Study: Fear shapes voters’ views
Responses to candidates differ after thinking about tragedy
WASHINGTON (Reuters) — President George W. Bush may be tapping into solid human psychology when he invokes the September 11 attacks while campaigning for the next election, U.S. researchers said on Thursday.
Talking about death can raise people’s need for psychological security, the researchers report in studies to be published in the December issue of the journal Psychological Science and the September issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
“There are people all over who are claiming every time Bush is in trouble he generates fear by declaring an imminent threat,” said Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, who worked on the study.
“We are saying this is psychologically useful,” said Solomon.
Jeff Greenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said generating fear was a common tactic.
“A lot of leaders gain their appeal by helping people feel they are heroic, particularly in a fight against evil,” Greenberg said in a telephone interview from Hawaii, where he presented the findings to a meeting of the American Psychological Association.
“Sometimes that may be the right thing to do. But it is a psychological approach, particularly when death is close to peoples’ consciousness.”
For their first study, Solomon, Greenberg and colleagues asked students to think about either their own death or a neutral topic.
They then read the campaign statements of three hypothetical candidates for governor, each with a different leadership style. One was charismatic, said Solomon.
“That was a person who declared our country to be great and the people in it to be special,” Solomon, who worked on the study, said in a telephone interview.
The others were task-oriented — focusing on the job to be done — or relationship-oriented — with a “let’s get it done together” style, Solomon said.
Fearing doom, choosing charisma
The students who thought about death were much more likely to choose the charismatic leader, they found. Only four out of about 100 chose that imaginary leader when thinking about exams, but 30 did after thinking about death.
Greenberg, Solomon and colleagues then decided to test the idea further and set up four separate studies at different universities.
“In one we asked half the people to think about the September 11 attacks, or to think about watching TV,” Solomon said. “What we found was staggering.”
When asked to think about television, the 100 or so volunteers did not approve of Bush or his policies in Iraq. But when asked to think about Sept. 11 first and then asked about their attitudes to Bush, another 100 volunteers had very different reactions.
“They had a very strong approval of President Bush and his policy in Iraq,” Solomon said.
Solomon, a social psychologist who specializes in terrorism, said it was very rare for a person’s opinions to differ so strongly depending on the situation.
Another study focused directly on Bush and his Democratic challenger, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
The volunteers were aged from 18 into their 50s and described themselves as ranging from liberal to deeply conservative. No matter what a person’s political conviction, thinking about death made them tend to favor Bush, Solomon said. Otherwise, they preferred Kerry.
“I think this should concern anybody,” Solomon said. “If I was speaking lightly, I would say that people in their, quote, right minds, unquote, don’t care much for President Bush and his policies in Iraq.”
He wants voters to be aware of psychological pressures and how they are used.
“If people are aware that thinking about death makes them act differently, then they don’t act differently,” Solomon said. Solomon says he personally opposes Bush but describes himself as a political independent who could vote Republican.
~ from Donna, who got it from CNN.