Studying the Psychology of Political Divides
Mackenzie Smith '22
Psychology, Political Science, Commonwealth Honors College
“My mentor always had something positive to say and assured me that I was doing the best work I could.”
Mackenzie Smith, of Westfield, New Jersey, has long been fascinated by how people make decisions and so she chose to major in both psychology and political science at UMass Amherst. “The two fields go hand-in-hand,” she says. “Politics is all about people and how they interact and why—it’s very psychological. I think everyone in politics would benefit from psychology courses.”
At UMass, Smith found a research group that combined her interests: The War and Peace Lab, housed in the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Lab Director and Associate Professor Bernhard Leidner advised her on her thesis, for which she received a Commonwealth Honors College grant.
Today our political differences seem to do nothing but divide us. I believe this research shows that we need to look at our differences as positives.
In her thesis, Smith examined whether a significant correlation exists between an elected representative’s effectiveness (in this case a member of the House of Representatives) and the political diversity of their state’s electorate. She tested two hypotheses. The first suggested that more political diversity would increase an elected politician’s legislative effectiveness. The alternative hypothesis posited that more political diversity would decrease a politician’s effectiveness.
After combing through election data going back to 1984 and making a complex analysis, Smith confirmed the first hypothesis. She found that representatives of more politically diverse electorates bring forward more ideas and are more effective legislators. “Today our political differences seem to do nothing but divide us,” she says. “I believe this research shows that we need to look at our differences as positives.”
Smith presented her work at the 2021 Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, the field’s most prestigious conference. “Writing this thesis was a major feat,” says Leidner. “Mackenzie will have a bright future as a scholar-practitioner conducting research with important contributions to, and tangible impact on, society at-large.”
As Smith powered through her data-heavy project, Leidner showed her how to get things done in academia. “He impressed upon me that although people are busy, they truly want to help you,” she says.
Smith aspires to become a lawyer. In the future, she’ll draw upon her empowering research experience, her internships with Congressman Jim McGovern and with the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, and her stint as a COVID ambassador for the town of Amherst. She hopes to continue to learn why and how people make choices that affect the government and, consequently, their own lives.