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[http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=voters-fear-death]?
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.
This result led us to wonder if President George W. Bush’s tremendous popularity following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center resulted in part from the dramatic and ongoing reminder of death and vulnerability caused by the events of 9/11. Prior to 9/11, Bush’s presidency was viewed as ineffectual and uninspired, even by many of his Republican supporters. However, within a few weeks of declaring that the nation was at war and warning other nations to join the “crusade” to “rid the world of the evildoers” or face the “full wrath of the United States,” President Bush’s approval ratings reached historically unprecedented heights. [For more on the power of words, see “When Words Decide,” by Barry Schwartz; Scientific American Mind, August/September 2007.]