Fearmongering: Bush and your vote

by on October 31st, 2004

Psychologists at Rutgers, Skidmore, the University of Arizona, and the University of Colorado asked 190 people of various ages and ethnic backgrounds to vote for one of three hypothetical candidates for governor based on a one paragraph statement from each contender. Each candidate’s statement began with the phrase, “I will be the perfect governor for this great state because,” but differed in order to present one as task-oriented, one as relationship-oriented, and one as charismatic.

The task-oriented candidate’s statement depicted a pragmatic governor – someone who would set high but reachable goals and work efficiently to realize them.

  • I do not promise to change the world; the goals set out before us are realistic yet challenging.
  • I will implement statewide plans to provide the resources to get the job done.

The relationship-oriented candidate’s paragraph reflected someone who would listen, who emphasized communication and cooperation, and who would respond compassionately.

  • I worry about the citizens’ well being.
  • I encourage all citizens to take an active role in improving their state.
  • Everyone’s contributions are recognized and appreciated.

The charismatic candidate’s statement revealed a leader with vision – someone who emphasized what citizens can do for the good of the state and who is willing to take chances to achieve great things.

  • I work hard to communicate my vision for this state to my constituents.
  • I am willing to take some chances to show my voters how things can be improved.
  • You are not just an ordinary citizen. You are part of a special state and a special nation and if we work together we can make a difference.

The 95 individuals who made up the control group – the people who had not been told to think about death – strongly preferred the efficient, task-oriented candidate (48 percent of the vote), followed by the empathic, relationship-oriented candidate (43 percent). The demanding, visionary, charismatic leader – the one who would make every follower feel special – garnered a meager four percent.

But there’s a catch. The 95 people who had been politely asked a half-hour before voting to think about their own death – to “describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you” – voted very, very differently. Suddenly, the charismatic leader who planned to change the world looked a lot better. Among voters with death in the back of their minds, the charismatic candidate won nearly eight times as many votes, surging to 31% of the total. The visionary’s gain came largely at the expense of the soft, relationship-oriented candidate, whose share fell to 21%, but also cut into support for the practical, task-oriented contender, whose votes fell to 43% of the total.

What if this research finding holds true not only for a hypothetical race for governor, but for a real race – say, for the presidency of the United States? What happens if we substitute an experimenter’s direction to think about death to constant reminders of the threat of terrorist attacks and carnage of war? What if one candidate, the one with a simple, clear vision of how the world ought to be, frequently makes statements like this?

Could the same effect click in? Would millions of people who feel terrified actually vote for the candidate who is both terrifying them and promising them that he, and only he, can lead them to safety?

By the way, who are you voting for on Tuesday?

Robert Adler


Robert Adler