As a psychologist, you face a unique problem: everyone and their dog thinks they know the subject as well as you, someone who has extensively studied it for years. You wouldn’t find many people telling Isaac Newton how they thought gravity really worked, or Francis Crick that, in their opinion, his articulation of how deoxynucleic acid precisely forms is wrong on several counts, but for psychologists, you face it every day.

Nowhere is this truer than in my sub discipline, political psychology. It is probably because, on one level, we are all experts in human behaviour: our ability to discern and manipulate the motivations and emotional states of other living creatures is part of what makes us human. Yet this is still a far cry from making us experts in what causes the sort of complex patterns of human behaviour we see when it comes to the realm of politics. This is why, whilst seeming intuitively correct to many of us, when people proclaim that ‘people don’t engage because they don’t care’, those people are about as wrong as you’d expect them to be if they were trying to correct Stephen Hawkings without anything more than a GCSE in physics to back them up.

Fortunately, there is a lot of social science research out there that is beginning to shed light on political engagement for us. One example is the finding that countries with proportional representational systems (systems that focus on giving all parties voted for representation based on their share of the vote) tend to enjoy higher levels of voter turnout than plurality/majority systems that aim to give the party with the most votes the power, such as Britain’s ‘first past the post’ system. Differences within PR-orientated systems differs as well: the more proportional the representation, the higher the voter turnout. Some researchers, however, have dismissed the obvious conclusion that this is solely to do with PR systems offering more choice, as past 3 or 4 major parties, turnout is actually negatively correlated with the number of choices on offer at the ballot. This suggests instead that it is actually the degree to which a potential voter feels their vote will make a difference that explains the relationship between PR systems and higher turnout.

Two bits of recent electoral evidence back this up. Findings from the 2010 general election show that the single biggest reason people didn’t vote was that they thought their vote ‘wouldn’t make a difference’. Secondly, turnout in two recent referendums in the UK, the Scottish independence referendum and the infamous EU referendum, both enjoyed considerably higher levels of voter turnout than recent general elections (84.6% and 72.2% respectively), amongst a backdrop of both campaign-sides highlighting how ‘every vote matters’ (where a simple overall majority was needed by one side, rather than the constituency-based voting of general elections).

Qualitative evidence also supports such an interpretation, with the demographics that display the worst voter turnout under such a system also expressing a general narrative of ‘lost hope’ in politics. Focus groups with young people that asked questions about their attitudes towards the political system contained a common theme: politics is ‘irrelevant’ and ‘inaccessible’, politicians cannot be trusted, and political action is ‘pointless’.

A look at historic trends also suggests that political knowledge and even political trust have not changed along with differing levels of engagement, but communal sources of political expression have. Hilary Putnam in his book ‘Bowling Alone’ argues that it is through reductions in social capital, the richness of the communal networks in society, that political engagement has declined in most western countries through the latter half of the twentieth century. The theory is at least in part backed up by evidence, with strong group ties, engagement in social organisations and informal social interactions all having been empirically shown to be predictors of voting.

Historically, growing consumerism has been linked to declining political engagement too, with historian Mark Mazower arguing that the decades following World War 2 were characterised by a weariness of grand ideologies and general political apathy, occurring alongside a burgeoning consumerist, as opposed to ‘citizenship’-based culture, endearing many to a rise in individualism and a rejection of the collectivism of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. Paul Mason, along with many others, has also spoken at length about the ‘atomization’ of society as the end project of the economic system known as ‘neoliberalism’, a system that Mason argues aims to reduce trade union power and erode forms of collective action, a process that came to its zenith in the early 1990’s, as voter turnout, protests and strikes all began to decline.

Noam Chomsky has also spoken at length of how the increasing consumerism of post-war America, with the rise of advertising in particular, was designed to supplant more active forms of citizenship with passive forms of ‘consumerism’ that ‘kept the public in their place’, hampering their ability to hone their political knowledge and skills as well as ‘atomizing’ society, breaking down collective forms of politics. This is also evidenced by the work of sociologists Lewis & Inthron who demonstrate that both UK and US media report politics in a way that casts their audiences as passive consumers of the political scene, reacting to political elite events, as opposed to active citizens shaping events, linking this to political disengagement.

The psychology bears this out. Social psychologist Albert Bandura, talks of how ‘efficacy’, our belief in our abilities, is a social phenomenon: we draw efficacy from encouragement (or lose it by discouragement) from others, and it develops by watching salient others succeed or fail in their efforts. He describes how political discussions can lower the costs of political learning and motivate individuals to participate in social or political causes more often.

In confirmation of this, research has found that the smaller the size of a group an individual is placed in the higher their sense of ‘internal political efficacy’. Whilst it might seem paradoxical to equate this with support for the hypothesis that placing a vote within a wider social group boosts efficacy it isn’t when the alternative is considered: an individualised society where the only real political action is individual actions in a nation of millions, as opposed to group actions and discussions in the context of smaller demographic groups that then feed into and influence the broader national conversation.

A more consumerist, atomized and individualised society then, reduces political engagement in a similar way to the other explanations in this section: by reducing the belief that individuals have in their ability to act in and influence the political system. Here, quantitative studies, polling, qualitative focus groups and political theory are all pointing towards individual’s feelings of both personal political ability and the political system’s responsiveness playing a role in political engagement.

It is this sense of ‘efficacy’, specifically ‘political efficacy’ that is the psychological factor that lies behind many of the socio-political trends and theories mentioned thus far. Political efficacy is typically divided into two types: internal political efficacy is an individual’s beliefs about their own capabilities and skills, whereas external political efficacy is about their views regarding the political system they utilise these skills under: do they trust it to act on and respond to their and others’ demands?

A host of research is now showing that these two factors play a considerable role in political engagement: whilst a lot of the research in this area, as is often the case with politics, is correlational, rather than causal, when combined with the idea presented above that efficacy lies behind other suggested engagement theories, it becomes reasonable to suggest that those who have higher levels of belief in both themselves and the ability of the system to respond will engage politically. My own research has suggested that of the two types of political efficacy, it is the internal dimension that shares the strongest relationship with political engagement.

This throws up powerful questions as to how we teach children in schools about politics and their role in being able to shape it as active citizens, and whether we are doing enough in training them in the skills needed to do this, as well as questions about how political elites, the media and other organisations transmit ideas about the political system and how we as individuals and groups fit into it. What is clear from the research in the field is that there are deep problems in how the political system is perceived and in how we feel able to engage as competent actors in the political realm. Simply caring about a political issue isn’t enough: we need to feel like our actions are capable of bringing real change about. Regardless of ideology, a democracy that doesn’t give its citizens that sense has some searching questions to ask of itself.

If you would be interested in contributing to this article series on political engagement please email allsopbradley@gmail.com with an article pitch

Bradley Allsop

About Bradley Allsop

Bradley is currently studying for his PhD in youth political engagement at the University of Lincoln and writes on democracy, political engagement and political psychology.