Effects of Mortality Salience on 2004 Presidential Elections

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Effects of Mortality Salience on 2004 Presidential Elections is an article published in the September 2004 edition of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.[1] In the article, Mark Landau and a team of communications researchers from across the United States created a series of studies to investigate how thoughts about death and the 9/11 terrorist attacks influence Americans’ attitudes toward current U.S. President George W. Bush. According to terror management theory (TMT), heightened concerns about mortality should intensify the appeal of charismatic leaders. The idea harkens back to Sigmund Freud's argument that leaders serve as substitute parent figures. Past studies suggest that one of the most basic functions that leaders serve is their role of helping their people manage their collective deeply rooted fear of death, inherent in the human condition. These studies found that reminders of mortality increase support for charismatic leaders in a hypothetical election scenario. This analysis implies that when reminders of one’s vulnerability and mortality are highly salient, support for such leaders is likely to increase.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, were highly likely to have dramatically increased mortality salience for most of the American people.[2] As one might predict from the terror management perspective, the popularity of then American president, George W. Bush, increased dramatically following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and remained high well into 2004. Landau's study examined the popularity of President Bush as a context for an “experimental case study” of the role of existential fear in promoting support for government leaders. Specifically, Landau and his team examined (a) the effect of reminders of mortality on support for President Bush, (b) the link between 9/11-related stimuli and the accessibility of death related thoughts (which have been shown to mediate the effect of mortality salience on the pursuit of faith in one’s cultural worldview,[3] and (c) the impact of reminders of 9/11 on the popularity of President Bush.

Background

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Terror Management Theory

Based on the writings of Ernest Becker, Terror Management Theory assumes that, while humans share with all animals fundamental survival and self-preservation instincts, we are unique because we have a capacity for self-consciousness, symbolic thought, and foreseeing future outcomes for our actions and behavior. These cognitive abilities gives us an awareness that our own deaths are inevitable and possible at any moment. This awareness challenges our survival and self-reservation instincts, creating the potential for debilitating anxiety. To mitigate this anxiety that our awareness produces, TMT theorists suggest that humans deny the absolute annihilation of the self by maintaining faith in a cultural worldview: "a set of humanly constructed, culturally derived, and socially validated beliefs about the nature of reality that provides meaning and the promise of literal or symbolic immortality to those who uphold culturally prescribed standards of value."[4] Faith in a shared cultural meaning and the perception of oneself as an object of value within that paradigm creates a protective shield against potential anxiety associated with awareness of the inevitability of one's death.

Tests of the mortality salience (MS) hypothesis have shown that, if cultural worldview functions provide protection against death-related concerns, then reminders of death should intensify efforts to bolster and defend faith in that worldview. This broad hypothesis has been supported by a wide range of studies demonstrating the many ways in which MS increases defense of one’s worldview.[5] Researchers have examined MS and included control inductions that test aversive topics other than death (e.g., physical pain, social rejection, uncertainty); these control inductions consistently fail to produce effects parallel to MS on the primary measures of worldview defense. Research has also shown that effects parallel to MS are not produced by heightened self-awareness, the salience of cultural values, meaninglessness, or high cognitive load.[6] This large body of evidence thus strongly suggests that MS effects result specifically from activating death related cognitions.

TMT proposes that terror management defenses are ultimately concerned with the implicit knowledge of death rather than with consciously experienced terror per se.[7] Based on a large body of evidence, Pyszczynski and a team of researchers in 1999 proposed a dual process model of cognitive processes through which thoughts of death affect behavior. This model suggested that "conscious contemplation of mortality first arouses direct threat-focused proximal defenses involving suppression of death-related thoughts or pushing the problem of death into the distant future by denying one’s vulnerability to various risk factors (e.g., promising to get more exercise). Once death-related thought is no longer in the forefront of one's consciousness, distal symbolic terror management defenses, which serve to bolster faith in a meaningful worldview and one’s sense of self-worth, are activated to manage the potential anxiety created by heightened accessibility of implicit death-related thought. Once these defenses have been employed, death thought accessibility dissipates back to baseline level." [8] In sum, whereas more straightforward proximal defenses against death serve to push death out of awareness, it is the sustained perception of oneself as a person of value in a world of meaning that allows people to avert the potential for anxiety that results from the increased accessibility of death-related thought.[9]

The Research Team for the Study

The researchers were Landau (University of Arizona), Sheldon Solomon (Skidmore College), Jeff Greenberg (University of Arizona), Florette Cohen (Rutgers University), Tom Pyszczynski (University of Colorado, Colorado Springs), Jamie Arndt (University of Missouri), Claude H. Miller (University of Oklahoma), Daniel M. Ogilvie (Rutgers University) and Alison Cook (University of Missouri).

