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.

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.]

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.”

As a culture, we should also work to teach our children and encourage our citizens to vote with their “heads” rather than their “hearts.” And it may also be helpful to raise awareness of how concerns about mortality affect human behavior. I hope that such measures will encourage people to make rational choices based on the political qualifications and positions of the candidates rather than on defensive needs to preserve psychological equanimity in response to reminders of death. 

Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer, the science writer behind the blog The Frontal Cortex and the book Proust Was a Neuroscientist.