The Political Obsession

Recently a friend posted an article to Facebook about a colossally stupid thing two individuals did. The story wasn’t important, although it was interesting within it’s context. What I found really interesting was the first comment, which read “I bet they voted for Trump!”. Given our political climate in the United States over the past several years, it got me thinking: What causes people to become politically obsessed to the point that literally everything revolves around politics?

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As best as I can tell, the following three psychological phenomenon play a role in Political Obsession: Secret Knowledge, Association Fallacies, and a dash of the Actor-Observer Effect. Here’s how it all works.

Secret Knowledge is one of the core tenants of conspiracy theorists, however in this case I believe it influences the politically obsessed as well. It boils down to the belief that “I know something you don’t, so listen to me”. How many times have your politically obsessed friends proclaimed “You just don’t understand” or “Have I got news for you!”. They revel in the fact that, in their opinion, they have it all figured out. Unfortunately like most things in life, politics don’t fit nicely into “single motive” reasoning, and while it’s tempting to believe that “X is always right, Y is always wrong, because… X is good, Y is bad…” it’s a gross oversimplification. After all, no one believes they are the ‘bad guy’ – so if you’re entire secret knowledge argument boils down to “Democrats are always evil” or “Republicans are always evil”, your secret knowledge isn’t as well nuanced as you might think.

This leads into the Association Fallacy, which is pretty simple – we believe that associations are true even without evidence. You’ll notice that most politically obsessed rely on pretty simple logic, as pointed out above. Candidate X is a Republican, Republicans are always <good/bad>, therefore Candidate X is <good/bad>”. Pair that with our willingness to pass up rewards just to NOT hear an opposing view and you have a a deadly dash of “I’m right because… I’m right… and I’ll pay you not to tell me I’m wrong”.

Finally, let’s talk about how the Actor-Observer effect fits in.  The Actor-Observer effect is somewhat debated within Social Psychology, but one thing we know from a meta-analysis is that negative events tend to be ascribed to personal traits versus external circumstances. So when a politician does something you consider bad, you ascribe that to their personal trait (e.g., “He’s evil”). This works the same for all, leading to a complete mess: My candidate is good because candidates like him/her are always good. Don’t tell me differently, in fact I’ll pay you not to. And finally, the other candidate? Everything bad happens because he/she’s evil.

So what can you do when you’ve found someone politically obsessed? Just don’t engage them. It isn’t worth your time or frustration. If someone is determined to draw everything back to politics, the only way out for them explore their own beliefs critically. And unless they’re willing to do that, there’s no forcing them. And if you’re politically obsessed and want help? Start by asking yourself one simple question: Why do you believe what you believe? Explore that in more than a 1 sentence answer (hint: “Because it’s right” isn’t the right answer) and you’ll be on your way!

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