Studying the Relationship Between Fear of Death, Political Preferences

UA News Services
July 27, 2004

Following the tragic terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the popularity of President George W. Bush increased dramatically. A new line of research explains why and demonstrates that reminders of 9/11 and of death in general continue to increase President Bush's appeal.

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 - those with a charismatic leadership style.

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, 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.

The results of the study fueled still more research. UA graduate student and lead author Mark Landau and Greenberg, with colleagues from around the country, generated four studies that examined how reminders of death specifically influence evaluations of President Bush. Those results are due to be published this September in "Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin." In those studies, reminders of death or the events of 9/11 dramatically increased support for President Bush and his policies regarding terrorism and Iraq.

"The first study showed increased appeal for Bush and his policies after a reminder of death. The second simply showed that subliminal reminders of 9/11 increase the tendency to think about death. The third showed both death and 9/11 reminders increased appeal of Bush and his policies," Greenberg said.

"Also, interestingly, this effect was the same for participants who rated themselves as liberal as it was for those who rated themselves as conservative."

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.

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" (2002, American Psychological Association), 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.


Resources for the media

Jeff Greenberg
To contact Sheldon Solomon, call Andrea Wise, director of media relations at Skidmore College