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November 28, 2008 / JV

The Political Implications of Fear

I find this so amusing.

There was an experiment (Jost, Kay, Fitzsimons 2004) in which some subjects were primed with images evoking death (such as a hearse, the grim reaper, etc) vs. subjects who were primed with images evoking pain. The participants were then asked about their support for conservative causes, such as tighter immigration restrictions, tax breaks for corporations, etc.

Relative to the control group, individuals primed with images evoking death reported more conservative positions across a wide range of issues. That is, our awareness of our own mortality makes us all more likely to shift towards politically conservative beliefs.

This could explain why presidential approval ratings increased each time the U.S. terror alert level was raised between 2001 and 2004 (Willer 2004). And why subliminal 9/11 and death images led college students to show increased support for Bush (Landau et al 2004).

According to psychologist John Jost, thinking about dying awakens in us a desire to see the world as just and fair, and provokes us to accept the social order rather than challenge it. So is fear a conservative tactic, or simply a political one?

That we tend towards conservative beliefs when we’re reminded of our mortality could lend insight into the political motives behind state-sponsored domestic terrorism, war, discourses on crime, even the criminalization of sex. People will more willingly police themselves and each other if they believe that something threatens their privilege, their property, or their lives.


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