Thursday, October 23, 2008

Fear, Death and Politics: What Your Mortality Has to Do with the Upcoming Election

Scientific American (Sheldon Solomon and Jonah Lehrer, the editor of Mind Matters) takes a look at how our feelings about - and fear of - death can shape our political choices.

Fear, Death and Politics: What Your Mortality Has to Do with the Upcoming Election

A psychology professor explains how thoughts of death influence how we vote or make other decisions

Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore College

Sheldon Solomon is a professor of psychology at Skidmore College. He has spent the last few decades studying how thoughts of death can powerfully influence our decisions and judgments. He and Jonah Lehrer, the editor of Mind Matters, discuss what this phenomenon can teach us about the upcoming election.

LEHRER: What is terror management theory?

SOLOMON: Terror management theory (TMT) is derived from cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s efforts to explain the motivational underpinnings of human behavior. According to TMT, one defining characteristic of human beings is self-awareness: we’re alive and we know it. Although self-awareness gives rise to unbridled awe and joy, it can also lead to the potentially overwhelming dread engendered by the realization that death is inevitable, that it can occur for reasons that can never be anticipated or controlled, and that humans are corporeal creatures—breathing pieces of defecating meat no more significant or enduring than porcupines or peaches.

TMT posits that humans ingeniously, but quite unconsciously, solved this existential dilemma by developing cultural worldviews: humanly constructed beliefs about reality shared by individuals in a group that serve to “manage” the potentially paralyzing terror resulting from the awareness of death. All cultures provide a sense of meaning by offering an account of the origin of the universe, a blueprint for acceptable conduct on Earth, and a promise of immortality (symbolically, by creation of large monuments, great works of art or science, amassing great fortunes, having children; and literally, through the various kinds of afterlives that are a central feature of organized religions) to those who live up to culturally prescribed standards.

Thus, although cultures vary considerably, they share in common the same defensive psychological function: to provide meaning and value and in so doing bestow psychological equanimity in the face of death.

LEHRER: What first got you interested in TMT?

SOLOMON: I stumbled on Becker’s books in 1980 wandering around the library in my first year as a professor at Skidmore College. I found Becker’s ideas compelling and provocative. So did my graduate school colleagues Jeff Greenberg (now at the University of Arizona) and Tom Pyszczynski (now at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs). Most academics at the time rejected these ideas on the grounds that, having been derived from an existential psychodynamic perspective, they could not be tested. Jeff, Tom and I consequently developed TMT to frame Becker’s ideas in a manner that enabled them to be subjected to empirical scrutiny.

LEHRER: How does this theory relate to mortality salience (MS)? And what's an experimental example of mortality salience at work?

SOLOMON: A large body of evidence shows that momentarily making death salient, typically by asking people to think about themselves dying, intensifies people’s strivings to protect and bolster aspects of their worldviews, and to bolster their self-esteem. The most common finding is that MS increases positive reactions to those who share cherished aspects of one’s cultural worldview, and negative reactions toward those who violate cherished cultural values or are merely different.

Our first experiment was conducted with 22 municipal court judges in Tucson, Ariz. We told the judges we were studying the relation between personality traits, attitudes and bond decisions. A bond is a sum of money a defendant pays prior to trial to be released from prison in the interim. The judges completed a set of questionnaires consisting of some standard personality assessment instruments. Embedded in the personality assessments were two questions designed to trigger mortality salience: “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you” and “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.” Only half of the judges were randomly given these questions to answer.

The judges were then given a legal case brief virtually identical to one they would typically see before a trial. The brief stated the arresting charge, which was prostitution, and the defendant's address, employment record and length of residency. A copy of the citation issued to the defendant when she was arrested was also included. Finally, the judges were given a form to set bond for the defendant. We chose judges for the study because they are rigorously trained to make rational and uniform decisions based solely on evidence relative to existing laws. And we had them pass judgment on an alleged prostitute because prostitution offends the moral sensibilities of the average American. To the extent that cultural worldviews serve to mitigate mortal terror, we hypothesized that judges who thought about death would set higher bonds than those in the control condition. The results were striking. Judges in the control condition set an average bond of $50, which was typical for this charge in actual cases at the time. However, judges who thought about their death set an average bond of $455.

Since then, more than 300 studies by independent researchers in approximately 20 countries have found support for hypotheses derived from TMT. And it’s not just direct questions about death: mortality salience has also been induced by interviewing people in front of a funeral home or subliminal exposure to the word “dead” or “death.”

LEHRER: Do you think this effect comes into play during election season[]?

SOLOMON: Yes, we think so. In his 1998 book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker, based on Max Weber’s study of charismatic leadership, proposed that in times of crisis, when fears of death are aroused, people are more likely to embrace leaders who provide psychological security by making their citizens feel like they are valued contributors to a great mission to eradicate evil.

To test this hypothesis, we had participants read campaign statements purportedly written by three gubernatorial candidates after a MS or control induction. The candidates varied in leadership style: charismatic, task-oriented and relationship-oriented. For example, the charismatic leader stated: “You are not just an ordinary citizen, you are part of a special state and a special nation . . . .” The task-oriented leader stated: “I can accomplish all the goals that I set out to do. I am very careful in laying out a detailed blueprint of what needs to be done so that there is no ambiguity.” The relationship-oriented leader stated: “I encourage all citizens to take an active role in improving their state. I know that each individual can make a difference . . . .” Participants then selected the candidate they would vote for. In the control condition, only four of 95 participants voted for the charismatic candidate, with the rest of the votes split evenly between the task and relationship oriented leaders. However, following MS, there was almost an 800 percent increase in votes for the charismatic leader; votes for the task-oriented leader were unaffected, but the relationship-oriented leader’s votes significantly declined.
Go read the whole interview.

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