The Null Device

The facts of death are reactionary

Experiments in political psychology have shown that people become more receptive to conservatism, authoritarianism, intolerance and zero-sum "us against them" worldviews when reminded of their own mortality (going some way to explaining the "values" vote for Bush in 2004, and indeed the Howard government's successive landslides in Australia):
Their experiments showed that the mere thought of one's mortality can trigger a range of emotions--from disdain for other races, religions, and nations, to a preference for charismatic over pragmatic leaders, to a heightened attraction to traditional mores.
To test the hypothesis that recognition of mortality evokes "worldview defense"--their term for the range of emotions, from intolerance to religiosity to a preference for law and order, that they believe thoughts of death can trigger--they assembled 22 Tucson municipal court judges. They told the judges they wanted to test the relationship between personality traits and bail decisions, but, for one group, they inserted in the middle of the personality questionnaire two exercises meant to evoke awareness of their mortality. One asked the judges to "briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you"; the other required them to "jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you physically as you die and once you are physically dead." They then asked the judges to set bail in the hypothetical case of a prostitute whom the prosecutor claimed was a flight risk. The judges who did the mortality exercises set an average bail of $455. The control group that did not do the exercises set it at an average of $50. The psychologists knew they were onto something.
The researchers did other experiments involving priming one group of candidates with the thought of their mortality. In one example, they found that awareness of one's mortality can induce xenophobia and distrust of difference (students at a Christian college who did the exercises had a more negative opinion of an essay they were told was written by a Jewish author than a control group did) and aggressive patriotism (those who did the exercises took a far more negative view of an essay critical of the United States, and also expressed more reverence for national icons).

After 9/11, the researchers did experiments specifically showing that Bush's popularity in the US was enhanced by Americans' awareness of their mortality:

The control group that completed a personality survey, but did not do the mortality exercises, predictably favored Kerry by four to one. But the students who did the mortality exercises favored Bush by more than two to one. This strongly suggested that Bush's popularity was sustained by mortality reminders. The psychologists concluded in a paper published after the election that the government terror warnings, the release of Osama bin Laden's video on October 29, and the Bush campaign's reiteration of the terrorist threat (Cheney on election eve: "If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again") were integral to Bush's victory over Kerry. "From a terror management perspective," they wrote, "the United States' electorate was exposed to a wide-ranging multidimensional mortality salience induction."
The induction of mortality salience is also claimed to have been instrumental in popular antagonism to perceived enemies (including France, Germany and Canada), and a mass shift towards reactionary conservative positions such as the defense of tradition and religious dictates (from rising opposition to abortion, gay marriage and liberal attitudes to the rise of the "strict father" model of the family, which on 10 September 2001, seemed like a laughable relic of the 1950s):
Indeed, from 2001 to 2004, polls show an increase in opposition to abortion and gay marriage, along with a growing religiosity. According to Gallup, the percentage of voters who believed abortion should be "illegal in all circumstances" rose from 17 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2002 and would still be at 19 percent in 2004. Even church attendance by atheists, according to one poll, increased from 3 to 10 percent from August to November 2001.
In the 1980s, some figure associated with the Thatcher government in the UK was quoted as saying that "the facts of life are Conservative". Whether or not that is the case, it seems that the facts of death are.

There are 4 comments on "The facts of death are reactionary":

Posted by: unixdj Sun Sep 2 12:31:33 2007

"Church attendance by atheists"? I don't get it.

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org/acb/ Mon Sep 3 07:15:44 2007

It sounds weird, doesn't it? I'm guessing that, in parts of the US, churches are such an inherently central part of social organisation that it is imprudent to not go to one. (Which, presumably, is why they have things like Unitarian Universalism, the religion you belong to when you don't actually believe in God.) After 9/11, going to church could be interpreted as a symbolic affirmation of American values and unity.

Posted by: Niall Tue Sep 4 07:40:24 2007

In my opinion and experience, I think it's more that the fear of death (and fear in general) causes people to be more right-wing, rather than just awareness of death. I think if the study had somehow measured the participants' attitude to their own death and their fear of mortality, there'd have been a positive correlation with their receptiveness to right-wing ideas...

Posted by: Andrew Fri Sep 14 07:22:18 2007

The facts of life may be conservative, but civilization is liberal.

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