Complexities of Political Behaviour

By Shakir Shafiq Qadri

IT is of profound importance to delve deep into the mechanisms that determine political behaviour. At the root of it are the behavioural trends of the individuals that make up the citizenry. There are innumerable factors that play a role in the make up of these trends but two important concepts of note need to be pointed out and discussed.

The first idea relates to the tendency of humans to choose an alternative based on group identity and pressure regardless of the merits of that alternative. To elaborate upon this, a study done by the Polish-American social psychologist, Solomon Asch, also known as the Asch conformity experiments can be referred to. The experiments involved two sets of people: Real subjects that formed the minority of the group and actors that only posed as subjects and formed the majority.

The study showed that when asked a question in a group, some of the real subjects of the experiment tended to go with the majority answer even if the answer was incorrect. This was termed as "distortion of perception" as these subjects truly believed that the answers that the majority gave were correct when in fact they were incorrect. Some of the other subjects yielded to the majority after a few trials where they answered correctly. For jumping the ship, they cited the reasons that if the majority answered differently than them every single time, the majority must be right and that they themselves must have wrongly interpreted the questions. In the study this was referred to as “distortion of judgement”. The subjects that yielded to the majority on the least number of occasions claimed that they conformed with the majority even when they knew the accurate answer because they didn’t want to stand out as separate from the rest. This was termed as “distortion of action”.

In some cases where the real subjects never caved in to the temptation of aping the majority, they still showed lack of confidence in their own correct answers when the majority answered differently.

In the era of mass media the findings of the Asch conformity experiments beg the question:

Can a concerted political campaign that creates a perception, even if untrue, of the majority of the population siding with a particular political party result in a big chunk of the electorate falling into the traps of “distorted perception”, “distorted judgement” or “distortion of action”?

However, this question must be coupled with a second concept, a popular one in the field of political science known as Duverger's law. The law states that the electoral systems that favour a simple majority (such as first past the post), for various reasons, tend to lead to a two-party system. This could mean that as the competition of a multi-party system wanes over a period of time, one of the two giant parties that emerge to compete for power can utilise its talents and channelize its resources to create the distorted reality discussed earlier. Such a campaign can sway the opinions of a large proportion of the voting population in favour of the said party.

Questions such as these need more attention from political and social scientists in order to better understand the complexities of voting behaviour. The micro and macro factors spanning numerous branches of individual and collective human life and systems must be further studied to ensure that democracy doesn’t fall prey to the exploitation of social forces by cunning players that tussle in the political arena.

  • Author writes about Politics, international relations and history. He is a Master of Arts in Political science and international relations and a Master of Tourism management

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