Excerpt from Al Frankin's The Truth
Terror Management Theory argues that much of human behavior and human culture can be understood as a response to the fear of death. Duh. Among other things, TMT predicts that death-related thoughts drive people to affirm their pre-existing cultural worldview (boo gay marriage!) and to support "charismatic/visionary" leaders (Bush) over "task-oriented" leader (Kerry) or "relationship-oriented" leaders who emphasize the need for people to work together and accept mutual responsibility (Kerry). The predictions of TMT have been borne out by more than 175 published experiments. As compared to, say, the number of peer reviewed studies concluding that human beings have nothing to do with global warming, which is zero.
Of all the TMT studies I've read (two), my favorite is "The Effects of Mortality Salience and Reminders of 9/11 on Support for President George W. Bush," which appeared in the September 2004 issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
. In a series of experiments conducted on student volunteers from across the political spectrum, the authors found that reminders of death generally or 9/11 specifically caused subjects to view Bush more favorably.
The first experiment divided the students into two groups to test whether thinking about death affected their politics. The control group was asked to describe the experience of watching television. Members of the second group were asked to "describe the emotion that the thought of your own death arouses in you" and to "jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead."
Both groups were then asked to read and evaluate a short essay praising Bush and endorsing the war in Iraq. Most of the people in the television group disagreed with the essay. Most of the people in the death group agreed with it. Math nerds will be interested to know that the effect size was both large (n2=.55) and statistically significant (p<.001).
In the second experiment, the subjects were divided into three groups. In order to prime their subconscious thought patterns, one group was assigned to write about death, another about 9/11, and the third, the control group, about pain. (The scientists substituted "pain" for "watching television" to make sure that Bush's bump in the first experiment came from thinking about death specifically and not just from thinking about something unpleasant. If I were conducting the experiment, instead of pain, In would have made the unpleasant thing something very specific-like having to give Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell a foot rub.)
In this experiment, the subjects prompted to think about pain preferred Kerry by a more than two-to-one margin. Those thinking about death or 9/11 preferred Bush by a landslide. The effect of thinking of death or 9/11 worked on liberals, moderates, and conservatives alike.
The Terror Management Theorists who authored this study concluded:
The present findings support the views of many theorists who have noted that political allegiances are not always based on the balanced, rational forces of self-interest suggested by the Jeffersonian notion of democracy but also on the operation of nonrational forces of which we are not always aware.