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This research is based on the idea that reminders of death increase the need for psychological security and therefore the appeal of leaders who emphasize the greatness of the nation and a heroic victory over evil.
For their current research, the scientists asked students to think about their own death or a control topic and then read campaign statements of three hypothetical political candidates, each with a different leadership style: "charismatic" (i.e. those emphasizing greatness of the nation and a heroic victory over evil, as described above), task-oriented or relationship-oriented. Following a reminder of death, there was almost an 800 percent increase in votes for the charismatic leader, but no increase for the two other candidates.
"At a theoretical level," the authors wrote, "this study adds to the large body of empirical evidence attesting to the pervasive influence of reminders of death on a wide range of human activities. These findings fit particularly well with prior studies showing how mortality salience leads people toward individuals, groups, and actions that can help enhance their self-esteem. People want to identify with special, great things, and charismatic leaders typically offer the promise of just that."
From a practical perspective, the implications of these findings are considerable. We have
argued elsewhere (Pyszczynski et al., 2003) that the events of September 11, 2001, have left a pervasive sense of MS throughout America (also see Cohen-Silver, Holman, McIntosh, Poulin,
& Gil-Rivas, 2002), and the results of this study suggest this may have consequential effects on electoral outcomes. The fact that intimations of mortality enhanced preferences for a charismatic leader and diminished regard for a relationship-oriented leader who encouraged constituents to assume responsibility for political outcomes is certainly antithetical to the ideal that voting behavior should be the result of rational choice based on an informed understanding of the relevant issues. National elections are no guarantee against totalitarian outcomes. Hitler and Mussolini were duly elected; perhaps terror management concerns have contributed to some of the historical examples of bad choices by the electorate (see especially Becker, 1973, 1975).
The best antidote to this problem may be to take great pains to encourage people to vote
with their “heads” rather than their “hearts”–as past research (Simon et al., 1997) has
demonstrated that MS effects are attenuated by instructions to think rationally. Asking
participants to think rationally about which candidate to vote for should eliminate the preference for charismatic leaders induced by MS. Of course, in scary times, when MS is often high, or when national self-worth is particularly shaky, rationally driven decisions may be unlikely. But perhaps raising awareness of how concerns about death affect human behavior can assist participants, and actual voters, to make choices based on the political issues and qualifications of the candidates rather than defensive needs to preserve psychological equanimity in the face of death.