Death, Pain, And Politics

Jonah Lehrer ponders emotional priming in politics, citing an old study:

When people were asked to think about pain, they preferred Kerry by a wide margin. His average rating was 5.5 points, compared to Bush's 2.2. However, when the scientists triggered thoughts of death - the mortality salience condition - Bush suddenly became much more popular. In fact, he now received significantly higher ratings than Kerry. "The most subtle psychological manipulations can profoundly affect our political preferences," says [professor of psychology Sheldon Solomon]. "We think we are making these deliberate decisions, but that's just an illusion. When the emotional shit hits the fan, our rationality is the first thing to go.'"

While the scientists associate such a conservative tilt with "terror induced irrationality" it's not clear that these people are any more irrational than those who chose Kerry after being primed with "pain". In both instances, different emotional cues prime our decision-making machinery in slightly different ways. So don't be surprised when you see Obama ads showing people grimacing in pain at the gas pump, or McCain television spots that emphasize the inherent dangers of the world. Political strategists, it turns out, intuitively understand how to bias the brain in their favor.