This research is based on the idea that reminders of death increase the need for psychological security and therefore the appeal of leaders who emphasize the greatness of the nation and a heroic victory over evil.
To test this hypothesis, Jeff Greenberg, a professor of psychology at the University Arizona in Tucson, Sheldon Solomon (Skidmore College) and Tom Pyszczynski, (University of Colorado, Colorado Springs) and their colleagues conducted an experiment that is scheduled to appear in the December 2004 issue of Psychological Science.
For their current research, the scientists asked students to think about their own death or a control topic and then read campaign statements of three hypothetical political candidates, each with a different leadership style: "charismatic" (i.e. those emphasizing greatness of the nation and a heroic victory over evil, as described above), task-oriented or relationship-oriented. Following a reminder of death, there was almost an 800 percent increase in votes for the charismatic leader, but no increase for the two other candidates.
"At a theoretical level," the authors wrote, "this study adds to the large body of empirical evidence attesting to the pervasive influence of reminders of death on a wide range of human activities. These findings fit particularly well with prior studies showing how mortality salience leads people toward individuals, groups, and actions that can help enhance their self-esteem. People want to identify with special, great things, and charismatic leaders typically offer the promise of just that."
What can voters do to ensure that they make choices in a rational way, based on political qualifications and the positions of the candidates? They may need to monitor efforts by candidates to capitalize on fear mongering and make a greater effort to vote with their heads, rather than with their hearts, and be aware of how concerns about death affect human behavior.
For more information, contact Jeff Greenberg at (520) 621-7434 or [email protected] and Sheldon Solomon at (518) 580-5312 or [email protected]. A full copy of the article is available at the APS Media Center at www.psychologicalscience.org/media/.
Greenberg, Solomon and Pyszczynski are the originators of Terror Management Theory, which helps explain why humans react the way they do to the threat of death, and how this reaction influences their post-threat cognition and emotion. They also wrote "In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror," in which they used terror management theory to analyze the roots of terrorism and American reactions to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.
Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The American Psychological Society represents psychologists advocating science-based research in the public's interest.
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