So in the next experiment, after either pondering their death or an aversive but nonfatal control topic, participants read and indicated their support a statement that included sentences such as: “Personally I endorse the actions of President Bush and the members of his administration who have taken bold action in Iraq. I appreciate our President’s wisdom regarding the need to remove Saddam Hussein from power and his Homeland Security Policy is a source of great comfort to me.”
Thinking about death dramatically increased support for President Bush and his policies in Iraq, even when reminders of 9/11 or the World Trade Center were presented subliminally, or outside of conscious awareness. Furthermore, in a spring 2004 follow-up study, we found that although participants rated Senator John Kerry more favorably than President Bush after thinking about unpleasant events unrelated to death, after a reminder of death, Bush was more favorably evaluated than Kerry. In another study conducted in September 2004 registered voters favored John Kerry over George Bush by a four-to-one margin in a control condition, but favored Bush over Kerry by a two-to-one margin after thinking about death.
Based on these experiments, and other research demonstrating a positive relation between government-issued terror warnings and poll data on Americans’ opinions of President Bush from 2001 to 2004, I believe the outcome of the 2004 presidential election was influenced by repeated reminders of death by President Bush’s campaign, which was carefully crafted to emphasize the war on terrorism and domestic security (for example, “Republican leaders said yesterday that they would repeatedly remind the nation of the Sept. 11 attacks as their convention opens in New York City today…” New York Times, August 30, 2004). The effort was aided by the release of a video by Osama bin Laden the weekend before the election. This finding is not to suggest that all support for President Bush was necessarily a defensive reaction to concerns about death, or that the strategic use of fear to advance political agendas, which has a long history in American politics, is confined to the Republican party.
Also, we are not sure what, if any, effect concerns about mortality might have on the upcoming presidential election. In 2004 Senator Kerry was anything but charismatic, and was successfully portrayed by his opposition as weak and waffling. In the current election, Senator Barack Obama and Governor Sarah Palin are both charismatic individuals who evoke passionate support from their respective followers. In a recent study, we found that after a reminder of death, liberal Americans were especially supportive of a liberal charismatic leader (but not at all enthusiastic about a conservative charismatic leader), whereas conservative Americans were especially supportive of a conservative charismatic leader (but not at all enthusiastic about a liberal charismatic leader). Extrapolating from this finding, reminders of death could increase support for Senator Obama among his followers and increase support for Senator McCain via enthusiasm for Governor Palin among their followers. This result would be interesting, but practically inconsequential in that a mortality salience induced exaggeration of pre-existing political preferences would not influence the outcome of the election.
LEHRER: Is it possible to resist the biasing effect of mortality salience? In other words, how can we protect ourselves against this reflexive bias?
SOLOMON: The best antidote to this problem may be to monitor and take pains to resist any efforts by politicians or others to capitalize on fear mongering. As social psychologist David Myers at Hope College so eloquently put it in a 2004 op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times: “It is perfectly normal to fear purposeful violence from those who hate us. When terrorists strike again, we will all recoil in horror. But smart thinkers also will want to check their intuitive fears against the facts and to resist those who serve their own purposes by cultivating a culture of fear.”