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Political engagement’s non-political roots: examining the role of basic psychological needs in the political domain


For the functioning of democratic societies, it is a crucial question why some citizens value or even enjoy political engagement while others hardly bother about politics at all. However, despite scholarly agreement on the relevance of childhood experiences, the early causes of varying inclinations for volitional political engagement remain largely unidentified. Arguing for the relevance of non-political factors, this study theorizes the role of basic psychological needs in shaping proclivities for political engagement. Specifically, this study hypothesizes that children who grow up in need-supportive parental homes will be more inclined to engage with politics decades later. Findings from two independent representative cohort studies (N = 5927, N = 6158) suggest that need-supportive parenting stimulates the development of curiosity and appreciation towards politics. Moreover, need-supportive parenting interacts with social learning processes in stimulating political engagement. Providing insights into the promotion of political engagement, these findings underscore the importance of factors seemingly remote to the political domain but deeply engrained in human processes of psychosocial functioning.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    The reported goodness of fit indices relate to models without weights (see Supplement 3, Fig. 1). To calculate manifest variables, models with adjustment weights were used for which fewer goodness of fit indices are available (see Supplement 3, Fig. 2). Results are similar.

  2. 2.

    Both indicators related to rule—setting do not promote political engagement but the fact that these items are not associated with other corollary outcomes suggests that they may be weak indicators of the target concept.

  3. 3.

    At much smaller effect sizes, interaction of need-satisfaction and social learning replicates with regards to the provision of structure (see Supplement 3, Fig. 5). I also tested for interaction effect using BCS data. The interaction coefficient of involvement and political exposure is large and statistically significant. The results are shown in Supplement 2, Table 1.


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For comments and suggestions, I thank the participants of the colloquia at the Chair of Political Psychology (University of Mannheim) and at the Research Chair in Electoral Studies (Université de Montréal), Martina Zemp, the reviewers and the editors who helped me improve the manuscript.


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Correspondence to Alexander Wuttke.

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Wuttke, A. Political engagement’s non-political roots: examining the role of basic psychological needs in the political domain. Motiv Emot 44, 135–150 (2020).

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  • Political participation
  • Political socialization
  • Value transmission
  • Self-determination theory
  • Political motivation