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Monday, May 23, 2005

Managing Terror (not terrorism)

Paul Parker, guest blogging for Rodger.

Two weeks Timothy Noah posted the provocatively titled “Conservativism as Pathology: Are Bush supporters literally insane?" on Slate. The starting point is puzzle in Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” – how to explain the working class support of the Republicans, given the two parties’ economic policies.

An obvious response to Frank is “not much:” The New Deal Coalition was centered around economics, but it was torn asunder largely due to social issues surrounding race, prayer, and abortion. Add in guns and gays, and 25 years later we are talking about “values voters” to explain the 2004 election. A liberal may think it false consciousness for (some) people to vote (certain) (intolerant) values over economics. But that objection sets up liberals for the very charge that Republicans use so successfully: liberals are out of touch with the concerns of the common person.

After raising a serious, if flawed, question, Noah unfortunately, demonstrates the lack of deep thinking and serious attention we associate with the "chatterbox" giving his column its name. After briefly considering two psychological approaches that have implications for this topic, he concludes, “The further you get into this line of thinking, I’m afraid, the more ridiculous it starts to sound.”

That might especially be true as you approach 800 words. Call it a day, your column is knocked out. But let's go a little deeper.

The two views that Chatterbox considered are Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition (pdf), and Terror Management Theory. The first he subtly dismisses, first by noting one coauthor has done work on birthorder, and then more directly through a silly armchair analysis of George Bush 41 and 43’s ‘famous 1972 mano-a-mano confrontation’ – despite noting that “the authors don’t cite this incident.” For good reason: social scientists are interested in patterns and probabilities, rather than explaining every action in every individual’s life.

His treatment of terror management theory is even worse. Once again, Noah starts out accurately, but soon deteriorates into dismissivness:

"terror management theory," ... as best I can make out, posits that an inordinate fear of death "engenders a defense of one's cultural worldview" and therefore a resistance to outsiders and new ideas. Conservatives are also said to "score lower on measures of extraversion" and "general sensation seeking," which I think is a polite way of saying that they don't get enough sex.

I like reading about sex, and so I am disappointed that I have never run across any discussion of sex in all my readings of, and about, terror management theory. It could be I am thick, and these researchers are coy, but it could also be that Noah has no real idea of what he is talking about.

Could one form of sensation- seeking be driving too fast? A USA Today cover story a couple weeks ago indicated soldiers home from Iraq – where their mortality salience would be heightened – are getting into car crashes at rates higher than one would expect. This fits squarely with terror management theory. Not so sexy, though.

More generally, Noah and others might want to read the book In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. The authors nicely review many of the scores of cross-national experimental studies in which persons for whom mortality is made salient demonstrate attitudes and behavior that support terror management theory. This theory has been subjected to numerous imaginative and potentially disconfirming studies. In the laboratory, it holds up. And yes, this is the theory that underpinned the study much discussed last year that when reminded of death (the mortality salience condition) people increased their support for George Bush over John Kerry.

Is this evidence of pathology, as framed by Noah’s question? Not according to the authors of In the Wake of 9/11: its an adaptive response to a terrifying reality. And one of the ways we deal with that terror is to reinforce our cultural norms; an obvious way to do that is to punish transgressors. And this makes all the more puzzling Noah’s dismissive attitude toward the Political Conservatism study mentioned above:

The authors ... do say that intolerance of ambiguity may "provide a psychological context" for Dubya's declaration, at an international conference of world leaders, "I know what I believe and I believe what I believe is right."

And terror management theory would suggest that such certainty is comforting. How was it that the Bush campaign branded Kerry? This article on the American Psychological Association website will tell you more about TMT, and about a study derived from this theory, regarding the 2004 election.

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