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.

Daniel DiRito | May 14, 2006 | 7:30 AM
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1 On May 12, 2006 at 6:12 PM, AngelOfConfusion wrote —

wow... really interesting analysis and you make a ton of great points..
another possability exists for why this particular poll had results that seem counter-intuitive though. The poll was done using a tiny sample - (of people willing to participate in a phone poll) and done by a company whose primary clients are telecommunications companies
ABC credits the poll to TNS Intersearch Corporation in Pennsylvania. A little digging reveals this: TNS Intersearch is a unit of UK-based market research conglomerate Taylor Nelson Sofres.
according to Hoovers “TNS Telecoms, a unit of UK-based market research heavyweight Taylor Nelson Sofres, provides market data and research reports to clients in the telecommunications industry. The company’s primary clients are telecommunications service providers"
So the poll was done by a company whose primary client is telco’s.
not that they would have any interest in scewing a poll about how people feel about telcos …
Someone on another board just had this to say:
“There is no such thing as a random telephone poll.

Here’s a statistic for you, 100% of people polled by telephone said they were ‘willing to participate in telephone polls’!

This is especially relevant here, since those that value their privacy are less likely to participate in telephone polls."

On top of that, the only people who have the time and desire to sit there and talk to unsolicited phone callers are insane.

How many people can you easily imagine telling unsolicited phone callers to piss off, or saying they just don’t have time to talk to this unscheduled caller? A lot, I’m guessing. People who have nothing better to do or even weirder yet enjoy taking polls are not an accurate representation of the general population.

2 On May 12, 2006 at 6:26 PM, Daniel wrote —

Angel of Confusion,

I agree that the poll was flawed...and I appreciate the specific details you have provided. At the same time, I believe the impact that the "terror management theory" has and will continue to have in the current environment has been underestimated. Fear is a very powerful and instinctual force that we often attempt to downplay.

Primarily, I offer the analysis in the hopes that the Democrats are mindful of all the possibile factors and explanations. We humans are often unpredictable.

Thank you for your insightful comments and I hope to hear more of your thoughts in the future.


3 On May 12, 2006 at 6:47 PM, AngelOfConfusion wrote —

Thanks Daniel,
I hesitated to post because if what you wrote gets the Dems to pay attention then I certainly don't want to distract from it :) But when I discovered this afternoon that the poll was tabulated by a Telco supported company I felt that was too important to let slip unnoticed. I've posted it on a number of sites today.
Keep up the great work!

4 On May 13, 2006 at 10:41 AM, Jimi wrote —

A good article, but to me largely skirts the issue and begs the question of something perhaps much larger and darker: Just how much is the American public being manipulated by psy-ops managed by Our government and this Administration in particular. I distinctly recall a large sum of money being spent on propaganda by Bush&Co in the last few years.

(An aside, this is an actual business. Check it out.)

For instance, Fox News unabashedly promotes this Administration's viewpoint without any consideration to journalistic integrity. The same can be said of a variety of other 'news' services.

Critical thinkers are becoming a rare breed whose opinions are held up more for ridicule then serious discussion by the Main Stream Media. Americans would serve themselves well returning to a "Back of the Yards" mentality to address the problems before us and stop drinking the kool-aid being poured into our collective cups.

5 On May 13, 2006 at 10:59 AM, Nell wrote —

Okay, if we have to operate on the basis that people are continuing to act out of fear, then let's make the (easy to make case) that no protection can be expected from the incompetent, unpopular, corrupt, crony-ridden crowd that makes up this regime and its rubber stamps in Congress. They're just not any good at anything.

Name one successful Bush program.


6 On May 13, 2006 at 11:29 PM, Silvah wrote —

Very interesting post; lots to think about. Reading it left me wondering why the Department of Emotionally Manipulative Names selected "The Global War on Terror."

It's been obvious from the start that the administration was using the claim that it's "fighting terror" as an excuse for carrying out an unrelated agenda. If they believe in the theory you discuss here, claiming to be fighting a war against an emotion may not be as outlandish as it sounds. It may instead be the most potent claim they could possibly make. After all, who would be a greater daddy than one who could protect you from terror itself?

7 On May 14, 2006 at 9:31 AM, Daniel wrote —


Thanks for your comments and insights. I understand your point about the larger issue of the manipulation of the public. I felt it was important to begin the process with giving the reader an understanding of the back story.

I tend to think the public is skeptical about conspiracies so I think it is important to avoid simply making accusations. While I don't like that this administration has found that terrorism can be a political tool, I also understand that in politics, all issues tend to be viewed in that regard.

In the end, I think we have to make the public more aware in order to make them less suseptible to manipulation. Simply stating that the opposition is made up of bad people...while tempting...isn't all that effective. We need to help people make rational decisions because attempting to fight emotions with more emotions is fraught with peril.

Jimi, thanks again for your comments. It is always a pleasure to share ideas and thoughts.


8 On May 14, 2006 at 9:57 AM, Daniel wrote —

Nell & Silvah,

Thank you both for your thoughtful comments. The things I hear the most when I am out in the blogosphere is anger and emotion. Both are natural reactions to troubling situations. At the same time, I always step back and force myself to remember how little can be absorbed when one is angry or emotional.

My fear for Democrats is that we may get caught up in our emotions such that we make the kind of poor decisions and judgments that we humans are prone to make when leading with anger or emotion. All too often, anger and emotion is black and white...but we must remember we live in a fully gray world.

Democrats must persuade voters that we have a better plan...if we attempt to overcome one set of emotions with another, I fear we may regret the outcome. Don't get me wrong, I am not arguing against passion...but the task of leadership is to funnel anger and emotion into action and change. That requires a very thoughtful approach.

Thanks again for commenting and I hope to hear more of your thoughts.


9 On June 18, 2006 at 3:02 PM, gc wall wrote —

Arguing against anger in order to maintain one's level headedness is important, but not as important as the energy derived from anger aimed at those who deserve such a response.

This administration's leader has committed impeachable offenses. Members of this administration have undermined the rule of law and ignored the standards set by international law.

We have a rogue government and a rubber stamp congress neither of which act in the public interest.

Two changes that must be made immediately, rather than the stupid gay marriage ban, which is unconstitutional because it discriminates against a minority in our society; instead more meaningful and beneficial to society would be reverse the decision that gave corporations the same rights as individuals, and money should not be considered free speech, because that means that some people have more free speech than others, which makes free speech not free, and denies equal protection under the law.

10 On June 21, 2006 at 7:16 PM, Daniel wrote —


Thanks for your thoughtful comments. As I mention in this posting, the Bush administration has sought to increase the power of the executive branch since they took office. I agree that they have crossed the line on numerous occasions and congress has done little to prevent or stop the practice.

I hope to hear more of your thoughts in the future.


11 On September 19, 2006 at 10:38 PM, union wrote —

The Terror Management Theory in the context proposed is flawed. First, the best evidence of whether the theory's application to 9-11 is true is to ask the hundreds of thousands of new yorkers who actually experienced 9-11. I would bet that at least fifty per cent deviated from the model described. I can say this from personal experience. What I recalled is that some folks wanted to defer to authority while others wanted to reflect spiritually. In fact, I was surprised that the human community divided into two camps of either responding as a reactionary or in a reflective mode. The unfolding saga over the subsequent months became a time of dodging the suddenly turned Mr. Hydes and searching out for the existence of Dr. Jeckyls. My personal observation of how humans do respond to a traumatic event is an experience I will never forget, and same certainly does not conform to the TMT used in this way. On the other hand, this theory probably works well for those who do not experience the actual disaster.

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