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Posted on Jan 20, 2016

Are your favorite political candidates expressing fear or reassurance?

By Richard Elfers

More than 250 experiments in over a dozen countries have demonstrated that reminding people of their mortality — activating networks about the fear of death — tends to tilt our brains to the right, according to Drew Westen’s book, “The Political Brain.”
Does this apply to you?
According to Westen, these reminders can come from questionnaires asking whether one prefers cremation or burial. Seeing gory photos, pictures taken in front of funeral parlors, or even looking at the words “dead or death” can set off an emotional response. Across the world people of all cultures “will cling more tenaciously to the world views they hold dear,” according to Westen. It also means that reminders of mortality bring less tolerance toward people who differ in religious belief or cultural values.
This death response also applies to people with more progressive political views who tend to hold strongly to their own perspectives and become rigid under pressure. All of us are emotional creatures who tend to react emotionally more often than rationally. Reason does not triumph over emotion very often. Most political decisions are emotionally based.
Westen suggests that pushing these emotional buttons about death can and have been used as a tool for political manipulation. The implications are enormous. The solutions are clear.
Does this tendency of human nature help explain the increase in threats of violence and intolerance toward immigrants and Muslims we are seeing recently in the Republican Party?
Does this explain why the more radical Donald Trump becomes, the more he rises in the polls? Is he using fear to manipulate his base?
Does it also help explain the Black Lives Matter movement’s strong reactions to police violence toward unarmed blacks? African Americans rising up, demanding the end of injustice, seems to fit the pattern explained by these studies.
Does it explain the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s more aggressive recent activity toward the United States Navy in the Persian Gulf? Because of the recent nuclear agreement between Iran and the West, the Revolutionary Guard leadership is feeling its power slipping. Stirring up fears of “The Great Satan” — the United States — can bring the wavering back into the Revolutionary Guard’s fold so it can retain its power.
ISIS has used this awareness of death very effectively in its gory depictions of executions to bring more extremist Muslim fighters to its cause.
We are about to enter the presidential primary season. Based on this information, I would expect more emphasis from the left and the right on reminders of 9/11 or of death to motivate voters to come out and vote — and vote traditional values — for each group’s base. It’s a way to manipulate us to act.
Awareness of this information can make all of us more thoughtful when we hear or see campaign ads or speeches manipulating this human tendency. According to Westen, 80 percent to 90 percent of us make our political decisions emotionally.
Listen to the candidates’ statements. Do you hear fear or reassurance? If you hear references to death and destruction, then your emotional radar should be activated, and you should start asking questions about how you might be being manipulated.
During Hitler’s advances in Europe, Franklin D. Roosevelt reassured the American public with his “fireside chats” by stating, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Good presidents react calmly and thoughtfully to threats. Good presidential candidates offer hope rather than fear. Politically aware voters are aware of how they are being manipulated by the use of emotion and concern over death. Politically aware voters stop to think rather than react. It takes awareness of our very human tendency to move to the right or to the left when death is referenced.
Forewarned is forearmed. The more we can see the manipulation techniques used on us, the more we can respond, rather than emotionally react.

Richard Elfers is a columnist with the Courier Herald in Enumclaw, Bonney Lake and Sumner. He is an adjunct professor at Green River College.