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How Death Anxiety Plays a Role in Politics


Monday, October 24, 2022   

CLARIFICATION: Ernest Becker did not create the Terror Management Theory, although it was based on his ideas and research. (2:00 a.m. MDT, Oct. 28, 2022)

It's the political season and Washingtonians are being flooded with messages ahead of the midterm elections.

Curiously, our anxiety over death could play a big role in how we react to those messages, and even in whom we vote for.

Brian Burke, psychology professor at Fort Lewis College, said the Seattle-based Ernest Becker Foundation has analyzed how the so-called Terror Management Theory explains our political motivations. The theory indicates most of our political decisions are not made with the rational parts of our brains, but are instead more emotionally-based.

"When we're reminded of our own death, our preferences tend to change," Burke pointed out. "We might support different candidates based on death anxiety than we would have had we not been triggered, or reminded of, our own death."

Burke said this can play out a few different ways in elections. For instance, traumatic world events such as September 11th have been shown to cause people to tend toward more conservative leaders, often for their messages on law and order.

Other research has shown even the thought of immigrants moving into someone's neighborhood can cause them to think more about death, and thus take a harder stance on immigration.

Burke noted Terror Management Theory, which was developed based on Ernest Becker's research on death anxiety, finds people who are unconsciously thinking about death are more motivated to want to fit in with their peers or some larger group.

He added there is a way to push back against the ways the fear of death affects our decision-making.

"We can slow down and consciously and explicitly make more rational decisions about things," Burke advised. "It involves doing just that: reflecting on it and thinking through our opinions on an issue and taking some deep breaths and thinking, 'Ok, how do I really feel about this?'"

Burke suggests if you are so inclined, you can analyze how politicians might be using the fear of death this campaign season.

"When you're inundated, as you will be, with radio and television and other YouTube ads for political candidates, really think about what are they trying to get at in you here?" Burke recommended. "What message are they trying to send?"

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