February 05, 2007

How People Are Influenced by Fear

Avedon Carol linked to an article in the January/February Psychology Today a couple of weeks ago which explored the effect of fear on making people conservative and inclined to trust their leaders. This is an important topic to understand because it is obvious that our world is guaranteed to become more volatile, more frightening and we will be asked to make decisions (including selecting leaders) in the face of situations that are terrifying.

The article starts by discussing one woman, Cinnamon Stillwell, who switched from being liberal to being quite conservative because of 9/11. She went on to start a new group for conservatives most who were also switched from being liberal to conservative. So what happened to her? And what does that teach us about liberals and conservatives?

We tend to believe our political views have evolved by a process of rational thought, as we consider arguments, weigh evidence, and draw conclusions. But the truth is more complicated. Our political preferences are equally the result of factors we're not aware of—such as how educated we are, how scary the world seems at a given moment, and personality traits that are first apparent in early childhood. Among the most potent motivators, it turns out, is fear. How the United States should confront the threat of terrorism remains a subject of endless political debate. But Americans' response to threats of attack is now more clear-cut than ever. The fear of death alone is surprisingly effective in shaping our political decisions—more powerful, often, than thought itself.

One study done in 1969 provided a piece of the puzzle of what drives people to a liberal or conservative worldview. The study by Jack and Jeanne Block, professors at Berkeley, asked nursery school teachers to rate the temperment of the children with whom they were working. Then 23 years later, they decided to see how the childhood temperment matched the adult temperment. What they found was fascinating.

As kids, liberals had developed close relationships with peers and were rated by their teachers as self-reliant, energetic, impulsive, and resilient. People who were conservative at age 23 had been described by their teachers as easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited, and vulnerable at age 3. The reason for the difference, the Blocks hypothesized, was that insecure kids most needed the reassurance of tradition and authority, and they found it in conservative politics.

Other studies have duplicated this same finding. Yet, that doesn't explain what happened to Cinnamon Stillwell and all the other Americans who looked to George W Bush after 9/11. What caused his approval rating to soar to 90% right after 9/11? Two psychologists - Mark Landau of the University of Arizona and Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore - found that simply thinking about 9/11 and WTC caused people to have more fearful thoughts and to think about death which led to people holding a higher regard for Bush.

As a follow-up, Solomon primed one group of subjects to think about death, a state of mind called "mortality salience." A second group was primed to think about 9/11. And a third was induced to think about pain—something unpleasant but non-deadly. When people were in a benign state of mind, they tended to oppose Bush and his policies in Iraq. But after thinking about either death or 9/11, they tended to favor him. Such findings were further corroborated by Cornell sociologist Robert Willer, who found that whenever the color-coded terror alert level was raised, support for Bush increased significantly, not only on domestic security but also in unrelated domains, such as the economy.

...The reason thoughts of death make people more conservative, Jost says, is that they awaken a deep desire to see the world as fair and just, to believe that people get what they deserve, and to accept the existing social order as valid, rather than in need of change. When these natural desires are primed by thoughts of death and a barrage of mortal fear, people gravitate toward conservatism because it's more certain about the answers it provides—right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, us vs. them—and because conservative leaders are more likely to advocate a return to traditional values, allowing people to stick with what's familiar and known. "Conservatism is a more black and white ideology than liberalism," explains Jost. "It emphasizes tradition and authority, which are reassuring during periods of threat."

The most surprising finding is almost everyone becomes more conservative when they are being "scared to death."

For liberals, conservatives, and independents alike, thinking about death actually makes people more conservative—at least temporarily.

But as the article points out, there are certain things that cause people to become more liberal, including living abroad, higher education and just becoming more comfortable with living with uncertainty. Other factors also affect people's worldview and doctors and lawyers become more conservative as part of what they base their political view on is their economic self-interest.

Why does it matter that Americans became more conservative in the face of the 9/11 crisis? One reason it matters is because when people are frightened, they are less rational in the decisions they make and this can lead to decisions that are decidedly worse than if they approach the decision rationally.

