Sunday, August 01, 2004
Thinking about death? Vote Bush!
Two studies in psychology may shed some light on an enigma: Given the Bush administration’s incompetence in affairs both foreign and domestic, its destruction of American civil rights, its failure to benefit anyone but the elite, and its unparalleled mendacity, how is it that almost 50% of the voting population still intends to vote for Bush?
Jeff Greenberg and Sheldon Solomon have been working on the problem.
In their first study, university student volunteers were divided into two groups. One group was asked to think about their own death; the other group was given a neutral topic. They were then read campaign statements representing three leadership styles:
- • charismatic
- declaring the country to be great and the people in it to be special
- • task-oriented
- "let’s get the job done"
- • relationship-oriented
- "let’s get the job done together"
Of those who thought about exams,1 only 4% chose the charismatic leader; but of those who thought about death, 30% went for charisma.
Additional studies were then conducted that related the findings specifically to the coming election. In one study, half of the subjects were asked to think about television, and the other half about 9/11.
When asked to think about television, the 100 or so volunteers did not approve of Bush or his policies in Iraq. But when asked to think about Sept. 11 first and then asked about their attitudes to Bush, another 100 volunteers had very different reactions.
"They had a very strong approval of President Bush and his policy in Iraq," Solomon said.
Solomon, a social psychologist who specializes in terrorism, said it was very rare for a person's opinions to differ so strongly depending on the situation.
In another study, volunteers from 18 into their 50s of all political persuasions, “tend to favor Bush” over Kerry after thinking about death. “Otherwise, they preferred Kerry.”
"I think this should concern anybody," Solomon said. "If I was speaking lightly, I would say that people in their, quote, right minds, unquote, don't care much for President Bush and his policies in Iraq."
"If people are aware that thinking about death makes them act differently, then they don't act differently," Solomon said.
What Solomon is referring to may be thought of as “psychological innoculation.” By becoming aware of techniques of social control, we are better able to resist them. The military uses this type of training to help soldiers who may be captured.
Since to some extent we are all now a captive population, the better we understand the methods of our captors, the better we will be able to resist.
1 "Exams" doesn't seem to me to be a very neutral topic for students. Unfortunately these studies are not yet published, so I can't get more detail than is in the CNN article. As a general caution, I would like my readers to be aware that science reporting is as bad or worse than political reporting. [back]