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  • Author: Frank J. Gonzalez
  • Publication Date: 09-2020
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: Political Science Quarterly
  • Institution: Academy of Political Science
  • Abstract: In the polarized, post-truth, tribal era of politics that we find ourselves in, a book on conformity—how to understand it and take concrete steps toward diminishing it—should (rightfully) be expected to be of great interest to many. In Conformity: The Power of Social Influences, the prolific Cass R. Sunstein delivers exactly this. This book stands out from Sunstein’s other books in its focus on the broad societal implications of social influence. Sunstein grounds his argument in the principles underlying American democracy, and in doing so, he makes it difficult not to become depressed at how distant our current state of affairs seems from that ideal. However, Sunstein offers optimism in the form of a framework for actionable solutions. Sunstein begins with a model of the two major features of human psychology that he says reinforce conformity: (1) the tendency to believe something is true if others believe it is true (especially “confident” others) and (2) the desire for positive social standing and reputation. In Chapter 1, he explains how conformity is frequently harmful because it encourages individuals to suppress their “private signals” (that is, expressions of what they individually think is right or wrong), which decreases the diversity of ideas in a group and ultimately leads to undesirable outcomes. In Chapter 2, Sunstein advances beyond the framework he has traditionally worked within by considering cascades, or the spread of ideas and practices through conformity pressures, which ultimately give rise to social movements. He acknowledges that cascades are not necessarily “bad”—they are likely what led to the rise of the #MeToo movement—but they were also likely crucial to the propagation of genocide during the Holocaust.
  • Topic: Book Review, Psychology, Political Science, Polarization
  • Political Geography: Global Focus
  • Author: Dominic D.P. Johnson, Dominic Tierney
  • Publication Date: 02-2019
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: International Security
  • Institution: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University
  • Abstract: A major puzzle in international relations is why states privilege negative over positive information. States tend to inflate threats, exhibit loss aversion, and learn more from failures than from successes. Rationalist accounts fail to explain this phenomenon, because systematically overweighting bad over good may in fact undermine state interests. New research in psychology, however, offers an explanation. The “negativity bias” has emerged as a fundamental principle of the human mind, in which people's response to positive and negative information is asymmetric. Negative factors have greater effects than positive factors across a wide range of psychological phenomena, including cognition, motivation, emotion, information processing, decision-making, learning, and memory. Put simply, bad is stronger than good. Scholars have long pointed to the role of positive biases, such as overconfidence, in causing war, but negative biases are actually more pervasive and may represent a core explanation for patterns of conflict. Positive and negative dispositions apply in different contexts. People privilege negative information about the external environment and other actors, but positive information about themselves. The coexistence of biases can increase the potential for conflict. Decisionmakers simultaneously exaggerate the severity of threats and exhibit overconfidence about their capacity to deal with them. Overall, the negativity bias is a potent force in human judgment and decisionmaking, with important implications for international relations theory and practice.
  • Topic: Political Theory, Emotions, International Relations Theory, Psychology
  • Political Geography: Global Focus