The Frontal Cortex

Fear of Death and Politics

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.


  1. #1 Grahan
    August 18, 2008

    It is probably important to point out that the world is, in fact, dangerous and full of evil. I need no rhetorical tricks from political campaigns to make me worry about it.

  2. #2 Coturnix
    August 18, 2008

    The world is, in fact, NOT dangerous and full of evil. Unless you watch Fox News.

  3. #3 Size
    August 18, 2008

    I understand the point you’re making, and yet… all Bush has ever done is make the world more dangerous and full of evil (at least, evil will toward Americans). So the pro-Bush response is not only irrational but actually counterproductive. There’s something important here about the response being based on false premises.

    Wonder if the results would be different now that Bush’s incompetence is more widely appreciated.

  4. #4 db
    August 18, 2008

    I also wonder if minds primed to focus on security threats are put off by politicians who bend on any issue, even those having nothing to do with security. I was just thinking that Obama might be hurting himself with security voters by allowing the Clintons two nights in the spotlight at the convention. Inter-party bickering has nothing to do with security, but caving to the Clintons’ demands makes him register, on an unconscious level, as someone who doesn’t stand up to his opponents.

  5. #5 OftenWrongTed
    August 18, 2008

    DB correctly identified a potential tactical error which I hope does not prove to weaken the underpinnings of the Obama campaign. Sen. Obama reminds me of Robert Kennedy and his own message to America, as well as his message to the World when he said: “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

  6. #6 Ted Frier
    August 19, 2008

    This is all fine as election strategy but the real question we need to ask is to what extent does this sort of hocus-pocus brainwashing contaminate actual policy and become a self fulfilling prophesy. Is it likely that conservative government means more wars and chaos across the globe because that is the environment in which they do best at election time? I think so. McCain’s top strategist admitted as much when he said that another terrorist attack would benefit Republicans by raising the fear quotient.

    Likewise, torture is not about getting intelligence it is about coarsening the American psyche, toughening us up, willing to think the unthinkable and accept what was hitherto unacceptable in order to make us less sympathetic or compassionate so that America will be fit to run the empire the neocons envision who believe that the only way to fight fascism is with fascism. I’ve been convinced for some time that the Cheney Administration’s insistance on torturing prisoners has less to do with getting actionable intelligence (since most experts agree torture is notoriosly unreliable for this) than provoking liberals committed to rule of law to oppose it and thus seem “soft” on terrorism. The point, in other words, is about regime change here — from a democratic republic to the imperial executive, authoritarian regime Cheney has wanted all along.

    That is also the point it should be said of the violent and vicious rhetoric we hear from the Conservative Media Establishment, like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. In addition to ridiculing liberals, their attacks are also meant to change personalities as well as minds by raising the blood pressure of their audience, making them more aggressive and hate-filled, more receptive then to conservative positions, which are always more violent and aggressive than liberal positions.

    Forget logic or the Socratic method. Opinion is all about attitude. Reason is subordinate to emotion. As Walter Lippmann wrote in his classic work Public Opinion in 1922: “People do not see first and then define. They define first and then see.” This is the point of the cognitive scientist George Lakoff in his books on public opinion. Think first about the attitudes and frames of reference, and only then appeal to reason with facts and argument, because attitude affects what facts will penetrate.

  7. #7 Grahan
    August 19, 2008

    “The world is, in fact, NOT dangerous and full of evil.”

    It isn’t? Then why do I have to carry all these keys for the locks on my house, car and job? After all the time I lost looking for them every morning…

    Danger isn’t a contrivance. Evil produces thousands and thousands and thousands of victims everyday. Politicians are essentially people hired to solve problems too large for us as individuals to deal with. It is completely reasonable that, like any other advertiser, they will show you the advantage they have in solving the problem as they see it. McCain and his people might very well see evil as the biggest problem we face or the one he is best suited to fix. It doesn’t make them fear-mongers. Is Tide Detergent a stain-monger?

    If you don’t think that danger is a problem, fine, vote for the guy who offers solutions to the problems you are concerned with. These two candidates have enough policy differences at face value to make your voting decisions purely on the basis of what they are telling us. Questioning the sincerity of their motives is not a decision-making tool, it is propaganda meant to undermine their support and is every bit as morally questionable as the fear-mongering they are often accused of.

    You want to make America a better place? All you have to do is vote on the issues, not the letter after their name. The only parties should be Politician and Constituent, not Democrat and Republican. We have more in common with each other than we do with them.

  8. #8 chantix
    August 19, 2008

    Finally, a 9/11 post that isn’t filled with trash. Really well-written, thank you for this.

  9. #9 Houston Criminal Attorney
    March 22, 2011

    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.

  10. #10 Obamacok
    March 23, 2011

    Not your best article.

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