Solomon discusses fear of death and political preference

April West

Guest speaker Sheldon Solomon, a psychology professor from Skidmore College, gave a talk titled “Fatal Attraction: Fear of Death and Political Preference,” in which he discussed the role that reminders of mortality may have on voting preferences. In the Thurs., May 14 talk, Solomon argued that the events of 9/11 were the deciding factor for President Bush’s re-election.
Terror Management Theory was developed by Solomon and two friends in 1980 when they were studying at the University of Kansas for graduate school.
Their theory plainly states that people deal with death in two ways; one way is to reduce an individual’s perception of his or her vulnerability to life-threatening situations, and the other way is cultural, where one believes that there is a bigger and stronger whole more important than the individual.
The aim of Solomon and his colleagues was to shed light on the question “Why have people been beating the crap out of people since there have been people?”
Solomon initially answered this question by saying that we have to take from Darwin the idea that we all just want to stay alive.
As humans, we are not fast, we have bad eyesight, and we don’t have sharp teeth, thus we have made it this far because we are social and we are intelligent.
“If I took away your cell phone and all the other people on this planet, suffice it to say you probably wouldn’t last long,” explained Solomon.
Solomon then went on to discuss Kierkegaard and how he stated that our intelligence is differentiated by the fact that we know we are here, whereas trees and birds do not have the cognitive ability to comprehend this.
This knowledge gives humans two unique emotions, awe and dread. At the same time that we understand that we are here, we also understand that at some point we will not be here and that death could happen at any time.
According to cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, we create culture to give our lives meaning and reduce anxiety. Therefore when we meet someone different from us we are threatened by the idea that they could be right, and if they are right then we could be wrong.
Our options upon meeting someone different from us are to either disparage or belittle them, and if that doesn’t work we kill them to prove that we are right and they are wrong.
Solomon and his friends put Becker’s theories to the test by having Catholics and Jews sit in a room, believing they were in an unrelated study. When they were shown nothing out of the ordinary, everyone liked everyone else in the room equally, but when the participants in the room were reminded of their mortality, it was found that Christians liked other Christians more and Jews less, and Jews liked other Jews more and Christians less.
This reaffirms Becker’s theory that when people are reminded of death they should cling to their ideas more. When Solomon did the same test with a more subtle reminder of mortality, such as taking the test across the street from a funeral parlor, the same effect still happened, showing that people don’t like different people even when they don’t consciously know they are thinking about death.
Sheldon continued by saying that the events of 9/11 had a traumatizing effect on a substantial portion of the American population. The event itself was a big reminder to the American people of their mortality.
Charismatic leaders appear in times of great distress because they usually support a radical decision that they promise will solve the crisis, and as a result, after 9/11 George W. Bush became a charismatic leader.
Prior to 9/11 Bush had one of the lowest approval ratings in American history for a peacetime president, and one week after 9/11 he had one of the highest approval ratings, as Solomon pointed out.
Solomon went on to say that subtle reminders of death greatly increase people’s preference for charismatic leaders, and that Bush bringing up the events of 9/11 was the equivalent of a reminder for people of their own mortality.
This reminder in turn led to a dramatic increase in popularity for Bush and his policies pertaining to Iraq.
In a study done by Solomon, it was shown that, regardless of political orientation, people reminded of 9/11 or death were much more likely to approve of Bush and the war in Iraq. The effects were nearly equal between reminders of 9/11 and death in general.
In another study, it was shown that prior to reminders of death, John Kerry was significantly more highly regarded than Bush, but after a reminder of death, Bush was more highly regarded than Kerry, showing that reminders of death or 9/11 increased Americans support for President Bush and his policies in Iraq.
It was also shown in later studies on Iranians that this was not only an American phenomenon. When tested, it was shown that Iranians had a more favorable impression of suicide bombers and a greater interest in becoming one after being exposed to a reminder of death.
Solomon’s research shows that reminders of death increase the need for psychological security and the appeal for leaders who emphasize the greatness of the nation and a heroic victory over evil.