Real, and threatened, terrorism boosts self-esteem

by: Chris Bowers

Mon Apr 13, 2009 at 14:36


Back in June of 2001, the NBC / Wall Street Journal poll found that 43% of the country thought the nation was moving in the right direction, while 39% believed we were on the wrong track. In mid-September of 2001, the same NBC / Wall Street Journal poll found that 72% of the populace thought the country was moving in the right direction, and only 11% thought we were on the wrong track.

Similar shifts can be found in the Pew poll, which moved from 12% righttrack / wrong track one week before 9/11 to +23% in the week after 9/11. In the LA Times / Bloomberg poll, there was a shift from +1 to +32%. According to Gallup, the shift was from -12% to +25%. Across the board, polls demonstrate that immediately after the devastating, murderous terrorist attacks of 9/11, which not only killed thousands of Americans but also plunged the country into a recession, the country shifted strongly to the "right direction" camp.

The important lesson here is that, rather than having a demoralizing impact or fear-inducing effect, real and threatened terrorism actually boosts self-esteem. There is even psychological research demonstrating this now (more in the extended entry):

Chris Bowers :: Real, and threatened, terrorism boosts self-esteem

Terrorists seek to subdue and coerce their targets, but ironically they may end up doing just the opposite. That's the implication of new research by Inbal Gurari and colleagues, who've shown that thinking about terrorism enhances people's self-esteem, as measured by an implicit test.(...)

The findings are consistent with "terror-management theory", which is the idea that reminders of our mortality leads us to seek comfort by boosting our self-esteem and seeking meaning in the world. The findings also match the way populations have been seen to respond after real-life terrorist attacks. For example, after 9/11 the American flag was flown, religious attendance rocketed and government approval ratings soared.

Progressives have often accused conservatives of playing on the politics of fear by over-emphasizing threats of terrorism. Given this research, this seems to be a misunderstanding of what conservatives actually accomplish with such hyperbole. Rather than scaring people, the over-emphasis actually aims to increase the general population's sense of value in belonging to the "American" identity group. It is actually a form of flag-waving, and what I like to call "glorifying the identity group," not fear-mongering.

It is highly likely that this weekend's Navy SEAL operation against the Somali pirates will have a similar, if much smaller, effect. Some Americans probably felt an increased sense of threat because of the hostage situation involving an American. Among those Americans, this threat, along with the successful military treatment of the threat, will jointly boost a sense of value in belonging to the larger identity group. Incidents like these will always up poll numbers.

Further, this information indicates that the impact of civilian deaths in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan will almost certainly be increased resistance to American military presence in those areas. The killing of civilians, whether through "shock and awe" or drone attacks, will almost certainly have a similar effect on the local populations as 9/11 and the Somali pirate incident had on America. Iraqis and Afghanis will feel a greater sense of pride in being connected to a local identity group that is threatened in such a way, and more vehement insurgent resistance will probably follow. As such, if we are looking to reduce insurgent violence in those countries, our best bet is to probably reduce the perceived threat of violence our military presence creates. The simplest way to do this is probably to withdraw, or to at least put an end to collective punishment tactics such as the drone bombers.  That the United States intends to increase the number of drone attacks in Pakistan doesn't bode well for our anti-insurgency efforts in the region.  


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Fascinating (0.00 / 0)
This calls to mind the work of Bob Altemeyer, who I believe has connected "mortality salience" specifically to right-wing authoritarianism.  

Such a connection would also help explain the world to those who wonder aloud how a party that did such a terrible job of keeping anybody safe always seemed to win out on the terrorism issue.

Yes we Kang


It's probably a short-term effect (0.00 / 0)
During the Vietnam War, there was an uptick in support for the war in the days immediately following the Tet Offensive.  However, the long-term trend continued to be a correlation between the decline in support for the war and the total number of American casualties.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

And by self-esteem you mean... (0.00 / 0)
The sort of nationalism that leads to American exclusivism and jingoism. Self-esteem is not unconditionally good. Utilitarianism wrought far too large -- and only for Americans anyway.

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