Alexander Wuttke
The Pleasure Principle: Why (Some) People Develop a Taste for Politics – Evidence from a pre-registered experiment

Politics and the Life Sciences, 2021: 40, issue 1, pp. 19-39
ISSN: 0730-9384 (print), 1471-5457 (online)

Often, citizens talk politics or watch political shows solely for the pleasure they derive from these activities. Yet, existing theories struggle to explain why (some) individuals engage with politics as an end in itself even if the behavior does not produce any separable instrumental value. Integrating psychological theories from motivation studies, this study deduces a need-based model of political motivation in order to explain intrinsic political engagement. The model proposes that intrinsic political motivation has roots in the seemingly apolitical processes of need satisfaction which are deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Providing a theoretical framework for existing political science findings, this study argues that citizens seek behaviors they previously experienced as pleasurable. Differences in intrinsic political motivation are therefore theorized to reflect whether political engagement was previously experienced as satisfying basic psychological needs which is argued to predict both whether and how individuals engage with politics. By manipulating need-related situational features before and during political engagement, a pre-registered survey experiment tested the basic tenet that need-related experiences with politics affect the quality and quantity of future activities in the political domain. However, 15 out of 15 analytical tests do not yield the expected evidence in line with the need-based model of political motivation. Showcasing a step-wise approach for dealing with null-results in hypothesis-driven research to assess and increase the information value of the conducted analysis, the presented evidence calls into question the accuracy of the presented theory and the previous insights in psychology and political science on which it was built. This study thus adds a new piece to the puzzle of understanding what does and what does not underlie intrinsic motivation for political engagement.