If you want your mind blown a little, read this article by John Judis on how people’s mortality-related anxiety strengthens their hold on their own values and beliefs. Here’s a snippet:
There is, however, one group of scholars–members of the relatively new field of political psychology–who are trying to explain voter preferences that can’t be easily quantified. The best general introduction to this field is Drew Westen’s recent book, The Political Brain, but the research that is perhaps most relevant to the 2004 election has been conducted by psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski. In the early 1980s, they developed what they clumsily called “terror management theory.” Their idea was not about how to clear the subways in the event of an attack, but about how people cope with the terrifying and potentially paralyzing realization that, as human beings, we are destined to die. Their experiments showed that the mere thought of one’s mortality can trigger a range of emotions–from disdain for other races, religions, and nations, to a preference for charismatic over pragmatic leaders, to a heightened attraction to traditional mores. Initially, the three scholars didn’t attempt to apply their theory to elections. But, after September 11, they conducted experiments designed to do exactly that. What they found sheds new light on the role that fear of death plays in contemporary politics–and, arguably, goes a long way toward unraveling the mystery of Martinsburg.