political psychology

How Terrorism Affects Voter Psychology

Until fairly recently, it didn’t look like terrorism was going to be a major issue in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That changed, very quickly, with the shocking rise of ISIS and the recent terror attacks that have killed civilians abroad and, last week, at home. This raises obvious questions about how the elections are going to shake out, given that threats of terrorism (or other sorts of death and destruction) have a powerful, primal effect on human psychology.

The Stanford Report has an interesting interview with Stanford sociologist Dr. Robb Willer, whose political-psychology work pops up frequently on Science of Us and who has studied how people respond to the threat of terrorism.

Here are a few of Willer’s most interesting points:

From a political-psychology-of-terrorism standpoint, this election cycle is “uncharted territory.”
“[I]n understanding the impact of terror threats on the 2016 election, we are to a great extent in uncharted territory. Most past research has focused on views of incumbents. And there is good reason to think that whatever advantage an incumbent experiences does not necessarily transfer to candidates of the same party. For example, we found in a large-scale 
experiment in 2008 that presenting Americans with a news report about the threat of terrorism led to decreased support for Sen. John McCain among political moderates. The support Bush derived from terrorism in 2004 did not extend to McCain in 2008, though this may have been in part because the conservative-led Iraq War had become very unpopular by 2008.”

Incumbents benefit because of the “rally around the flag” effect, regardless of their party — when faced with terror attacks, we seem to garner comfort from getting behind our leaders.
“Probably the most reliable finding from research on the political impact of terrorism is that the threat of terrorism increases support for standing leaders. This is one example of a larger dynamic called the rally-around-the-flag effect, or simply, rally effect. A rally effect occurs when war, terrorism or some other security threat leads citizens to support incumbent leaders more. For example, I found in this study that between 2001 and 2004 governmental announcements of terror threats to the U.S. tended to lead to significant increases in President George W. Bush’s approval rating. The support Bush derived from the threat of terror and his policy responses to it likely played a key role in his reelection in 2004.”

But, all else being equal, conservative leaders do benefit more than liberal ones from voters’ psychological responses to the threat of terrorism.
“In general, the specter of terrorism benefits conservative more than liberal politicians. Conservative positions on a variety of issues, including national defense, military funding and immigration, are more popular during periods of heightened terror threat. Further, conservative politicians are more likely to support militant foreign policy positions than liberals, while liberals are more likely to support diplomatic solutions. These policy orientations lead conservatives to gain increased support during times of heightened security concern.”

Read the whole thing here.

How Terrorism Affects Voter Psychology