Sunday, March 01, 2009

Emotions and politics

We've been having a little discussion about how "gut feelings" influence decisions: here, here, here.

"Gut feelings" are obviously related to emotions, but not entirely. As mentioned here, they can also be based on "implicit memory".

Alongside of this, we've also been discussing a particular type of decision making – where the domain is politics. In that case, the emotions involved are often related to fears of death and mortality. Posts in that vein: here, here, here, here.

I have another, broader post on political psychology coming up, but as a lead-in, I just thought I'd wrap up where we've been so far with decision-making, emotions, and fear specifically.

In order to do that, let's look at one more article published last October, just before the U. S. elections. It's an interview in Scientific American with Sheldon Solomon, a psychology professor at Skidmore College. Solomon's thing is an idea called "terror management theory" (TMT), which is derived from cultural anthropology.

Here's the article, with Solomon's elevator talk on TMT:

Fear, Death and Politics: What Your Mortality Has to Do with the Upcoming Election (10/23/08)
Terror management theory (TMT) is derived from cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s efforts to explain the motivational underpinnings of human behavior. According to TMT, one defining characteristic of human beings is self-awareness: we’re alive and we know it. Although self-awareness gives rise to unbridled awe and joy, it can also lead to the potentially overwhelming dread engendered by the realization that death is inevitable, that it can occur for reasons that can never be anticipated or controlled, and that humans are corporeal creatures—breathing pieces of defecating meat no more significant or enduring than porcupines or peaches.

TMT posits that humans ingeniously, but quite unconsciously, solved this existential dilemma by developing cultural worldviews: humanly constructed beliefs about reality shared by individuals in a group that serve to “manage” the potentially paralyzing terror resulting from the awareness of death. All cultures provide a sense of meaning by offering an account of the origin of the universe, a blueprint for acceptable conduct on Earth, and a promise of immortality (symbolically, by creation of large monuments, great works of art or science, amassing great fortunes, having children; and literally, through the various kinds of afterlives that are a central feature of organized religions) to those who live up to culturally prescribed standards.

Thus, although cultures vary considerably, they share in common the same defensive psychological function: to provide meaning and value and in so doing bestow psychological equanimity in the face of death.

So how's that related to politics? Well, as noted in other posts on this topic, thinking about death seems to raise people's awareness of and commitment to ideals and values of the tribe they affiliate with, and reject values and worldviews of other tribes:
A large body of evidence shows that momentarily making death salient, typically by asking people to think about themselves dying, intensifies people’s strivings to protect and bolster aspects of their worldviews, and to bolster their self-esteem. The most common finding is that MS [mortality salience] increases positive reactions to those who share cherished aspects of one’s cultural worldview, and negative reactions toward those who violate cherished cultural values or are merely different.

Some of the evidence Solomon is referring to was uncovered by Solomon himself, along with colleagues Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. For one account, see this 2004 press release, which we referenced here. (There's also a Scientific American article about it, but that requires a few shekels to view.)

Solomon thinks that these considerations definitely influenced the 2004 U. S. presidential election:
Based on these experiments, and other research demonstrating a positive relation between government-issued terror warnings and poll data on Americans’ opinions of President Bush from 2001 to 2004, I believe the outcome of the 2004 presidential election was influenced by repeated reminders of death by President Bush’s campaign, which was carefully crafted to emphasize the war on terrorism and domestic security. ... The effort was aided by the release of a video by Osama bin Laden the weekend before the election. This finding is not to suggest that all support for President Bush was necessarily a defensive reaction to concerns about death, or that the strategic use of fear to advance political agendas, which has a long history in American politics, is confined to the Republican party.

Other accounts of the research of Solomon and colleagues: here, here.

The 2008 U. S. presidential election was a much different story. MS was a lot lower, being replaced by a quite rational dread of growing economic chaos. So, again, there was a strong emotional fear factor, though not directly related to mortality, and it quite likely influenced the election results. Sometimes fear is rational.

Perhaps political scientists could do more work to understand the variety of fear-based appeals that campaigns use, and the conditions under which they are especially effective.

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