The political effects of existential fear

October 18, 2011

Why did the approval ratings of President George W. Bush-- who was perceived as indecisive before September 11, 2001--soar over 90 percent after the terrorist attacks? Because Americans were acutely aware of their own deaths. That is one lesson from the psychological literature on "mortality salience" reviewed in a new article called "The Politics of Mortal Terror." The paper, by psychologists Florette Cohen of the City University of New York's College of Staten Island and Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore College, appears in October's Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science.

The fear people felt after 9/11 was real, but it also made them ripe for psychological manipulation, experts say. "We all know that fear tactics have been used by politicians for years to sway votes," says Cohen. Now psychological research offers insight into the chillingly named "terror management."

The authors cite studies showing that awareness of mortality tends to make people feel more positive toward heroic, charismatic figures and more punitive toward wrongdoers. In one study, Cohen and her colleagues asked participants to think of death and then gave them statements from three fictional political figures. One was charismatic: he appealed to the specialness of the person and the group to which she belonged. One was a technocrat, offering practical solutions to problems. The third stressed the value of participation in democracy. After thinking about death, support for the charismatic leader shot up eightfold.

Even subliminal suggestions of mortality have similar effects. Subjects who saw the numbers 911 or the letters WTC had higher opinions of a Bush statement about the necessity of invading Iraq. This was true of both liberals and conservatives.

Awareness of danger and death can bias even peaceful people toward war or aggression. Iranian students in a control condition preferred the statement of a person preaching understanding and the value of human life over a jihadist call to suicide bombing. But primed to think about death, they grew more positive toward the bomber. Some even said that they might consider becoming a martyr.

As time goes by and the memory of danger and death grows fainter, however, "morality salience" tends to polarize people politically, leading them to cling to their own beliefs and demonize others who hold opposing beliefs--seeing in them the cause of their own endangerment.

The psychological research should make voters wary of emotional political appeals and even of their own emotions in response, Cohen says. "We encourage all citizens to vote with their heads rather than their hearts. Become an educated voter. Look at the candidate's positions and platforms. Look at who you are voting for and what they stand for."
-end-
For more information about this study, please contact: Florette Cohen at Florette.cohen@csi.cuny.edu.

Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, publishes concise reviews on the latest advances in theory and research spanning all of scientific psychology and its applications. For a copy of "The Politics of Mortal Terror" and access to other Current Directions in Psychological Science research findings, please contact Divya Menon at 202-293-9300 or dmenon@psychologicalscience.org.

Association for Psychological Science

Related Mortality Articles from Brightsurf:

Being in treatment with statins reduces COVID-19 mortality by 22% to 25%
A research by the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) and Pere Virgili Institut (IISPV) led by LluĂ­s Masana has found that people who are being treated with statins have a 22% to 25% lower risk of dying from COVID-19.

Mortality rate higher for US rural residents
A recent study by Syracuse University sociology professor Shannon Monnat shows that mortality rates are higher for U.S. working-age residents who live in rural areas instead of metro areas, and the gap is getting wider.

COVID-19, excess all-cause mortality in US, 18 comparison countries
COVID-19 deaths and excess all-cause mortality in the U.S. are compared with 18 countries with diverse COVID-19 responses in this study.

New analysis shows hydroxychloroquine does not lower mortality in COVID-19 patients, and is associated with increased mortality when combined with the antibiotic azithromycin
A new meta-analysis of published studies into the drug hydroxychloroquine shows that it does not lower mortality in COVID-19 patients, and using it combined with the antibiotic azithromycin is associated with a 27% increased mortality.

Hydroxychloroquine reduces in-hospital COVID-19 mortality
An Italian observational study contributes to the ongoing debate regarding the use of hydroxychloroquine in the current pandemic.

What's the best way to estimate and track COVID-19 mortality?
When used correctly, the symptomatic case fatality ratio (sCFR) and the infection fatality ratio (IFR) are better measures by which to monitor COVID-19 epidemics than the commonly reported case fatality ratio (CFR), according to a new study published this week in PLOS Medicine by Anthony Hauser of the University of Bern, Switzerland, and colleagues.

COVID-19: Bacteriophage could decrease mortality
Bacteriophage can reduce bacterial growth in the lungs, limiting fluid build-up.

COPD and smoking associated with higher COVID-19 mortality
Current smokers and people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have an increased risk of severe complications and higher mortality with COVID-19 infection, according to a new study published May 11, 2020 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Jaber Alqahtani of University College London, UK, and colleagues.

Highest mortality risks for poor and unemployed
Large dataset shows that income, work status and education have a clear influence on mortality in Germany.

Addressing causes of mortality in Zambia
Despite the fact that people in sub-Saharan Africa are now living longer than they did two decades ago, their average life expectancy remains below that of the rest of the world population.

Read More: Mortality News and Mortality Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.