The Popularity of President George W. Bush

Prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, President Bush’s popularity among the American people was tenuous. He had lost the popular vote in the 2000 election and won the presidency after a narrow victory in the Electoral College that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court after a highly controversial near-draw in the critical electoral state of Florida. A collection of national public opinion polls indicate that President Bush’s approval ratings hovered around 50% in the weeks preceding the terrorist attacks.[10] A front page article in The New York Times on September 9, 2001, reported intense efforts by the White House staff to increase the president’s popularity in the face of a sagging economy and critical evaluations of his style and strategy by leading Republican legislators.[11] Following the terrorist attacks, these approval ratings were transformed within days, with polls indicating an unprecedented 88% to 90% approval rating as early as September 13, 2001.[12] Opinion polls also showed overwhelming support for Bush’s handling of the terrorist crisis, the restriction of civil liberties, the military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and at least initially, the preemptive war on Iraq.[13][14][15][16][17][18]

While Bush’s actions and policies were subjected to intense scrutiny, criticism, and skepticism in some quarters,[19][20][21][22][23][24][25][26][27][28][29][30] but Bush’s popularity withstood such attacks well into the final year of his first term as President, despite several potentially damaging allegations that had come to light since his decision to proceed with a preemptive war on Iraq, including the reliance on faulty intelligence information regarding links between Iraq and al Qaeda tying them both to the 9/11 bombings, the presence of weapons of mass destruction, claims that initial discussion of plans for war on Iraq appeared to have been held soon after 9/11, and a growing insurgency in Iraq that lasted long after the war was declared won. TMT posits that popular support for leaders is partly the result of a collective need to mitigate a deeply rooted fear of death. According to TMT, people are motivated to conceive of themselves as valued participants in a cosmically significant cultural worldview rather than physical creatures subject to decay and death. Investing faith in the leader of that worldview would then assure symbolic prosperity that would maintain the buffer concept. The appeal of the leader conceivably lies in his or her perceived ability to both literally and symbolically deliver the people from illness, calamity, chaos, and death as well as to demonstrate the supremacy of their worldview over another culture's. Becker [31][32][33] proposed that, with socialization, primary sources of psychological security—those entities that sustain the sense of life as meaningful and one’s self as significant—shift from one’s parents to the culture and its figures of power, authority, and righteousness. As a result of this transference process, Becker viewed secular leaders as representing not only rational, objective policy makers but, similar to their religious counterparts, assuming the role of “death-dealer and death-defier.” [34] The researchers argued that these two roles are seen as the embodiments of invulnerability and symbolic supremacy.[35]

People avoid a potentially overwhelming obsession with their own frailty and limitations by surrendering power and investing faith in a champion who represents a near-ultimate authority in their worldview. From this perspective, it can be argued that President Bush’s appeal rested in his image as a protective shield against death, armed with the nation's high-tech weaponry, patriotic rhetoric, and the resolute invocation of doing God’s will to “rid the world of evil.” [36][37] To prove this point, Landau's team looked at a response President Bush gave to a reporter when asked if he seeks his father’s advice on Iraq, the president replied, “You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.” [38] Per Becker's model of leadership of worldview, President Bush (and his administration) generated a sense of protection from an overwhelming terrorist threat that randomly struck at worldview adherents. Landau and his team point to Bush's landing in an aircraft carrier at sea in a Navy jet to declare the war in Iraq to be "functionally over," symbolizing that Bush acted on America's behalf and triumphed over evil in the name of the American worldview.[39]

