Monday Musing: Awareness of Mortality, Conservatism, and Local News

I’ve generally been dissatisfied with the idea that media outlets such as Fox TV and Sinclair are the drivers behind the rightward move in politics in recent decades. It’s not that I find the claims impossible. I certainly have come across enough people whose arguments for this or that right-wing view pretty much echo Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly, or, at better moments, Bill Kristol. I hear these arguments as well, and remain unconvinced. The smarter conservatives have heard opposite views as well, and they remain unconvinced. There is plenty of space for reasonable disagreement for the simple fact that we disagree about what factors are relevant, how they should be weighted, and that we have differing commitments as to what values should be prioritized. So, that doesn’t leave me surprised. But the trend has been a steady one, or had been a steady one. And while there are reasons we have for our positions, and while in some broad sense these reasons can and do act as causes for our political preferences, something else seemed to be at play, and the media seems as good a place as any—all the more so if reasons and the information they appeal to, matter.

Conservatives often point to how media and entertainment alter values by altering our attitudes and psychological stances on sex, violence, and authority. To the extent that political attitudes depend on psychology, on sentiment, their take that the media alter sentiments and thus political may be at least as true as the left-liberal claim that the media distorts information.

The appeal to the psychological basis of political preferences, and especially the patterning of political preferences is old. Studies of crowd psychology, mass movements, fascism, obedience to authority and the like have been steady, and the turn towards rational choice and strategic behavior, with its assumption that these turns are motivated by self-interest, has not managed to dislodge it.

I was thinking of politics and psychology this past holiday season when back in Houston for a visit. An increasing number of family members were becoming more and more conservative and they were becoming more and more fearful.

Recent studies in psychology suggests the people are effectively made more conservative when they’re made aware of mortality. This new approach, “terror management theory”:

holds that cultural worldviews or systems of meaning (e.g., religion) provide people with the means to transcend death, if only symbolically. The cornerstone of this position is that awareness of mortality, when combined with an instinct for self-preservation, creates in humans the capacity to be virtually paralyzed with fear. Fear of death, in turn, engenders a defense of one’s cultural worldview. Consequently, the theory predicts that if the salience of one’s mortality is raised, the worldview will be more heavily endorsed to buffer the resulting anxiety. Under conditions of heightened mortality salience, defense and justification of the worldview should be intensified, thereby decreasing tolerance of opposing views and social, cultural, and political alternatives.

The relevance of terror management theory to the psychology of conservatism should be apparent. When confronted with thoughts of their own mortality (Greenberg et al., 1990; Rosenblatt et al., 1989), people appear to behave more conservatively by shunning and even punishing outsiders and those who threaten the status of cherished worldviews. This perspective is especially consistent with the notion of conservatism as motivated social cognition; terror management theory holds that social intolerance is the consequence of worldview-enhancing cognitions motivated by the need to buffer anxiety-inducing thoughts.

The theory was founded by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski, who point to considerable empirical support for their claims.

Empirical support for TMT has been obtained in over 200 experiments by researchers in 13 countries, primarily by demonstrating that reminders of death (mortality salience) in the form of open-ended questions, death-anxiety questionnaires, pictures of gory accidents, interviews in front of funeral parlors, and subliminal exposure to the words “death” or “dead,” instigate cultural worldview defense. For example, after mortality salience, people: 1) have more favorable evaluations of people with similar religious and political beliefs and more unfavorable evaluations of those who differ on these dimensions; 2) are more punitive toward moral transgressors and more benevolent to heroic individuals; 3) are more physically aggressive toward others with dissimilar political orientations; and 4) strive more vigorously to meet cultural standards of value. In addition, research has shown that mortality salience does not influence conscious affect or physiological arousal, and its effects are greatest following a delay, when death thought is highly accessible but outside of focal attention. Recent work has demonstrated that it is the potential for anxiety signaled by heightened death thought accessibility, which motivates worldview defense and self-esteem bolstering, which in turn reduces death thought accessibility to baseline levels. . .

President Bush’s popularity soared after the massive mortality salience induction produced by the attacks of 9/11; since then, Bush has emphasized the greatness of America and his commitment to triumphing over evil. . . Do reminders of mortality increase the appeal of such a leader? Studies published in the September 2004 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggest that they do. In Study 1, a mortality salience induction dramatically increased support for President Bush and his policies in Iraq. In Study 2, subliminal reminders of 9/11 or the World Trade Center increased the accessibility of implicit thoughts of death; for Americans then, even non-conscious intimations of the events of 9/11 arouse concerns about mortality. Accordingly, in Study 3 participants were asked to think about death, the events of 9/11, or a benign control topic; both mortality and 9/11 salience produced substantial increases in support for President Bush among liberal as well as conservative participants. Finally, in Study 4, whereas participants rated John Kerry more favorably than George Bush after thinking about being in intense pain, after a reminder of death, evaluations of Bush increased and Kerry decreased, such that Bush was more favorably evaluated than Kerry.

And the mechanism seems to be a fairly straightforward, in-group out-group dynamics. I recalled these studies which I had come across not too long ago when I was in Houston, because a fear and stigmatization of refugees from New Orleans was not simply palpable but open. More importantly it was on the local news all the time.

I stopped watching local news a long time ago mostly because of headlines like “Potholes, what you don’t know might kill you.” (That’s not a made up headline.) The alleged crimes associated with refugees from New Orleans were particular instances of the sensationalist fear mongering that is a staple of local news. If there’s anything to this research, then Fox News and Sinclair may be products rather than sources of the changes in political preferences, and the sources themselves may be from seemingly innocuous media.