OMT One Man's Trash...from Norman Leahy

Friday, October 13, 2006 :::

Conservatives...Afraid of Death?

That's the finding of a paper discussed in Sharon Begley's WSJ column today:

A growing number of studies offer clues as to how terrorism and other deadly events affect people's voting decisions. The latest research shows that because such violent political acts are brutal reminders of death, they make conservatives, but not liberals, more hostile toward those perceived as different, and more supportive of extreme military policies, according to a study in April in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Obviously, the authors of the study are not regular blog readers, where the hostility toward others, often over trivia, can be jaw dropping.

And the conclusion makes me wonder -- where do certain prominent, hawkish liberals fit in? Are we to ignore FDR, Harry Truman, LBJ, Henry Jackson and Joe Lieberman? I don't know, maybe they were crypto-conservatives. Or perhaps they had a different world view from modern liberals.

This "worldview defense," says psychology researcher Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore College, "reduces the terror that reminders of your own death bring." These results have been replicated in some 300 lab experiments, including in cultures with very different ideas about an afterlife.

Which brings us back to the effect on voters of a terrorist attack and its brutal reminders of mortality. Although some voters would feel betrayed by incumbents who failed to protect them, researchers say, these days that trend would more likely be swamped by a surge toward candidates perceived as hawks on national security.

"We feel that unconscious thoughts about death do influence people's voting decisions, especially for folks who are not strongly committed to a candidate," says Prof. Solomon, expressing a consensus of those who have studied terrorism and voting behavior.

The link between thoughts of death and actual behavior shows up not only in labs but in the real world, too. After 9/11, Americans sprouted flag lapel pins. Patriotism and approval of the president soared. Tolerance for dissent plummeted. ("All Americans...need to watch what they say," warned a White House spokesman.)

Even what seem to be exceptions support the rule that reminders of death cause people to hunker down in their own worldview. New Yorkers living or working near Ground Zero are regularly reminded of death, yet tend to be liberal, opposed to the Iraq war and critical of President Bush. Why don't intimations of mortality push them toward nationalistic fervor?

"Reminders of death do make New Yorkers cling to their worldview more strongly," says psychology researcher Tom Pyszczynski of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. "If that worldview has to do with tolerance and peace and prosocial beliefs, then those positions strengthen."

Prof. Solomon and Prof. Pyszczynski and colleagues explain this conservative/liberal divide in the Bulletin study by suggesting that extreme militarism violates liberals' core beliefs. Since thoughts of death make people more committed to their worldview, hawks, but not doves, would increase their support for military action in the wake of a terrorist attack.

I'm not sure about this -- which may mean that I'm subconsciously lashing out against "the other."

But even if the fear of death is a great motivator for some (Lord knows it's a tremendous motivator in marketing. Well, that and sex. And greed. Okay, all the base instincts), it would not seem to explain the motivations for others, which the authors of the study admit. Pride, affection, loyalty...they obviously play a role as well. But that's not nearly as interesting or as universal as death.

::: posted by Norman Leahy at 10/13/2006 0 comments


"You know what the fellow said: In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they also produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love -- they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." -- Orson Welles, The Third Man

"The graveyards are full of indespensable men" -- Charles de Gaulle

"Oh, so Mother Nature needs a favor? Well maybe she should have thought of that when she was besetting us with droughts and floods and poison monkeys. Nature started the fight for survival and now she wants to quit because she's losing. Well I say, hard cheese!" -- Montgomery Burns

"Don't pretend that you know me...cause I don't even know myself" -- The Who

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