Landau and his team posited that, if loyalty to leaders is attributed in part to terror management concerns, then reminders of mortality should increase Americans’ support for President Bush. Previous studies have shown this hypothesis is valid, specifically those where MS is shown to foster higher regard for persons, concepts and symbols representative of the culture embraced by worldview adherents.[5][40] In 1990, Greenberg demonstrated that death-primed individuals favored evaluations of essays praising the U.S. while being critical of anti-U.S. essays when primed against another aversive outcome. A predisposition of aggressive behavior against persons critical of one's worldview has also been proven to exist.[41] Subliminal death primes—and MS treatments after a delay—also increase the likelihood of adapting "nationalistic cognitions." [42] A further study demonstrated that MS enhanced the appeal of a charismatic leader in an election scenario who can promote a nation's objectives reflective of their worldview and by advocating a union of worldview adherents in supporting a common cause—elements typical of a candidate's speech.[43] Landau's team argued that these conclusions provide "convergent support" for fostering worldview adherent's allegiance to and willingness to defend nationalistic aspects of their culture. MS would then increase the standing of one political candidate possessing charisma over candidates who are proven achievers of tasks and relationships. Landau and his team sought to use this past research in an "experimental case study" of death-related concerns in general and 9/11-related concerns specifically as they related to the promotion of support for President George W. Bush in the context of the American worldview.

The Mortality Salience Studies

Study 1

Study 1 was designed to test the hypothesis that if support for President Bush can be derived in part from the American people's terror management needs, then MS should increase support for Bush and his policies. To test this hypothesis, Ogilvie and company primed 97 undergraduates at Rutgers University (65 women, 32 men) in October 2003 with thoughts of either death or a control topic and then measured their support for President Bush and his antiterrorism policies.

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The experiment was conducted in a single session in a psychology class. It was described to participants as a short study of the relationship between personality attributes and opinions on social issues. Each participant was given a questionnaire packet and asked to complete each question in the booklet in the order in which it appeared. The MS manipulation followed two filler questionnaires included to sustain the cover story and obscure the true purpose of the study. Per a previous study for the MS condition, participants responded to two open-ended questions:[44][45] “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you” and “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.” Control participants responded to parallel questions about watching television. All participants then completed a self-report mood scale to assess possible affective consequences of the MS induction. The participants were then asked to read a short literary passage to serve as a delay; previous research had shown that MS increases worldview defense most consistently when there is a delay between the MS induction and dependent variable assessment.[46] Upon completing these tasks, participants then read the statement in the box at right, which expressed a highly favorable opinion of President Bush and his policies in regard to 9/11 and the Iraqi conflict.

The students were then asked to respond to three questions: “To what extent do you endorse this statement?” “I share many of the attitudes expressed in the above statement,” and “Personally, I feel secure knowing that the President is doing everything possible to guard against any further attacks against the United States.” All responses were made on 5-point scales (1 = strongly agree, 5 = strongly disagree). These responses were then reversed-scored so that higher numbers were indicative of greater support for the president. The responses found that reminding people of their own mortality (mortality salience) increased support for Bush and his counterterrorism policies.

Study 2

In his 2004 reelection effort, President Bush sought to demonstrate his effectiveness in combating terrorism and his ability to protect people from the alleged threats associated with terrorism. Political advertisements in support of the Bush campaign featured images of 9/11 and its aftermath, emphasizing the President’s ability to preserve national security.[47] In this study, Landau and his researchers sought to examine the effectiveness of referring to 9/11 in increasing support for Bush and, if so, why through a dual-process model. By examining the psychological significance of terrorism-related events, referred to in the study as "a potent double-barreled threat posed by the events: vivid and unceasing depictions of death and destruction compounded by a massive threat to America’s sense of military and financial power and moral righteousness." [48] These threats convergent in a single frame then bolstered faith in the symbols associated with the dominant American cultural worldview. Therefore, Study 2 was expected to demonstrate whether 9/11-related thought functions in the same way as death-related thought in producing heightened implicit death accessibility.

Participants were 46 introductory psychology students (26 women, 20 men) at the University of Missouri–Columbia randomly assigned to receive one of three subliminal primes: 911, WTC, or 573. This study was conducted approximately 1 month after the 9/11 attacks. The dependent variable was the accessibility of death-related words.

Using past research of similar dual process models, researchers demonstrated that "presenting death-related words beneath conscious awareness led to an immediate increase in death-thought accessibility relative to neutral or negative control words. Furthermore, subliminal death stimuli led to an immediate increase in worldview defense (increased preference for a pro-American essay and its author as opposed to an anti-American author), whereas previous research has shown that supraliminal death stimuli produce increased death accessibility and worldview defense only after a delay and distraction." [49] The Missouri study examined the increased accessibility of death-related thought outside of the focus of a participant's attention (where symbolic defenses are mustered) to occur at an unconscious level. Based on past research, Landau and his team predicted that, if 9/11 functions like an MS prime in activating unconscious concerns about mortality, then subliminal exposure to 9/11-related stimuli would show an increase in the accessibility of death-related thoughts, proving a cognitive link between 9/11 and death thought accessibility assumed by the research team's analysis of the effects of 9/11.[49][50][51][52]

