Jay Dixit in Psychology Today, from 2007:
By 2004, as the presidential election drew near, researchers saw a chance to study the Jost results against the backdrop of unfolding events. Psychologists Mark Landau of the University of Arizona and Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore sought to explain how President Bush’s approval rating went from around 51 percent before 9/11 to 90 percent immediately afterward. In one study, they exposed some participants to the letters WTC or the numbers 9/11 in an image flashed too quickly to register at the conscious level. They exposed other participants to familiar but random combinations of letters and numbers, such as area codes. Then they gave them words like coff__, sk_ll, and gr_ve, and asked them to fill in the blanks. People who’d seen random combinations were more likely to fill in coffee, skill, and grove. But people exposed to subliminal terrorism primes more often filled in coffin, skull, and grave. “The mere mention of September 11 or WTC is the same as reminding Americans of death,” explains Solomon.
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.
University of Arizona psychologist Jeff Greenberg argues that some ideological shifts can be explained by terror management theory (TMT), which holds that heightened fear of death motivates people to defend their world views. TMT predicts that images like the destruction of the World Trade Center should make liberals more liberal and conservatives more conservative. “In the United States, political conservatism does seem to be the preferred ideology when people are feeling insecure,” concedes Greenberg. “But in China or another communist country, reminding people of their own mortality would lead them to cling more tightly to communism.”
Jost believes it’s more complex. After all, Cinnamon Stillwell and others in the 911 Neocons didn’t become more liberal. Like so many other Democrats after 9/11, they made a hard right turn. 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.”
To test the theory, Jost prompted people to think about either pain—by looking at things like an ambulance, a dentist’s chair, and a bee sting—or death, by looking at things like a funeral hearse, the grim reaper, and a dead-end sign. Across the political spectrum, people who had been primed to think about death were more conservative on issues like immigration, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage than those who had merely thought about pain, although the effect size was relatively small. The implication is clear: For liberals, conservatives, and independents alike, thinking about death actually makes people more conservative—at least temporarily.
Read more at Psychology Today.