Relationship Between Fear of Death, Political Preferences

A new study suggests a relationship between
fear of death and political preferences. This research is based on the idea that reminders of death increase the need for psychological security and therefore the appeal of leaders who emphasize the greatness of the nation and a heroic victory over evil. To test this hypothesis, psychologists asked students to think about their own death or a control topic and then read campaign statements of three hypothetical political candidates, each with a different leadership style: “charismatic” (i.e. those emphasizing greatness of the nation and a heroic victory over evil, as described above), task-oriented or relationship-oriented. Following a reminder of death, there was almost an 800 percent increase in votes for the charismatic leader, but no increase for the two other candidates.

From American Psychological Society:

Fatal Attraction: A New Study Suggests a Relationship Between Fear of Death and Political Preferences

This research is based on the idea that reminders of death increase the need for psychological security and therefore the appeal of leaders who emphasize the greatness of the nation and a heroic victory over evil.

To test this hypothesis, Jeff Greenberg, a professor of psychology at the University Arizona in Tucson, Sheldon Solomon (Skidmore College) and Tom Pyszczynski, (University of Colorado, Colorado Springs) and their colleagues conducted an experiment that is scheduled to appear in the December 2004 issue of Psychological Science.

For their current research, the scientists asked students to think about their own death or a control topic and then read campaign statements of three hypothetical political candidates, each with a different leadership style: ”charismatic” (i.e. those emphasizing greatness of the nation and a heroic victory over evil, as described above), task-oriented or relationship-oriented. Following a reminder of death, there was almost an 800 percent increase in votes for the charismatic leader, but no increase for the two other candidates.

”At a theoretical level,” the authors wrote, ”this study adds to the large body of empirical evidence attesting to the pervasive influence of reminders of death on a wide range of human activities. These findings fit particularly well with prior studies showing how mortality salience leads people toward individuals, groups, and actions that can help enhance their self-esteem. People want to identify with special, great things, and charismatic leaders typically offer the promise of just that.”

What can voters do to ensure that they make choices in a rational way, based on political qualifications and the positions of the candidates? They may need to monitor efforts by candidates to capitalize on fear mongering and make a greater effort to vote with their heads, rather than with their hearts, and be aware of how concerns about death affect human behavior.

For more information, contact Jeff Greenberg at (520) 621-7434 or [email protected] and Sheldon Solomon at (518) 580-5312 or [email protected] A full copy of the article is available at the APS Media Center at www.psychologicalscience.org/media/.

Greenberg, Solomon and Pyszczynski are the originators of Terror Management Theory, which helps explain why humans react the way they do to the threat of death, and how this reaction influences their post-threat cognition and emotion. They also wrote ”In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror,” in which they used terror management theory to analyze the roots of terrorism and American reactions to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.

Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The American Psychological Society represents psychologists advocating science-based research in the public’s interest.

1 COMMENT

  1. In my younger days, death was brought center stage with some regularity, by many older relatives, Vietnam and even the cold-war under the threat of the nuke.
    Farm centric living also brought regular reminders with the slaughtering of livestock, loss of animals and with hunting being a way of life, death was kept even more center stage.
    Today in America, the TV, movie screen and game console along with the polish of most funeral/cemetery arrangements, marginalize the impact of death.
    9/11 and following moved it more center stage but it again seems to quickly begin to fade direct impact on American concsience, except for those who are losing friends and family. The beheadings in Iraq are about the only events that really counter the fade.
    In most ‘poor’ countries, this fade of death awareness would seem surreal to many.
    I think the premise of this article suggests of a sirene’s song luring thoughtful people to insulate themselves surrealistically from the realities of life even more so than is the trend in America, on its own.
    While pointing out: ”At a theoretical level,” the authors wrote, ”this study adds to the large body of empirical evidence attesting to the pervasive influence of reminders of death on a wide range of human activities. These findings fit particularly well with prior studies showing how mortality salience leads people toward individuals, groups, and actions that can help enhance their self-esteem. People want to identify with special, great things, and charismatic leaders typically offer the promise of just that.” The article has identified pitfalls, the thoughtful person must keep the realities of life in mind.
    I could see this research being misused to limit political speech in America (or in ‘civilized’ society in general) . Particularly the choice of “greatness of the nation and a heroic victory over evil” are interesting to think about.

    Reflect, if you will, and contrast Churchill against Hitler. You will easily find the use of these ideas in both the noble and ignoble application. Churchill’s use was to the good of mankind.

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