Jeff Greenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, Sheldon Solomon (Skidmore College) and Tom Pyszczynski (University of Colorado, Colorado Springs) are the originators of Terror Management Theory, which helps explain why humans react the way they do to the threat of death, and how this reaction influences their post-threat cognition and emotion. Their current research, featured in the December 2004 issue of the journal Psychological Science, suggests that the threat of death increases the appeal of charismatic leaders due to the need for psychological security.
The scientists asked subjects to think about their own death or a control topic and then read campaign statements of three hypothetical political candidates: charismatic, task-oriented, or relationship-oriented. Following a reminder of death, there was an almost 800 percent increase for the charismatic style but not the others.
A similar report by Solomon and Landau published in the September 2004 Personality and Social Science Bulletin indicates that reminders of death or of terrorism increase support for leaders and their policies. According to Solomon, "The original impetus for this research was to study how people's political preferences change as a function of their psychological state. I am reminded of Freud's notion that we need to make conscious the unconscious. Our research shows that unconscious thoughts of death can have a great effect on people's political choices."
According to these studies, repeated death-related messages can be an effective election strategy for leaders who emphasize the greatness of their own nation and the need to eradicate the threatening evil around it – a heroic, patriotic victory over enemies of a nation’s values and its way of life. They emphasize the importance of monitoring efforts by candidates to capitalize on fear-mongering and to use their rationality to harmonize their emotional reactions. But is there something that we can do about the fear of death itself, which is the source of this vulnerability to political manipulation and coercion?