Mortality Salience

by F.

Cass Sunstein, over at the University of Chicago faculty blog, describes a paper by Landau et al.:

It is natural to wonder how mortality salience is likely to affect political judgments.

A paper by Mark Landau and his colleagues, in 30 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 1136 (2004), offers some intriguing clues. Here are two key findings.

(a) After people are merely reminded of their own mortality (by being asked, for example, to describe “what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead”), they show stronger support for President Bush and his policies in Iraq.

(b) After people are reminded of their mortality OR of the 9/11 attacks, they become more favorably disposed toward President Bush and less favorably disposed toward John Kerry.

Strikingly, mortality salience had similar effects, in increasing support for Bush, among both liberals and conservatives. Even more strikingly, the reference to the terrorist attacks had an even greater effect, in increasing support for Bush, among liberals.

The authors conclude that their results “support the hypotheses that MS [mortality salience] and a reminder of 9/11 would both increase the appeal of President Bush regardless of political orientation.” Of course we are speaking of an increase in appeal, not of unanimous or majority support; most liberals should be expected to be critical of Bush even after being reminded of 9/11, and some perhaps more so.

The point is that among liberals as a whole, there was a statistically significant shift in his direction.

Aviation threat level today: Candy Apple Screaming Florescent Crimson, bringing the odds of dying in a plane (or space vehicle) crash up to a frightening 1 in 391,981. RUN!

Note: if that seems like a decent chance and you are suddenly feeling more conservative-totalitarian, note that the odds of dying in a car in 2003 were 1 in 18,412. More fun numbers at