts of the modern Russian leadership also point to the same tendency even after the end of the Cold War. Namely, the Orthodox Christian community is the institution supposed to provide a protection from the 'Western philosophy of drugs, egotism and moral relativism'.[15]

As for the PPR on American side, some examples are also present. Between 1946 to 1956, there was a censorship campaign against schools and libraries in an effort to remove literature, described as 'radical'. The political move was explained through the danger that such literature was posing to the American democracy.[16] During 1950s the members of the Communist party and supporters of their ideas were persecuted and faced hostilities and rejection both by the side of the government and the society.[17] The anti-Soviet sentiment in America during the first half of the Cold War was measured to be greater than in European countries that were directly facing the consequences of the communist ideology.[18] The anti-Soviet campaign that led to the ban of many literary works during the Cold War entailed similar consequences for the modern art, described as an outlet of communist influence as well. Prominent artists that were allegedly having ties to communist supporters and thus presumably sharing sentiments to Communism suffered significant consequences as a result of their affiliation. The U.S. authorities decided for works of such artists that "no matter how innocuous the subject matter, be banned from publicly supported arts institutions and most especially from federally sponsored cultural exchange"[19]. This political move was intended to portray America as a non-materialist society that deeply cares for the culture and the arts and is ready to exchange ideas with other countries that share the same values. The American Cold War culture enjoyed much more independence than the artists in the East due to the numerous checks that the works had to go through in order to ensure compliance with the goals of the state policies. At the same time, the literature and the arts in the U.S. were still influenced to a large extent by the ideological war between capitalism and communism[20]. Critical theorists in International Relations see the period of the Cold War as a time-frame of intensive building and confirmation of the state's identity. It is achieved through the construction of an "enemy" in the eyes of the public while at the same time a real material threat was not present to an extent to which the undertaken measures would be justified by concrete facts about the strategic interests of the U.S. or its security[21].

Another example of the American use of PPR during the Cold War is the fallacy of the "missile gap". Claims that the Soviet Union was outpacing the United States in production numbers of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and would soon be at a disadvantage, surfaced during the late 1950s[22] and had peaked by the election of 1960. Although it had been disproven by the intelligence community, political elites continued to use the missile gap for their own gains. In this case however, the objective of PPR was not so much to demonize the Soviet Union (in fact, that had already been rhetorically established), but to create a perceived US deficiency to spur US action on the issue. Since any evidence invalidating the missile gap theory was classified, no cognitive dissonance was required to defend the rationalization that the US needed more strategic weapons, and group think could be harnessed to keep the conversation centered on strategic weapons, as opposed to other fronts on which the US could be countering the Soviets. The reality of this rationalization is that there was indeed a missile gap during this time period, but in favor of the United States.

Examples in contemporary international relationsEdit

The use of PPR has become prevalent in the public diplomacy campaigns of religious extremists, particularly radical Islamist groups. While rhetorically attacking the United States and its allies as being "crusaders" out to impose their ideals on the Muslim world, many groups claiming to resist that trend blame the state of the Muslim world immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on a failure of the umma to resist as well, leaving only the jihadist groups left to carry on the struggle, like Al Qaeda.[23] By claiming to resist a perceived invader, these groups can then associate themselves with an image of benevolence while demonizing the United States—despite committing many of the same excesses of which they accuse the United States, such as labeling other Muslims "infidels" who support the US, and imposing (theological) norms onto populations that do not necessarily share them.

