Psychoanalytic Politics: The Roots of Current Dysfunctional Political Behavior

Originally published on Nation of Change, July 30, 2012

What does the behavior of British children in WWII possibly have to do with today’s fractious politics? More than one would ever imagine! Indeed, it explains the unconscious roots of much of the current dysfunctional behavior on both the Left and the Right. In WWII, by being placed or lodged either in hospitals or massive care facilities, an overwhelming number of children were separated from their parents for weeks, months, and even years on end. Worst of all were those who were permanently housed in orphanages.

When they first arrived, the children cried for hours and days on end. When they eventually stopped, they became zombie-like in that they showed virtually no emotion whatsoever from that time on.

To help understand the horrific damage done to children that he witnessed daily, the British psychiatrist John Bowlby created Attachment Theory. Bowlby and his colleagues found that two key dimensions were key to explaining the emotional state of a child: Avoidance and Anxiety. Both were directly traceable to and the direct result of the emotional state of a child’s primary caretakers. During Bowlby’s time, the primary caretaker was of course the mother, if not throughout most of history. Whether the primary caretaker was either high or low on Avoidance and Anxiety had a tremendous effect on the child’s emotional development.

By means of the mother’s intense and frequent interactions—how she held, looked at, and attended to her child’s cries and general discomfort–the mother subtly and not so subtly communicated her emotional state to her child. In short, she communicated how comfortable versus how anxious she was in fulfilling her role as a caretaker.

Since the interactions took place from the moment of birth, they were largely preverbal and hence unconscious. In this way, the mother not only passed on, but influenced significantly the child’s subsequent emotional development and state, most notably one’s basic sense of trust and comfort with other people. In fact, a host of longitudinal studies have shown that the effects last a lifetime unless of course a person has undergone significant therapy.

Since one can be either high or low on Avoidance and Anxiety, there are four primary combinations or states: 1. High Avoidance and High Anxiety; 2. High Avoidance and Low Anxiety; 3. Low Avoidance and High Anxiety; and, 4. Low Avoidance and Low Anxiety. State 1 is labeled Anxious-Avoiders; state 2, Avoiders; state 3. Anxious; and, state 4. Secure.

Those who are high on Avoidance exhibit, at least on the surface, little need or regard for other people. In the beginning of life, they were saddled by a caretaker who showed little regard for them as a person. In short, their basic needs were met superficially at best. As a result, at a very early age, they gave up expecting anything from other people.

Those who are high on Anxiety were saddled by a caretaker who, while he or she wanted to meet the basic needs of their child, experienced noticeable anxiety with regard to their capability of being able to do so. As a result, they are anxious around others because they are afraid they will either be abandoned or ignored. In short, they are needy.

Again, on the surface, Avoidants have little if any need of others and experience little if any anxiety in ignoring others. On the other hand, Anxious types want desperately to be around and to be liked by others but are terribly afraid that they won’t. In a sense, Anxious types are perpetually striving to recapture the love of a caretaker that showed, or was afraid to show, little emotion toward them. Where Avoidants have basically given up, Anxious types are perpetually seeking to regain what they never had.

Where Anxious-Avoidants share the worst of both worlds, Secure types have the best. Secures not only want to be around others but are comfortable in doing so.

Studies have shown that a significant number of top corporate and government executives are Avoidants. Avoidants radiate strength and fearlessness, the very qualities our culture admires in leaders.

It should come as no great surprise that Conservatives exhibit many of the qualities of Avoidants and Liberal Progressives those of Anxious types. Indeed, Avoidants correspond most closely to George Lakoff’s Stern Father; Liberal Progressives to Lakoff’s Nurturing, if not Anxious, Mother.

Attachment Theory sheds special light on the extreme views of the Right in general and the Tea Party in particular. Even though Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman and others have argued cogently that the federal deficits are not the worst problem facing the U.S. and other European countries in the short run, and thus it would be better to incur more debt in order to get people back to work, debt horrifies the extreme Right. The very thoughts of, one, “being owned by others,” who of course they can never trust, and two, “others getting something for which they have not worked,” goes against every grain of their psychic makeup. This is precisely why no set of logical facts or arguments will ever be enough to convince them otherwise.

But, by the same token, because deep down Liberal Progressives have a need to be loved, and believe that their values are universal and thus shared by everyone, they cannot get it through their heads that logical facts or arguments are never sufficient to sway anyone, including themselves.

If ever we needed Secure types to come forward and to present good stories that can overcome the deep-seated fears of Conservatives and Liberal Progressives alike, that time is surely now.

We ignore the deep, unconscious basis of politics at our peril.

Originally published on Nation of Change, July 30, 2012

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Investigator with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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