Terror Management: A Warning To Democrats genre: Just Jihad & Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation
Since the revelation that the NSA surveillance program includes the widespread collection and review of domestic telephone activity there has been a great deal of debate. Today’s release of the Washington Post – ABC News poll seems to demonstrate that a significant majority of Americans believe the actions are an acceptable method for detecting and deterring terrorist activity. The full article can be found here.
The new survey found that 63 percent of Americans said they found the NSA program to be an acceptable way to investigate terrorism, including 44 percent who strongly endorsed the effort. Another 35 percent said the program was unacceptable, which included 24 percent who strongly objected to it.
A slightly larger majority--66 percent--said they would not be bothered if NSA collected records of personal calls they had made, the poll found.
According to the poll, 65 percent of those interviewed said it was more important to investigate potential terrorist threats "even if it intrudes on privacy." Three in 10--31 percent--said it was more important for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.
The poll results have led to abundant discussion in the mainstream media as well as the blogosphere. As expected, there was more skepticism in the blogosphere. Some felt the wording of the question was misleading and led to a more favorable response. Certainly there is evidence supporting that how a polling question is asked can impact the results and while this may have played a part in the results, I’m inclined to believe there is another influencing factor.
When I studied psychology in college, one particular topic caught my curiosity and became a fundamental concept in my understanding of the human condition. That concept is called the “terror management theory". In fact, one of my professors, Dr. Tom Pyszczynski, is among the three leading researchers publishing on the topic in the last ten years.
The following information is from Wikipedia and serves to define the theory:
Terror management theory (TMT) is a developing area of study within the academic study of psychology. It looks at what researchers claim to be the implicit emotional reactions of people when confronted with the psychological terror of knowing we will eventually die (it is widely believed that our awareness of mortality is a trait that is unique to humans). The theory was first developed in the late 1980s by Skidmore college psychology professor Sheldon Solomon and others. Solomon was inspired by the theories of Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death, 1973) and Freud, on how potent reminders of one's own ultimate death often provoke a belief in some form of mystical transcendence (heaven, reincarnation, spiritualism, etc.).
The Theory builds from the assumption that the capability of self-reflection and the consciousness of one’s own mortality can be regarded as a continuous source for existential anguish. Culture diminishes this psychological terror by providing meaning, organization and continuity to men's and women's lives. Compliance with cultural values enhances one's feeling of security and self-esteem, provided that the individual is capable of living in accordance with whatever particular cultural standards apply to him or her. The belief in the rightness of the cultural values and standards creates the conviction necessary to live a reasonable and meaningful life. Because of this men and women strive to have their cultural worldview confirmed by others, thereby receiving the community’s esteem.
Research has shown that people, when reminded of their own inevitable death, will cling more strongly to their cultural worldviews. The data appears to show that nations or persons who have experienced traumas (e.g. 9/11) are more attracted to strong leaders who express traditional, pro-establishment, authoritarian viewpoints. They will also be hyper-aware of the possibility of external threats, and may be more hostile to those who threaten them.
The theory gained media attention in the aftermath of 9/11, and after the re-election of President George Bush in the USA, Prime Minister Tony Blair in the UK, and John Howard in Australia.
Terror management researchers have shown that making research participants think about death will lead to such changes in behaviors and beliefs that seemingly protect worldview and self-esteem. Nevertheless, these researchers have not yet demonstrated that this happens for the reason they propose, namely to alleviate unconscious fears of death. Direct tests of this hypothesis are likely to soon emerge in the scholarly literature.
Going back to the polling data, the terror management theory may explain results that otherwise appear to be counterintuitive. Specifically, since 9/11 there has been a greater awareness of danger as evidenced by the Homeland Security Advisory System, the ongoing rhetoric about whether we are safer since invading Iraq, and the oft heard expression, “we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here at home." Even the advisory words are ominous – guarded, elevated, high, and severe…all used in reference to the danger of a terrorist attack. Despite our natural tendency to avoid thinking about death, the current environment certainly provides numerous reminders.
When looking at the fact that nearly two thirds of Americans polled seemingly accept a program of widespread domestic surveillance, the theory offers a plausible explanation. Essentially, anything that helps assuage the fear of death can potentially be seen as an acceptable situation whether it be rational, real, or imagined. To offer an analogy, one might look at those who refuse to fly in an airplane…despite statistics demonstrating that flying is safer than driving, the fear of what is perceived to be a more certain death can overcome the logical data. I suspect this same thinking is, to a degree, at play in these otherwise confounding numbers.
In fact, after the 2004 election, a number of psychologists speculated that fear of death may have actually given President Bush the needed edge. You can read the full article here. Some excerpts follow.
Exit polls in November's election showed a variety of reasons why voters chose either George W. Bush or Democratic challenger John Kerry: moral values, the war in Iraq, terrorism and the economy, among others.
But exit polls don't tell the whole story, says Solomon. He and his colleagues believe that they have uncovered a subtle application of a psychological effect--terror management theory--that may have helped tip the election to Bush. According to the theory, Americans traumatized by the 9/11 terrorist attacks turned to Bush in part because, subconsciously, his clear and values-driven message helped assuage their fear of death.
In fact, years of research have demonstrated that people are often bad at understanding their own motivations. If pollsters ask voters to come up with an explanation for their vote, they will--but that explanation may not really reflect their primary motivation, says University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy Wilson, PhD, who studies people's knowledge of their motivations.
"There's fairly good evidence that people vote from the heart," Wilson says, "but if you ask them why they vote they'll come up with all sorts of logical reasons."
One consequence of the theory, according to previous studies by the researchers, is that reminding people of their own mortality--by asking them to think about their own deaths, for example--makes them cling strongly to elements of their worldview like religious beliefs or national pride.
"Psychologically terrorized people are attracted to clear vision of where evil lurks in the world and clear vision of how to obliterate it," Solomon says. And in our post-9/11 world, he continues, Americans are, in some ways, a psychologically terrorized people, with thoughts of death a hazy but ever-present reality.
"We're not saying that there were no rational reasons to vote for President Bush, or that everyone who voted for Bush did it because of this effect," he says. "But a huge chunk of people in the middle may have been swayed by this."
During the 2004 campaign, I recall numerous individuals asserting that the terror advisory warning was elevated each time the President came under scrutiny or needed to divert attention. While I generally doubt that this was practiced at random, it isn’t difficult to imagine the administration erring on the side of an upgrade in the advisory level if it also offered these other benefits. In retrospect, one can certainly argue that the President’s campaign used the fear of terror to their advantage. The practice hasn’t changed.
One can also argue that the haste with which America invaded Iraq was precipitated by this same theory. At the time, the country rallied around the President such that a large majority of Democrats were inclined to accept the rational for invasion with little hesitation. I understand that many feel the administration misled the country and I am not diminishing that accusation…but I am saying that the motivations underlying this theory likely made it easier to both sell and approve the plan.
I’m convinced that Karl Rove fully understands this dynamic. The Democrats must be mindful of the theory and adequately prepared to combat the efforts of the administration to exploit it in the upcoming midterm elections. Additionally, the current issue surrounding domestic surveillance may be the perfect opportunity to gauge the degree to which the theory is still influencing the decisions of the American public. To the extent that this can be determined, the Democrats may need to adjust their strategy or find themselves scratching their collective heads…once again left to wonder why “ordinary" logic hasn’t prevailed. The stakes are enormous.