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Is the Pandemic Making You More Conservative?

Lessons for 2020 from Terror Management Theory

You might think that the title is preposterous. I myself think that the pandemic made me way less conservative. And you may think the same. But an old, but recently revived body of psychological research could be taken to suggest otherwise. This body of psychological research is called 'Terror Management Theory'.

Terror Management Theory is not a great label. It brings to mind both the shady side of management consultancy and 9/11. But it is about something completely different. It is about how confronting the possibility of one's mortality makes one rely more on their meaning-giving worldview. A couple of examples:

In an experiment, American subjects were primed (unconsciously) with death-related words. They were not aware of this, but they nonetheless showed increased preference for pro-US essays and decreased preference for anti-US ones. The same effect was no observed when in the control group subjects were primed with pain-related words. In another experiment, Israeli kids who were explicitly reminded of death showed a greater preference to play with other Israeli kids (as opposed to Russian ones).

Terror management is a form of cognitive dissonance. Nobody enjoys contemplating death. And when we are not in a position to just ignore it, because nasty experimenters keep on reminding us of the fact that we will all have to die, our psychological immune system kicks in. And it uses what is known in the Terror Management Theory literature as the 'worldview defense'. When confronted with the thought of death, we rely more on what we take to be something larger than us: our meaning-giving worldview.

This meaning-giving worldview is often religion. It can also be, as in the examples above, some form of nationalism. Both religion and nationalism assert the importance of something larger than the individual. So when confronting one's mortality, relying more on these kinds of meaning-giving worldview eases the cognitive dissonance.

Since March 2020, it may feel that we are all part of some large scale Terror Management Theory experiment. We are constantly, several times every hour, reminded of the not so distant possibility of our own death and the death of our loved ones. So Terror Management Theory would predict that we all use the 'worldview defense' all the time: that we rely more and more on our meaning-giving worldview, be it religion, nationalism or something else.

It would be tempting to conclude that the natural response to the pandemic is then to turn more conservative. The natural response to the pandemic (and its constant reminders about death) is the 'worldview defense' and if you rely more and more on, say, nationalism, this will lead to a more and more conservative outlook.

But this would be too quick. While nationalism (and religion) are two of the most obvious, and most throughly researched examples of a meaning-giving worldview, they are not the only ones. If you are not a conservative to begin with, when you confront your own mortality, the 'worldview defense' takes the form of relying more on your own meaning-giving worldview. And if you are a liberal, this is unlikely to be nationalism. It may be the belief in the advancement of human rights or the core belief that everyone in the world should deserve the same chance to succeed.

So Terror Management Theory does not predict that the pandemic turn all of us into conservatives. But it does predict that conservatives become more conservative and liberals will become more liberals - as both groups will embrace their core beliefs more strongly. So the pandemic will create more of a split in our political landscape. We get conservatives with stronger and stronger conservative core beliefs and liberals with stronger and stronger liberal core beliefs.

This will not help the already very serious fragmentation of our society.