Politics is for the imaginative

The more imaginative you are, the easier it is to relate to politics. This stands to reason, according to Michael Bang Petersen and Lene Aarøe from Aarhus University, whose latest research has just been published in the most prestigious political science journal, the American Political Science Review.

2013.06.13 | Michael Bang Petersen og Lene Aarøe

In a new study published in the world’s leading journal in political science, the American Political Science Review, Michael Bang Petersen and Lene Aarøe from Aarhus University look at the significance of imagination and the faculty of imagining when forming political opinions. The results are unequivocal: The more imaginative you are, the easier it is to relate to politics.

“Imaginative people have a clearer idea of who political discussions centre on, they are more emotionally involved in politics, they have clearer political views, and they back their views to a greater extent with political action,” explains Michael Bang Petersen.

Man is a social animal

“Politics is about real people, but people who we only know through news spots and articles in the media. Relating to politics is therefore something that tests our imagination. Because who are the criminals? Or those refugees?” Lene Aarøe supplements.

Taking evolutionary psychology as their starting point, Michael Bang Petersen and Lene Aarøe assert that man has evolved to handle life in intimate social groups. In the evolutionary past on the East African savannah, our forefathers had to continuously make decisions about who was friend or foe, who deserved help and who deserved punishment.

Basically, these questions are still valid in politics. Modern politics is also about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, who needs to be punished and who deserves additional financial help.

Imaginative people form political opinions more easily

We are born with skills that enable us to assess what is right and what is wrong in politics. Nevertheless, it is hard to assess people and events today because we lack knowledge of the intimate, social cues on which moral psychology is based. And it is here that our imagination comes into the picture.

“By imagining who the criminals, refugees and social welfare recipients are – what they look like, how they behave, what they think – we give our moral psychology something to work with,” explains Petersen.

Why is politics interesting for some, but not all?

Michael Bang Petersen and Lene Aarøe examined a total of eleven studies from Denmark and the USA to see how individual differences in imagination influence political attitudes. The studies focused on a crucial political and often contentious issue, social welfare. The results showed that imaginative individuals have a richer, more lively and coherent network of ideas about recipients of social welfare than people with poor imagination.

The imaginative also had clearer attitudes about social welfare, and stronger emotional reactions to social welfare recipients. They felt angrier about social welfare recipients if they perceived them as being lazy, and had greater empathy with the recipients if they perceived them as being unlucky.

Differences in political involvement thus depend on the extent to which you can envisage the real people behind the news headlines. And whether individuals are able to do this depends on whether or not they are imaginative.

Reference:

Michael Bang Petersen and Lene Aarøe. 2013. “Politics in the Mind’s Eye: Imagination as a Link between Social and Political Cognition”. American Political Science Review, vol. 107, no. 2.

Further information:

Michael Bang Petersen
Associate Professor and PhD at the Department of Political Science and Government
Aarhus University, School of Business and Social Sciences

E: michael@ps.au.dk 
T: +45 8716 5729
Web

Lene Aarøe
Assistant Professor and PhD at the Department of Political Science and Government
Aarhus University, School of Business and Social Sciences

E: leneaaroe@ps.au.dk
T: +45 8716 5705
Web

Society and politics