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View Full Version : Study: Fearful Voters Go for Charisma



Johannes de León
Friday, August 6th, 2004, 12:54 PM
The deep-seated human fear of death is so powerful it can even make a liberal vote for Bush, say psychologists studying how people respond to political messages and President Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

In an experiment by researchers Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, Mark Landau and Tom Pyszczynski, a group of students was asked to think about its own death and another group to think about a non-death-related topic. Then the students were asked to read campaign statements of three hypothetical political candidates. Each candidate had a different leadership style: charismatic, task-oriented or relationship-oriented.

A charismatic leader, explain the researchers, is one who emphasizes a simple message of the greatness of the nation and of a heroic triumph of good over evil.

The students who were reminded of their own mortality before reading the campaign materials were almost eight times more likely to vote for the charismatic candidate — regardless of where they rated themselves on the political spectrum. There was no increase for the two other candidates.

"This verifies that this is an effective strategy for Bush," said Greenberg, a University of Arizona social psychologist who categorizes President Bush as a charismatic leader. The results of the experiment are due to be published in the September issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Three additional studies in the same publication, specifically about 9/11 and preferences for George W. Bush, back up the first experiment, making it clear that the more Bush can remind people — directly or indirectly — of their own mortality, the more likely they will be to vote for him.

"The Republicans are actually quite savvy about this," said Greenberg, noting that the timing of many Bush Administration terrorism alerts and international military actions appear to have capitalized on the "death effect."

On the other hand, the same psychological effect in other countries may make things worse for the United States. Greenberg and his colleagues are learning from Iranian social psychologists that when charismatic fundamentalist leaders in the Middle East characterize the United States as the "great evil" they can inspire a lot of popular support — even among reasonable, peace-loving people.

"I think the work is very provocative and merits public attention," said David Myers, professor of psychology at Michigan's Hope College and author of the book Social Psychology. "Reading these research reports reminded me of George Orwell's 1984, a fictional place where leaders used perceived threats for their own strategic purposes," said Myers.

Greenberg said voters need to be aware of how the "death effect" can influence human behavior so they can check themselves and vote with their heads, not their fears.