Study 2 demonstrated that subliminal exposure to 9/11-related stimuli brought death-related thoughts closer to consciousness. The researchers demonstrated that stimuli commonly associated with the 9/11 attacks (911 and WTC) produced an increase in death-thought accessibility, much like previous research has shown with subliminal death-related stimuli. This conclusion established the cognitive linkage between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and death thought accessibility central to past analysis [2] of how Americans reacted to these attacks; the researchers suggest this linkage demonstrates the effect of reminders of the 9/11 attacks on Americans’ approval of President Bush and his policies.

Study 3

The third study brought findings of the second study in to examine whether reminders of 9/11 were functionally equivalent to MS primes in increasing support for President Bush. To test this hypothesis, the researchers primed participants with thoughts of death, 9/11, or an aversive control topic (as opposed to the nonaversive control prime of television salience used in Study 1) and then measured their attitudes toward Bush. The aversive control topic (thoughts of an upcoming exam) was included to ensure participants were thinking about death and not negative events in general.

The researchers also wanted to examine the effects of reminders of mortality and 9/11 play on general political orientation. The researchers believed that the increase in Bush's popularity ratings reflected the effects of death reminders on his appeal as a promoter of worldview security and a defender for the common good, but it was also possible that reminders of death or 9/11 might also make people more politically conservative—which would make Bush and his policies more appealing. To examine this possibility in closer detail, the researchers assessed participants’ self-reported political disposition on a continuum from very conservative to very liberal.

In February 2004, 74 Rutgers undergraduates (46 women, 28 men) volunteered to be in the study. The procedure was almost identical to Study 1: In a classroom setting, Participants were told that we were interested in the relationship between personality attributes and opinions on social issues. After completing filler questionnaires to sustain the cover story, participants were randomly assigned to an MS, exam salience, or terrorism prime condition. MS participants completed the typical two open-ended questions about death; exam salience participants completed parallel questions about an upcoming exam; terrorism salience participants were asked to “Please describe the emotions that the thought of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, arouses in you” and “Write down as specifically as you can what happened during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.” After assessing affective consequences of the MS and terrorism salience inductions and reading the delay paragraph, the participants read the same paragraph praising Bush as in Study 1. After the researchers mapped a composite index reflecting support for the president and after the participants completed filler demographic questions, the participants were asked to denote their political orientation on a scale from 1 (very conservative) to 9 (very liberal).

The results confirmed the researchers' hypothesis: participants exposed to MS and 9/11 salience conditions were more supportive for Bush and his policies when compared to the control condition. As in Study 1, reminders of 9/11 had the same effect as MS in increasing President Bush's appeal and analyses revealed significant effects "with identical patterns of statistically significant differences among means." [53] An analysis of variance showed no effect of the MS or 9/11 prime on political orientation, indicating that inductions enhancing affection for Bush were independent of political orientation as the sample was slightly liberal (mean of 5.8). The researchers conducted a regression in which the Bush approval composite was the dependent variable and prime condition, political orientation, and interaction served as predictors, to verify that priming effects were not exclusive to participants leaning towards conservative political ideology. With the regression, the researchers found expected main effects for condition and political orientation, which indicated higher approval in the MS and 9/11 conditions and the more conservative the participants were.

But the researchers also found an unexpected significant interaction and conducted three separate regressions to examine how political orientation interacted with exam versus mortality, exam versus 9/11, and mortality versus 9/11. The only significant interaction to emerge was the Political Orientation x Exam versus 9/11, and mortality versus 9/11. The results suggested that MS increased approval of Bush similarly for liberals and conservatives, but that the terrorism prime had a stronger effect on liberals, such that in that condition, political orientation was a negligible predictor, and significantly less predictive of approval of Bush than it was in the exam control condition. These results supported the hypotheses that MS and a reminder of 9/11 would both increase President Bush's appeal, regardless of political orientation, but the interaction suggests that 9/11 only increases Bush's appeal a bit less for more conservative participants. The researchers remarked that, while they could not offer a definitive interpretation for this unexpected pattern, if it is not valid, it may reflect the nature of the sample (undergraduate college students) since the conservative group actually included 27 participants who circled 5, the midpoint of the scale. The researchers stated that it was possible that, for politically middle-of-the-road people, certain aspects of Bush’s handling of 9/11 were not appealing and that more research with a broader sampling of political orientations was needed to explore this finding further. However, Study 3 fulfilled its expectation as it demonstrated that reminders of both mortality and 9/11 increased support for Bush regardless.

