A new study, whose results were presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Denver, Colorado, has shown that when individuals think about death, their support for Donald Trump increases, regardless of their party affiliation and whether or not they have an overall negative attitude towards Trump. These findings imply that the recent terror attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando, which undoubtedly aroused existential anxiety, may have played an essential role in Trump’s mind-boggling ascent from Reality TV to Republican nominee. The motivation for the study was based on an influential theory from social psychology called Terror Management Theory (TMT).
According to TMT, humans have a unique awareness of their own mortality. While all animals are biologically programmed to survive and reproduce, humans are capable of abstract thought and have the ability to reflect. These higher cognitive processes allow us recognize that death is not only inevitable, but can occur at any time for reasons that cannot be controlled or predicted in advance. This awareness of mortality has the potential to create existential terror and anxiety that can be debilitating.
To manage this profound terror, TMT says humans create cultural worldviews — like religions, political ideologies, and national identities — that instill life with meaning and value, which distracts from and eases the fear of death. Cultural worldviews also diminish death anxiety by offering paths to immortality. While religions offer a road to literal immortality through the concept of an afterlife where conscious existence persists, political ideologies and national identities offer paths to symbolic immortality. Symbolic immortality refers to being part of something larger that will outlive the physical self, and people strive to achieve this through leaving a legacy, having children, or doing something that will get one remembered by society long after death.
TMT predicts that when thoughts about death are triggered, people will do all they can to preserve and strengthen their cultural worldviews, since it is those worldviews that act as a death anxiety-buffer. This means clinging to those worldviews more strongly, as well as defending those who share those worldviews and aggressively opposing those who do not.
When it is applied to politics, TMT says that when an event conjures of thoughts about death, people will tend to strengthen support for policies and political leaders that will preserve cultural worldviews. As a result, reminders of death might increase a person’s support for policies that keep immigrants — who are seen as worldview-threatening others — out of the country.
In fact, past studies have shown that when individuals are given writing exercises designed to conjure up thoughts about death, their support for nationalism and right wing politicians increases. As such, any attempts to explain the 2016 U.S. presidential race or predict outcomes should take TMT into account.
TMT predicts that support for Donald Trump should increase when mortality is made salient, and that’s what Sheldon Solomon — who helped develop Terror Management Theory in the early 1980s — and colleagues have found.
152 students at the College of Staten Island were divided into two groups. The experimental group was given a series of exercises designed to trigger thoughts about mortality, such as, “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you” and “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.” The control group was given similar exercises that related to pain and not death.
Later, all participants were given a series of questions designed to assess their support for Donald Trump and willingness to vote for him in the upcoming election. The results show that the group who wrote about death showed increased support for Trump compared to the control group, regardless of their political leanings. These findings support Terror Management Theory’s prediction that thoughts about mortality shift voters to the right politically, and cause people to favor patriotic leaders with nationalist, xenophobic messages.
These results have serious real world implications. Events like terror attacks remind us of our mortality and heighten existential terror and anxiety. In light of these findings, it is likely that Donald Trump’s political ascent, which has baffled many experts, can be at least partly attributed to the increase in terrorism the world has witnessed in the last year.
But the explanatory power of TMT does not stop there. The theory also predicts that although Trump is trailing Hillary Clinton in almost all national polls at the moment, more terror attacks on U.S. soil between now and voting day could tip the scales in favor of a Trump presidency. Those who think that this is outside the realm of real possibility should remember Brexit, which was also likely a consequence of the mass psychological effect created by existential terror.
So what can we do to decrease the chances of Trump becoming president? We can try to stay calm, cool, and collected, even in the face of increased terrorism, as studies have shown that death anxiety can suppress our rational thought processes and cloud judgment.
Photo credit: Brian Snyder / Reuters