Using psychology to sway political attitudes

Climate change is just a figment of our imagination, fake news for which there is no scientific evidence – it is amazing how many people still believe this. Many ultraconservatives refuse to let even scientific studies sway them in their opinion. Why is this – and how can such climate sceptics be convinced of the facts? This is one of the questions being addressed by the Dutch psychologist Joris Lammers. His research indicates that there is a way to influence political attitudes, namely by changing the narratives of the argumentation. In the case of conservatives, this means looking not ahead to a bleak and depressing future but back – to the good old days. "By arguing that steps to mitigate climate change will restore a previous state of affairs – more forests, less traffic – there is a reasonable chance that even right-wing climate change deniers will be persuaded", says Lammers.

One couple, two posts

The psychologist Joris Lammers asks what power does to people.

He has been conducting his research in Germany since April 2013. 40-year-old Lammers studied and obtained his PhD in the Netherlands, first in Leiden and Groningen, and then at Tilburg University. After spending five years as a postdoc in the south of Holland, an attractive offer took him to neighbouring Germany. Lammers and his German wife are a dual career couple: also an academic, she likewise works in the field of psychology. The University of Cologne offered them both a position. "This meant we could move here together", explains Lammers. Previously they had always worked in different places, but now they and their two small sons live in Cologne.

At home in two subjects

It is no coincidence that Lammers conducts research at the point where politics and psychology overlap – in the Netherlands he obtained a master’s degree in both subjects. He already bridged the gap between the two disciplines in his dissertation. "I was always interested in the psychological aspects of politics and in the political aspects of psychology." Another area that Lammers is currently researching is the influence of power: "What does power do to people? How does it change those who have power?" Most people intuitively assume that power undermines morals, explains Lammers. He believes this is only partly true, however. "My research shows that the relationship is more complex." Power can also increase a person’s morality. Lammers uses laboratory experiments for his quantitative investigations. "For example, we give people a feeling of power and then assess how they respond to particular situations."

Currently Lammers is working in the interdisciplinary "Relativity in Social Cognition" research unit. It studies how interpersonal comparisons influence social responses in all kinds of different areas. The three-year project is being funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).

Freedom in teaching

Lammers is very happy with the working conditions in Cologne. "Postdocs and junior professors in Holland have to do a lot of teaching, something quite a few of my colleagues complain about." In Germany, by contrast, he has sufficient time to devote to his research. Most importantly, however, he has greater academic freedom: "That is evident in many areas. For instance, I can design and evaluate the topics of my seminars and lectures as I see fit." Lots of things are more strictly regulated in the Netherlands, he adds.

In 2015, Lammers won the University of Cologne’s Leo Spitzer Prize for outstanding young researchers (only in German). The university awards the prize each year in the humanities. "I was delighted to get the award", says Lammers, "especially because it made me feel that my work is valued by the university." All the same, he does not know whether he will remain in Germany long-term with his family. "As I only have a temporary contract, I need to keep my eyes open for other options. But I like it here a lot."

Various options for young researchers

Young researchers can find good conditions for studying psychology at many German universities. In studies like the CHE Ranking, the following universities have scored particularly well:

University of Bamberg
Technische Universität Dresden
University of Greifswald
Heidelberg University
University of Mannheim

Young psychologists can also find excellent conditions at non-university research institutions in Germany, for example:

Berlin Social Science Center
Leibniz Institute for Psychology Information, Trier
Leibniz ScienceCampus Tübingen "Cognitive Interfaces"
Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig
Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods, Bonn


"Relativity in Social Cognition" research unit at the University of Cologne

The research unit is made up of scientists from different fields –  not only psychology, but also biology and economics. The various subprojects are based on one central question: whether the mechanism of comparison constitutes a unifying principle of human social behaviour. If so, the findings would give new insights into human behavioural patterns and may even generate future incentives for new fields of research. > Relativity in Social Cognition