In The Denial of Death, [anthropologist Ernest] Becker tried to explain how fear of one's own demise lies at the center of human endeavor. "Man's anxiety," Becker wrote, "results from the human paradox that man is an animal who is conscious of his animal limitation." Becker described how human beings defend themselves against this fundamental anxiety by constructing cultures that promise symbolic or literal immortality to those who live up to established standards. Among other things, we practice religions that promise immortality; produce children and works of art that we hope will outlive us; seek to submerge our own individuality in a larger, enduring community of race or nation; and look to heroic leaders not only to fend off death, but to endow us with the courage to defy it. We also react with hostility toward individuals and rival cultures that threaten to undermine the integrity of our own.This is an interesting hypothesis, which seems to be borne out by observation, but three psychologists set out to prove this empirically by running studies in the 80s and 90s.
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.
Over the next decade, the three performed similar experiments to illustrate how awareness of death could provoke worldview defense. They showed that what they now called "mortality salience" affected people's view of other races, religions, and nations. When they had students at a Christian college evaluate essays by what they were told were a Christian and a Jewish author, the group that did the mortality exercises expressed a far more negative view of the essay by the Jew- ish author than the control group did. (German psychologists would find a similar reaction among German subjects toward Turks.) They also conducted numerous experiments to show that mortality exercises evoked patriotic responses. The subjects who did the exercises took a far more negative view of an essay critical of the United States than the control group did and also expressed greater veneration for cultural icons like the flag. The three even devised an experiment to show that, after doing the mortality exercises, conservatives took a much harsher view of liberals, and vice versa.
In conducting these experiments, they took care not to tell the subjects what they were doing. They also devised experiments to answer obvious objections to their theory. For instance, they substituted other exercises designed to increase anxiety--by reminding subjects of an upcoming examination or a painful dental visit--to determine if these thoughts had the same effect as the mortality exercises, but they didn't. It wasn't anxiety per se that triggered worldview defense; it was anxiety specifically about one's own death.
This research, showing that fear of death leads to more conservative reactions, has obvious political consequences.
in late September 2004, the psychologists, along with two colleagues from Rutgers, tested whether mortality exercises influenced whom voters would support in the upcoming presidential election. They conducted the study among 131 Rutgers undergraduates who said they were registered and planned to vote in November. 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."Obviously, many people vote Republican based on a rational, logical view of the world. But for others, the fear of death, lingering below the conscious level, appears to trump the logical machinations of the frontal lobe.
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