If we are so suggestible that thoughts of death make us uncomfortable defaming the American flag and cause us to sit farther away from foreigners, is there any way we can overcome our easily manipulated fears and become the informed and rational thinkers democracy demands?

To test this, Solomon and his colleagues prompted two groups to think about death and then give opinions about a pro-American author and an anti-American one. As expected, the group that thought about death was more pro-American than the other. But the second time, one group was asked to make gut-level decisions about the two authors, while the other group was asked to consider carefully and be as rational as possible. The results were astonishing. In the rational group, the effects of mortality salience were entirely eliminated. Asking people to be rational was enough to neutralize the effects of reminders of death. Preliminary research shows that reminding people that as human beings, the things we have in common eclipse our differences—what psychologists call a "common humanity prime"—has the same effect.

"People have two modes of thought," concludes Solomon. "There's the intuitive gut-level mode, which is what most of us are in most of the time. And then there's a rational analytic mode, which takes effort and attention."

The solution, then, is remarkably simple. The effects of psychological terror on political decision making can be eliminated just by asking people to think rationally. Simply reminding us to use our heads, it turns out, can be enough to make us do it.

One major difference between a demagogue and a leader is how they address the fears of their followers. As an example of a true leader, consider Aung San Suu Kyi as she talks about fear and how to overcome that fear.

It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. Most Burmese are familiar with the four a-gati, the four kinds of corruption. Chanda-gati, corruption induced by desire, is deviation from the right path in pursuit of bribes or for the sake of those one loves. Dosa-gati is taking the wrong path to spite those against whom one bears ill will, and moga-gati is aberration due to ignorance. But perhaps the worst of the four is bhaya-gati, for not only does bhaya, fear, stifle and slowly destroy all sense of right and wrong, it so often lies at the root of the other three kinds of corruption. Just as chanda-gati, when not the result of sheer avarice, can be caused by fear of want or fear of losing the goodwill of those one loves, so fear of being surpassed, humiliated or injured in some way can provide the impetus for ill will. And it would be difficult to dispel ignorance unless there is freedom to pursue the truth unfettered by fear. With so close a relationship between fear and corruption it is little wonder that in any society where fear is rife corruption in all forms becomes deeply entrenched.

Compare that to the words of our deeply fearful President as he works to terrorize the American public. What type of leader do you want to be leading this country through the next crucial decades?

Posted by Mary at February 5, 2007 12:54 AM | Science | TrackBack(1) | Technorati links |

Maybe it's worth thinking about what those other 10% were thinking on 9/11 that protected them (us) from going all apeshit like everyone else.

I was thinking, "This can't happen." I had nothing telling me that there was any reason for it to happen if our ordinary government processes were working. Why did they fail? Who was in charge when they failed?

The right-wingers spend a lot of time trying to marginalize Michael Moore because the have to - Michael Moore is the one who put that film of George Bush sitting there like a dummy on 9/11 on great big movie screens all over the country, reminding them that he was useless on the day, he was not on the job, and that 9/11 happened on his watch because it was his watch.

Posted by: Avedon at February 5, 2007 04:15 AM

That's why is was grossly immoral for all those democrats to line up and applaud Bush's leadership and strength just after 9/11 instead of demanding an explanation for why he had been so weak.

Posted by: citizen k at February 5, 2007 06:59 AM

Fear is a strong emotion in a world that sees each person as isolated from everyone and everything else. This separation breeds uncertainty and we humans tend to be afraid of what we don't know.

Posted by: The Rambling Taoist at February 5, 2007 09:24 AM

Well, I am about the most fearful person I know, always have been, and I was scared shitless on 9/11.

(What I was thinking on 9/11 was that I really really wanted to hide under the bed.)

But never for a moment did I consider voting Republican. I guess that's why I've never understood that fearmongering theory of vote getting.

Posted by: KathyF at February 5, 2007 02:43 PM

this is a gay sight!!! no one has fear!! you just think you are frighted but what aint really there!!! live with it!!!

Posted by: bob bobbin at February 13, 2007 09:20 AM