Tuesday, January 09, 2007

fear of death

Jay Dixit raises some interesting issues in this Psychology Today article [via Andrew Sullivan], but I’m not sure I’m fully on board.

[on p. 3 of the online article:]

Psychologists Mark Landau of the University of Arizona and Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore sought to explain how President Bush's approval rating went from around 51 percent before 9/11 to 90 percent immediately afterward. In one study, they exposed some participants to the letters WTC or the numbers 9/11 in an image flashed too quickly to register at the conscious level. They exposed other participants to familiar but random combinations of letters and numbers, such as area codes. Then they gave them words like coff__, sk_ll, and gr_ve, and asked them to fill in the blanks. People who'd seen random combinations were more likely to fill in coffee, skill, and grove. But people exposed to subliminal terrorism primes more often filled in coffin, skull, and grave. "The mere mention of September 11 or WTC is the same as reminding Americans of death," explains Solomon.

As a follow-up, Solomon primed one group of subjects to think about death, a state of mind called "mortality salience." A second group was primed to think about 9/11. And a third was induced to think about pain—something unpleasant but non-deadly. When people were in a benign state of mind, they tended to oppose Bush and his policies in Iraq. But after thinking about either death or 9/11, they tended to favor him. Such findings were further corroborated by Cornell sociologist Robert Willer, who found that whenever the color-coded terror alert level was raised, support for Bush increased significantly, not only on domestic security but also in unrelated domains, such as the economy.

. . .

Cinnamon Stillwell and others in the 911 Neocons didn't become more liberal. Like so many other Democrats after 9/11, they made a hard right turn. The reason thoughts of death make people more conservative, Jost says, is that they awaken a deep desire to see the world as fair and just, to believe that people get what they deserve, and to accept the existing social order as valid, rather than in need of change. When these natural desires are primed by thoughts of death and a barrage of mortal fear, people gravitate toward conservatism because it's more certain about the answers it provides—right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, us vs. them—and because conservative leaders are more likely to advocate a return to traditional values, allowing people to stick with what's familiar and known. "Conservatism is a more black and white ideology than liberalism," explains Jost. "It emphasizes tradition and authority, which are reassuring during periods of threat."

. . .

[on p. 5:]

Following 9/11, most lifelong liberals did not go through outright conversion or shift their preferred candidate. Yet many liberals who didn't become all-out conservatives found themselves nonetheless sympathizing more with conservative positions, craving the comfort of a strong leader, or feeling the need to punish or avenge. Many in the political center moved to the right, too. In aggregate, over an electorate of millions—a large proportion of whom were swing voters waiting to be swayed one way or the other—even a subtle shift was enough to tip the balance of the Presidential election, and the direction the country took for years. "Without 9/11 we would have a different president," says Solomon. "I would even say that the Osama bin Laden tape that was released the Thursday before the election was sufficient to swing the election. It was basically a giant mortality salience induction."

I don’t know if I buy the generally negative characterizations of conservatives summarized in this article, which just happen to be teased out by academic psychologists, a group that represents the convergence of two of the most reliably liberal groups in the country. In particular, I don’t understand the reasoning behind the following assertion:

The reason thoughts of death make people more conservative, Jost says, is that they awaken a deep desire to see the world as fair and just, to believe that people get what they deserve, and to accept the existing social order as valid, rather than in need of change.

Thoughts of death don’t make me more conservative—they generally affirm my existing liberal beliefs. Also, what does “conservative” really mean in this context? Is someone who wants to preserve the natural environment in order to maintain social and economic stability conservative or liberal? If we are fortunate enough to pass through our current fascination with terrorism without significant and lasting damage to our society, and fear of terrorists (which translates to fear of fear, really) is left behind as readily as fear of anarchists was 80 or 90 years ago, there are other problems that could inspire possibly much more credible fear of death than terrorism, which people in Western countries thus far have a very low probability of falling victim to. I’m thinking, in particular, of a global pandemic, global warming, or the consequences of a worldwide societal breakdown due to some combination of the two. Or even nuclear devastation due to good, old-fashioned interstate conflict.

These reasons to fear death are familiar to liberals, but I don’t think they necessarily cause liberals to sympathize more with conservative positions, crave the comfort of a strong leader, or feel the need to punish or avenge. Neither, by and large, do these fears “awaken a deep desire to see the world as fair and just, to believe that people get what they deserve, and to accept the existing social order as valid, rather than in need of change.” I think this theory needs a little more work.


Karla said...

I don't know that the terms used of conservatism in your gloss of the article are necessarily negative. If I were a mother or grandmother in Iraq, for instance, security, safety, justice, and authority would probably be high on my list of priorities. When a person cares for helpless ones or realizes her own vulnerability every day, those attributes sound pretty good. I think this is maybe why women in traditional societies tend to be more conservative than men in general. Some may be willing to give up some personal freedom or societal equality in return for safety and stability. As a lifelong, true-blue leftist, for example, I still choose to remain actively religious, even though I have always been very aware of the inequities of my tradition. The problem is, of course, that the notion that one must give up rights, freedoms, and other "liberal" values in a trade-off for security is often mistaken--nearly always mistaken, in recent experience. But I understand and sympathize with the visceral hope behind the trade. "Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves" is still good advice I think, 2000 years later. Too bad so few Christians follow it.

Yave said...

I realize now that I referred to the generally negative characterizations of conservatives summarized in the article and then didn't actually include any of those negative characterizations in the post. Here are some of them:

(p. 2): Researchers "decided to compare the subjects' childhood personalities with their political preferences as adults. They found arresting patterns. As kids, liberals had developed close relationships with peers and were rated by their teachers as self-reliant, energetic, impulsive, and resilient. People who were conservative at age 23 had been described by their teachers as easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited, and vulnerable at age 3. The reason for the difference, the Blocks hypothesized, was that insecure kids most needed the reassurance of tradition and authority, and they found it in conservative politics."

Conservatives didn't react well to a "meta-analysis" of existing studies by liberal researchers:

"Jost's meta-analysis sparked furious controversy. The House Republican Study Committee complained that the study's authors had received federal funds. George Will satirized it in his Washington Post column, and The National Review called it the 'Conservatives Are Crazy' study."

I guess I just don't think preferences for safety and stability are inherently conservative traits. One big complaint of Democrats in the Bush era has been economic instability of the middle class. Liberals think Bush's war has made the world less safe. And if global warming is left to proceed unchecked, then security, safety, justice, and authority will all go out the window--this is why liberals want the problem addressed as soon as possible.

I guess that is basically what you are saying--that liberals value these things, too. But this article frames "safety and security" as conservative values, rather than human values, and that's what bothered me about it.