Published On: Thu, Oct 31st, 2013

The Psychological Benefits of Political Participation

This paper asks whether political participation confers psychological benefits. Four hypotheses were tested: that involvement in volunteer activities reduces subsequent psychological distress, that resisting perceived discrimination does, that the benefits of political involvement are more pronounced for respondents prone to psychological distress, and that any observed benefits of political involvement are attributable to a psychological trait. The study employed data from a long-running panel survey. Political activity appeared to be more beneficial for respondents prone to psychological distress. These findings suggest that participation is a resource that alleviates psychological distress, which might offset some of the negative mental health consequences associated with disadvantaged social status. The results are discussed in light of recent theories attributing health benefits to social capital and empowerment.

Might political activity enhance citizens’ psychological health? Contemporary theories percolating in many disciplines suggest that it should. Recently, public health researchers have taken up the rendition of social capital theory articulated by Robert Putnam, focusing on its implication that communal involvement might improve citizens’ well being. Among public health researchers, medical sociologists and community psychologists, there is a long-standing claim that “empowerment,” including political activity, is good for health. Last but not least, psychological health is an enduring concern for political psychologists.

…….Perhaps the most powerful and politically important conclusion emerging from the research I report here is that political activity stands to be a resource that might offset some of the negative mental health consequences associated with disadvantaged social status. Part of the disadvantage faced by historically oppressed groups is higher exposure to unfair treatment, including discrimination due to race and gender. Increasingly, our attention has turned to other forms of unfair treatment, including age- and disability-based discrimination. Disadvantaged social status is significantly correlated with mental health, as previous studies have documented (Kessler, Mickelson & Williams, 1999). Evidence from the NLS surveys suggests that fighting back helps make discrimination less psychologically consequential. The compelling evidence reported here of more pronounced benefits of political participation among the psychologically vulnerable supports claims from empowerment theorists that political involvements are especially important for historically disenfranchised citizens. The choice to expend social capital through political participation demands sacrifices from individuals, but it may confer just as many benefits…Read More