John McCain remarked last week that the hostilities in Georgia marked the “first serious crisis” since the end of the Cold War. His surrogates on the news shows have expanded on that position, as they repeat the talking point about how the world is so dangerous and full of evil.
This strategy shouldn’t be surprising: in recent elections, the Republican party has consistently emphasized national security threats and subtly tried to stoke the fear of voters. Remember this Bush ad, which ran during the closing weeks of the 2004 election? After criticizing Kerry for voting against increased funding for the intelligence services, the ad concluded with a pack of wolves emerging from the woods and running straight towards the camera. The narrator explained the imagery: “Weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm”. That’s some scary stuff.
Furthermore, there’s good evidence that such political tactics are effective. Consider the work done by Sheldon Solomon and colleagues on mortality salience. The experiments were clever: the researchers took a large group of politically independent undergraduates and had them stare at some blinking computer screens. While the blinks seemed meaningless – they lasted for just a few milliseconds, which is too brief for conscious awareness – they actually conveyed some emotionally charged information. Half of the subjects were subconsciously “primed” with stimuli that evoked the September 11 terrorist attacks, like the letters WTC or the numbers 9/11. The rest of the subjects just looked at area codes and random groupings of letters.
After the priming session, the scientists asked the subjects some political questions. For instance, after reading a series of sentences strongly supportive of President Bush and his policies – “I appreciate our President’s wisdom regarding the need to remove Saddam Hussein from power,” etc. – they were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, whether or not they agreed with the paragraph.
The results were dramatic. When people were primed with neutral stimuli, they gave the sentences an average rating of 2.1, which meant they were in mild disagreement. In general, they thought Bush’s post-9/11 policies were a mistake. However, when they were subconsciously exposed to words and numbers that reminded them of terrorism, their political opinions were reversed. They now gave the sentences a rating of 3.75, signaling an endorsement of the Bush administration. They thought the Iraq war was a good idea.
Landau and Solomon then looked at how the threat of terrorism affected the 2004 Presidential election. Some students were asked to think about the possibility of their own death, a process Landau and Solomon refer to as “mortality salience”. (Landau and Solomon had previously shown that reminders of 9/11 made people much more likely to think about death and dying.) The other group was primed with thoughts of pain, as they were asked to contemplate their most painful personal experience. The subjects then completed a short survey in which they were asked to rate both George Bush and John Kerry on an eight-point scale.
When people were asked to think about pain, they preferred Kerry by a wide margin. His average rating was 5.5 points, compared to Bush’s 2.2. However, when the scientists triggered thoughts of death – the mortality salience condition – Bush suddenly became much more popular. In fact, he now received significantly higher ratings than Kerry. “The most subtle psychological manipulations can profoundly affect our political preferences,” says Solomon. “We think we are making these deliberate decisions, but that’s just an illusion. When the emotional shit hits the fan, our rationality is the first thing to go.'”
While the scientists associate such a conservative tilt with “terror induced irrationality” it’s not clear that these people are any more irrational than those who chose Kerry after being primed with “pain”. In both instances, different emotional cues prime our decision-making machinery in slightly different ways. So don’t be surprised when you see Obama ads showing people grimacing in pain at the gas pump, or McCain television spots that emphasize the inherent dangers of the world. Political strategists, it turns out, intuitively understand how to bias the brain in their favor.