Political psychological rationalization also continues to factor into modern public diplomacy efforts as a means to predispose target audiences to a message from a broadcasting actor. Aspects of PPR can be seen in the current media campaign surrounding China's peaceful rise, and how certain actions taken by the Chinese government are portrayed in both official statements and the larger news media. A commonly repeated theme is that China's military modernization and expansion is a reflection of growth in the Chinese economy and presence abroad.[24] This is a rationalization in response to a perception that the expanding nature of the Chinese military will result in increased Chinese aggressiveness. By using the term "peaceful rise" and seeking to portray the military expansion as part of a country's natural development, China is attempting to displace the fear (other countries) and perceived aggression (by China) and displace the negative implicated with its military growth and attach them to nations attempting to challenge China by creating the image that anyone who worries about China is merely paranoid or jealous of China's development. In repeated use of this rationalization, China is conditioning observing parties to think that the "peaceful rise" is the norm, using group think to delegitimize opponents and cognitive dissonance to rebut any mention of inconsistencies in official messaging from the Chinese government.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Association, published by the American Psychiatric (2000). DSM-IV-TR : diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4TH ED. ed.). United States: AMERICAN PSYCHIATRIC PRESS INC (DC). p. 812. ISBN 978-0-89042-025-6.
  2. ^ Steele, C. M. (1988). The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 21, pp. 261-302). Academic Press.
  3. ^ "Groupthink". Definition Groupthink. Retrieved 22 April 2012.
  4. ^ Majchrzak, A., Faraj, S., Kane, G. C., & Azad, B. (2013). The contradictory influence of social media affordances on online communal knowledge sharing. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 19(1), 38-55.
  5. ^ Cherry, Kendra. "What is Cognitive Dissonance". Retrieved 22 April 2012.
  6. ^ Janis, I. L. (1971). Groupthink. Psychology today, 5(6), 43-46.
  7. ^ Inbar, Y., & Lammers, J. (2012). Political diversity in social and personality psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5), 496-503.
  8. ^ Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford university press.
  9. ^ Lodge, M. & Taber, C. (2007). The Rationalizing Voter: Unconscious Thought in Political Information Processing. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.1077972.
  10. ^ "Transcript of 'Peace, Little Girl' 1964 Democratic Campaign". Copy from LBJ Library via CONELRAD. 1964. Retrieved 22 April 2012.
  11. ^ "Correspondence regarding The Daisy Ad from Senator Everett M. Dirksen." Copy from LBJ library via CONELRAD. 12 September 1964. Retrieved 22 April 2012.
  12. ^ Bren, Paulina; Neuburger, Mary, eds. (2012). Communism unwrapped: Consumption in cold war Eastern Europe. Oxford University Press.
  13. ^ Gulyás, Ágnes (2001). "Communist media economics and the consumers: The case of the print media of East Central Europe". International Journal of Media Management. 3 (2): 74-81.
  14. ^ Poiger, Uta (2000). Jazz, rock, and rebels: Cold War politics and American culture in a divided Germany. University of California Press.
  15. ^ Van Herpen, Marcel (2015). Putin's propaganda machine: Soft power and russian foreign policy. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 162.
  16. ^ Mediavilla, Cindy (1997). "The war on books and ideas: The California Library Association and anti-communist censorship in the 1940s and 1950s". Library Trends. 46 (2): 331–347.
  17. ^ L. Sullivan, John; Piereson, James; E. Marcus, George (1993). Sullivan, J. L., Piereson, J., & Marcus, G. E. (1993). Political tolerance and American democracy. University of Chicago Press.
  18. ^ Wald, Kenneth (1994). "The Religious Dimension of American Anti-Communism". Journal of Church and State. 36 (3): 483-506.
  19. ^ de Hart Mathews, Jane (1976). "Art and Politics in Cold War America". The American Historical Review. 81 (4): 762-787.
  20. ^ Tony, Shaw (2001). "The Politics of Cold War Culture". Journal of Cold War Studies. 3 (3): 59-76.
  21. ^ Campbell, David (1992). Writing security: United States foreign policy and the politics of identity. University of Minnesota Press.
  22. ^ Central Intelligence Agency. "Memorandum to Holders of NIE 11-5-58". 25 November 1958. Retrieved 23 April 2012.
  23. ^ Scheuer, Michael. "Al-Qaeda Doctrine: Training the Individual Warrior". Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 12. The Jamestown Foundation. Archived from the original on 3 September 2014. Retrieved 23 April 2012.
  24. ^ "China's military rise: The Dragon's New Teeth". The Economist. 7 April 2012. Retrieved 22 April 2012.