Political motivation

Why Some People Engage with Politics and others do not

A politically informed citizenry that engages with public matters and participates in political affairs is the cornerstone of a thriving liberal democracy. This thesis thus examines the motivational underpinnings of citizens’ engagement with politics. In particular, this thesis considers the structure and the origins of political motivation, i.e. the forces that drive, direct and sustain activities and attention towards the polity. In doing so, the thesis takes an interdisciplinary perspective and synthesizes psychological theories from motivation science to apply the derived motivational framework to the political domain. One of the central ideas proposed in this thesis is to import the concept of basic psychological needs into the literature on political participation. Paving the way for an explanation of political engagement that is based on first principles instead of proximate causes, this thesis considers basic psychological needs as the first mover among the psychological antecedents that ultimately lead up to engagement with politics. One of these basic needs – the need for autonomy – is leveraged to systemize the myriad of motivational pathways that the existing literature has identified as leading to political engagement. Accordingly, the forces that energize political engagement can be distinguished by how self-determined or controlling they are perceived by the actor. Political motivation is therefore conceptualized as a four-dimensional construct where each dimension is ordered on a continuum of relative autonomy and has distinct behavioral ramifications. In particular, it is argued that any type of motivation can lead to political engagement, but only autonomous motivation brings about self-sustained and deep forms of engagement. Because autonomous political motivation is thus central to a vivid society, two chapters examine the origins of why some people value or find pleasure in politics, but others do not. Again relying on the concept of basic psychological needs, need-satisfying contexts are theorized to foster political motivation in two ways. First, domain-specific need satisfaction may shape domain-related attitudes. Because need satisfaction is considered to elicit positively valanced sensations, prior need-satisfying encounters with politics should stimulate a person’s intrinsic motivation to recurrently seek political encounters in the future. Second, need satisfaction is argued to shape a personality that is conducive to political engagement. Growing up in need-satisfying environments promotes psycho-social functioning which, in turn, is argued to bring about personality traits that stimulate the valuation and enjoyment of political engagement. The motivational framework of political engagement is put to an empirical test in three separate studies, using original cross-sectional and longitudinal data with a novel measure of political motivation, examining self-reported and behavioral outcomes and employing experimental and observational methods. These studies yield mixed findings, providing substantial evidence for the developmental origins of political motivation in early need satisfaction and limited evidence for the role of the need for autonomy in structuring need satisfaction. Other central elements of the motivational framework received no empirical support, casting doubts on the relevance of some of the tested basic needs for engagement in the political domain. Altogether, the presented motivational framework thus does not represent a final word on the ultimate origins of political motivation. Nonetheless, this novel approach may serve as a steppingstone for further theoretical innovations that seek to understand political engagement using the conceptual toolbox from motivation science.

Study 1
Wuttke, Alexander (2020): „Political engagement’s non-political roots: examining the role of need-supportive parenting in the political domain“, Special Issue in Motivation & Emotion, ed. Vansteenkiste, Soenens, Ryan, Study; Ungated Study, Pre-Print, Replication material

Study 2
Wuttke, Alexander (forthcoming): „Why do (some) citizens find pleasure in politics? Introducing the need-based model of intrinsic political motivation“, Politics and the Life Sciences, Pre-Print, Pre-Registration, Poster.

Study 3
Wuttke, Alexander [under review]: “Conceptualizing Motivational Pathways to Political Engagement: A Test of Self-determination Theory in the Political Domain”, PLOS One, Pre-Print, Replication Material.

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