Study 4

The fourth study examines the TMT-based idea that President Bush satisfied existential expectations of the electorate through his personal charisma, being seen as a protective authority figure worthy of followership. The results of Studies 1 and 3 were consistent with this hypothesis, but the researchers wanted to ascertain that the observed results could not be attributed to anyone in a leadership position rather than Bush himself. While being the incumbent gives Bush an advantage in this context, the researchers agreed that Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry would be the best comparison leader, owing to the 2004 elections. To ensure that particular statements in the paragraph did not increase favorability toward Bush, the researchers ruled out this possibility by using straightforward questions to directly assess support for Bush, including one specific question that allowed researchers to directly compare the effect of MS on voting dispositions for either candidate. To further emphasize concerns about mortality, the researchers used intense pain as an aversive control topic. On May 13, 2004, 157 students at Brooklyn College (95 women, 62 men) were randomly assigned to condition in a 2 X 2 design (mortality salient versus intense pain salient control and evaluate George W. Bush versus evaluate John Kerry).

The students were approached in the college cafeteria and asked to participate in a short study of personality attributes and social judgments. After giving verbal consent, each participant was given several questionnaires and asked to complete each question in the booklet in the order in which it appeared. While the first two questionnaires were ruses to obscure the researchers' intent, for the MS condition, participants were asked to respond to the two open-ended questions used in Studies 1 and 3; in the intense pain condition, participants responded to two parallel questions: “Please describe the emotions that the thought of being in intense pain arouses in you” and “Write down as specifically as you can what you think will happen to you physically as you are in intense pain.” All participants then completed a self-report mood scale to assess possible affective consequences of the MS induction and read a short literary passage to serve as a delay. The "Opinion Survey" portion of the questionnaire packet then told participants to do the following: Template:Blockquote For the John Kerry condition evaluation, participants received identical instructions and responded to identical questions about presidential candidate (rather than President) John Kerry. For both conditions, all questions were followed by 9-point scales with endpoints marked "not at all favorably" and "extremely favorably" for the first question and "not at all" and "very much" for the remaining three questions. After a series of filler demographic questions to further obscure the researchers' intent, the participants were asked to indicate their political orientation on a scale from 1 (very conservative) to 9 (very liberal).

As expected, the participants in the MS condition gave higher ratings to either candidate than those in the intense pain condition with higher ratings for John Kerry (M = 4.67) than George Bush (M = 3.83). An examination of the interaction revealed that, although John Kerry was significantly more highly regarded than George Bush in the intense pain control condition, Bush’s evaluations increased in response to MS (across the midline of the scale), such that Bush was evaluated significantly more positively than Kerry when mortality was salient, whereas John Kerry’s evaluations declined. It should be noted that the sample was moderately liberal (M = 5.8). Results indicated that MS intensified support for President Bush while reducing support for Kerry regardless of political orientation. The results were consistent with Cohen's finding that MS magnifies the appeal of a leader with charismatic style while significantly reducing the appeal of potential leaders.[54] The researchers' use of straightforward approval questions instead of agreement with elaborate messages was seen as direct evidence of the effect of MS on President Bush's favorability. The results of this study revealed that mortality-salient participants favored Bush in the upcoming presidential election, a complete reversal from the control condition.

Conclusions

The researchers pointed out that many terror management theorists have noted that political allegiances are not always based on rational factors of self-interest, but on irrational forces members of a constituency of which they may not be aware. Per TMT, how a leader manages a constituency's concerns about personal mortality spurs people to seek that leader's protection. Because these four studies together demonstrated that reminders of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (even subtly) and the awareness of the vulnerability of the American cultural worldview together increased support for President Bush, this study provides direct evidence for TMT analysis.

