Monday, 19 March 2012 08:21

Harold Laswell: Men of Ideas

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Harold Laswell (1902-1978) was an American political scientist. Whereas he contributed immensely to most aspects of political science the aspect of his work that stands out most in this observer’s view is his political psychology. He attempted to understand the relationship of politics and the individual’s personal psychology. For example, did Adolf Hitler’s personality affect his political behavior?

In his book, World Politics and Personal Insecurity (1935), he tried to show a link between the individual’s psychopathology and his pathological behavior in the political arena. In Power and Personality (1935), he continued that inquiry. It is not so much what Laswell said as what he initiated; he initiated the study of personality in politics.

The field of political psychology which would have continued his interest in the role of individual psychology in politics, unfortunately, does not seem to be going strong. Nevertheless, it is self evident that the individual has a personality and that his personality affects what he does in the political arena. Of course, it is not the case that only personality affects political behavior, for the political situation itself affects the individual; it is a case of interaction between the political environment and the individual.

The parameters of politics in a particular milieu obviously affect what political actors do. For example, it is doubtful that an Adolf Hitler could emerge in the specific political environment of the USA. The USA political world selects certain types of persons into political office, usually persons with adequate social skills and who are able to get along with other people, whereas Adolf Hitler was a loner and lacked social skills. 

As a loner Hitler kept to himself and hatched political ideals and sought ways to implement them. The situation that occurred after the collapse of Germany after the first world apparently offered Hitler the opportunity to try implementing his political ideals, (conservative, nationalist idealism aka fascism).

The study of political psychology seems stagnant but the study of personality is very much alive. Psychologists and psychiatrists have carefully delineated the nature of the human personality, healthy and pathological. They have described what they call personality disorders, such as paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, narcissistic, histrionic, borderline, antisocial, avoidant, dependent, obsessive-compulsive and passive- aggressive.

Of these personality types it seems that some are not compatible with the extroverted nature of politics. The avoidant personality and his fear of other people’s rejection probably will not tolerate the public scrutiny that is usually the lot of those seeking political office.

On the other hand, the paranoid personality and his feeling that the world is out to get him and his effort to amount to something important probably could make it in politics under certain circumstances. When there appear identified enemies of the state requiring heroes who fight them, paranoid personalities would seem to find a purpose: fighting for people’s survival; they tend to do well in times of social insecurities.

The narcissistic personality and his belief that he is special and ought to be admired and willingness to use other people to get what he wants and dump them when they are no longer useful to him and not feel remorse or guilty from so doing would seem the most compatible personality with politics.

The salient point is that personality seems to play a role in politics. Personality seems to affect what the individual does in the political arena and the political environment affects how the individual does what he does.

Harold Laswell initiated what would have been a useful field devoted to the study of personality in politics. If his efforts were continued, perhaps, it would have become possible to understand the personality of politicians before they entered public life. One can imagine a situation where those likely to engage in pathological politics are weeded out before they do harm to society. If it were possible to perform the personality examination of all prospective politicians and counsel those with tendencies towards psychopathology perhaps society would be spared the headache of electing such monstrous paranoid personalities as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin to political offices.

Laswell wrote on other areas of polices. In his book, Politics; Who Gets What, When and How (1935), he pretty much described the nature of power politics. Politics is the struggle for power, power with which social resources are allocated. The more powerful tends to get more resources than the less powerful.

Laswell’s most salient contribution to political discourse, at least, as I see it, is in the area of political psychology.


Harold Laswell, Politics: Who Gets What, When and How? (1935)

Harold Laswell, Power and personality. (1948)

Harold Laswell, World Politics and Personal insecurity. (1935)

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176