Colleges & Campus News

UCF Class Spotlight: Political Psychology

Political psychology can be a useful tool in helping close the divide in American politics, says Gary Smith, a UCF Ph.D. candidate and teacher of this political science course.

By Jenna Marina Lee |
November 1, 2018

A blonde woman with a black long-sleeve shirt and jeans walks into a brick building with a sign outside that reads, Vote Here Polling Place

UCF's College of Sciences offers three bachelor's degrees in political science.

Class Name

POS 4206 – Political Psychology

Description

The psychological analysis of political behavior, with emphasis on the individual rather than the political system; includes political attitudes and communication, leadership and personality influences on politics.

When is it offered?

Occasionally.

How many students are in a class?

Capacity of 50

Prerequisites

None

Instructor

Gary Smith ’14MS or Terri Fine

From the Professor

Gary Smith ’14MS

Describe this course in five words or less.

Psychological explanations of political behavior

How can political psychology be applied to political behavior in American society today?

In this country right now, it’s not just your traditional partisan disagreement. It feels a lot more emotionally and psychologically visceral in the way we talk about politics. The gap appears to be so wide that you can’t see the other’s perspective at all.

I think that’s what political psychology helps to do — it makes you attempt to understand why the other side thinks the way it does. You can’t start dismissing people because they think differently than you. You have to understand how they get there and why they think that way. That’s the most imperative approach, at least at a societal level, to try to close the divide because that’s going to be the first step. Until we fix our societal divides, we’re not going to actually have a Congress that will reflect the same.

“Until we fix our societal divides, we’re not going to actually have a Congress that will reflect the same.” — Gary Smith

What do you want students to learn?

The most basic goal is to understand what the field can contribute to the study of political behavior in general.

I hope the course makes people critical consumers of information. I want them to be able to break down and process things that are overly simplified in the political universe — be it a style of debate, a campaign ad or news that they’re getting. The goal is to process these things in a critical way, not just as a passive observer.

And finally, to make the potentially apathetic person care more. When I was an undergrad, it was a political psychology class that it really solidified my desire to stay in the field and continue on through graduate school. I hope they can be more passionate about politics in general and can think about it in a more diverse way. Humans are diverse and they make politics more complicated because they’re unpredictable.

What are the coursework requirements?

A midterm, final and a term paper, but the most important of the three is the term paper. It’s called a psycho-biography where students write a biographical explanation of why a certain leader chose a certain policy. Part of that involves trying to diagnose personality characteristics about the leaders in question by looking at some of their early political behaviors and how their childhood/upbringing shaped them as individuals. For instance, if a senator grew up in a faith-based household, he or she might have a more moralistic view of the world or a more black-and-white view of the world than someone who didn’t grow up in that environment. All things equal, they might make a very different decision on the same policy.

“Humans are diverse and they make politics more complicated because they’re unpredictable.” — Gary Smith

After the students turn in their rough drafts, I work with them to walk through how they can write a term paper with a really effective critical argument and make something that’s logically cohesive. Hopefully it broadens their view of who the president is or who the senator is in our country or abroad and how they got to be the person that they are in the current time.

Why are you passionate about this field?

Ever since I was in fifth grade, I’ve had a passion for politics and I couldn’t tell you why. My parents were apolitical. They couldn’t have cared less about voting. I was going to be a music teacher when I started college, but I think political behavior is fascinating.

Is it challenging to set aside your own beliefs when you step in the classroom?

I make it very clear, my political viewpoints do not affect grades or affect how I think about the students’ arguments. I work to get students to understand they need to step away from their own partisan echo chambers as much as I do.

UCF is serving as an early-voting site and has been recognized as one of America’s Best Colleges for Student Voting. How can a college campus foster civic duty?

Being on a college campus exposes people to differing points of views. It’s at this point in people’s education that they’re being taught about and exposed to the importance of participation. When I was an undergrad, my professors gave extra credit if we registered to vote. I do the same with my students. If there’s some reason they can’t register to vote and they communicate that with me, I’ll give a different assignment, but otherwise, my students get 5 extra points on their final exam if they show me their voter registration card. That’s my attempt to getting people registered, which is always the first step and hardest hurdle to overcome.