Study 1 examined mortality concerns impact on American popular support for President Bush, revealing that MS increased a favorable assessment of Bush and his policies, the psychological impact of reminders of 9/11 contributing positively to the Bush administration's re-election strategy as proof of Bush's position on national security issues (i.e., preserving the status quo of the American cultural worldview). Study 2 revealed that subliminal presentations of 9/11-related stimuli (9/11 and WTC) increased death-thought accessibility of worldview adherents. Study 3 revealed that 9/11 saliency was equal to MS saliency in increasing support for President Bush, creating a double-barrel effect that boosted his favorability. Study 4 yielded more proof that MS intensifies support for President Bush while diminishing support for presidential candidate John Kerry. All three studies examining MS showed that mortality salience increased perceptions of Bush from below the midpoint of scales to above them. Most notably, Study 4 showed that, while Kerry was preferred over Bush in the control condition, MS participants preferred Bush over Kerry. Studies 3 and 4 demonstrated that this relationship between President Bush and the American voter was not limited to conservative individuals or due to any increase in political conservatism.

Because 9/11 was a generational event—a one-time socially transforming event—the researchers cautioned that these null findings should not be seen as indicative of a trend in president/voter relations. Past studies where researchers manipulated MS in identified conservative and liberal participants did not indicate a shift in political orientation of liberals toward conservatism.[55][56] In 2004, the researchers recommended further research on the effects of MS and 9/11 reminders on political orientation and the appeal of leaders to their constituencies, positing that there was "something specific" about President Bush that made him an ideal figurehead for terror management purposes.

The researchers posited that President Bush's figurehead role could be attributed to his incumbent position as president of the country in 2004, making him the one person most representative of the country at that time. If the pro-U.S. worldview is preserved, then the figurehead of that worldview would be received more favorably and that was Bush by default. History has shown many occasions where the president's popularity increases when the nation and its representatives are threatened. The researchers cited Gallup poll numbers indicating how Franklin D. Roosevelt's approval numbers saw a 12-pont surge after Pearl Harbor. John F. Kennedy's approval numbers rose 13 points following the Cuban Missile Crisis. George H. W. Bush—the first Bush administration—saw an 18-point surge after the start of the First Gulf War.

The researchers recognized that President Bush had a charismatic style with a high self-confident manner, a firm faith in his positions, and his appeals to the nation's collective patriotic spirit indicative of a good communicator.[57] Research has revealed that MS increases preference for a candidate with this exact disposition as a defender of a nation's worldview.[54] Bush’s advocacy of stronger security and aggressive military campaigns also gave him an edge over his rival, the latter untested in such concepts of scale as the position of President demands.

The fact these studies showed that President Bush’s popularity increased when thoughts of death or terrorism were salient among the American people is relevant in the context of the 2004 presidential election campaigns as well as future political campaigns. This revelation stands out the strongest in Study 4 where MS participants were shown to be more likely to reelect President Bush over presidential candidate Kerry. The conclusion identifies a good presidential campaign that appeals to fear and threat of terror can trump what researchers identify as "philosophical democratic ideals." Past research has shown this effect can be mitigated with instructions to think objectively and rationally about threats.[58] Researchers remarked that a media that capitalizes on communicating death and terror threats hinders rational formation of non-death-related thoughts, adding that death concerns are a powerful influence of human behavior that can only be countered by close examination of the candidates on the issues and their qualifications.

The Common Enemy Assessment

It was posited by the researchers that, while the findings of these four studies are consistent with TMT analysis, they could also be founded in the concept of increased ingroup cohesion and favoritism in the face of a shared external threat, a subject which has been examined by other researchers.[59][60][61][62][63] These other studies indicate that a common enemy or threat can activate superordinate identities and increase ingroup solidarity. Reminders of 9/11 and threats of terrorism might then unite people under a single banner, literally rallying around the flag and supporting the President over any incumbent.

The researchers disallowed this explanation, arguing that a common enemy cannot account for the findings in their studies: MS effects would require MS spontaneously activating cognitions associated with 9/11 and terrorism despite the open-ended items not mentioning 9/11, terrorism, war or any indication of violence. Also, while the "common enemy” was directly referred to participants in a paragraph in Studies 1 and 3 that mentioned 9/11 and future terrorist threats, MS participants showed the highest support for Bush. Third, Study 4 identified the same effect of MS without any mention of 9/11 or terrorism. The researchers also pointed out that, in the typical common enemy scenario, group cohesion is achieved even among members who hold conflicting beliefs. The researchers cited multiple studies where MS divided groups, not bringing them together.[42][44][64][65] The researchers stated that, while it was possible MS and 9/11 salience were activated through two distinct processes, the heightened accessibility of death-related thought was the simplest proof that these four studies were valid.

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