Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jun 11, 2019

Do Threatening Events Increase Support for Liberal or Conservative Viewpoints? It Depends on the Type of Threat

by Fade Eadeh and Katharine Chang
Businessman grabs head looking at business charts

Life is filled with many threatening events -- terrorism, spiders, unsafe drinking water, and even sharknados, to name just a few. Interestingly, research has shown that such threatening events can affect people’s political beliefs, typically shifting them to be more supportive of conservative political policies.

As people who were in their formative years at the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks, this pattern made sense to us. After all, the United States saw many changes after the attacks, including broad support for aggressive military policies and increased favorability ratings for former President George W. Bush. Therefore, the idea that threat increases conservative attitudes was consistent with how many Americans shifted their political beliefs after the 9/11 Attacks.

However, we were curious about the studies that supported this conclusion. Most studies showing that threatening events increase conservatism examined only one type of threat: terrorism. So we wondered whether all threats push people to the political right or whether the effects of threat on political attitudes depend on the type of threat. In fact, we thought that certain threats might actually make people’s views more liberal.

Although the threat of terrorism is an important topic, terrorism is obviously not the only threat that people face. Americans face many kinds of threats, including being denied healthcare coverage, drinking polluted water, and dealing with corporate misconduct. Do these threats also push people to the political right?

We examined this question in three studies. In our first study, some of our participants read about a healthcare insurer denying coverage to a child with cancer. Afterwards, participants rated their current mood and their political attitudes. Results showed that participants who read about the healthcare threat expressed greater support for liberal healthcare attitudes, supporting policies that would expand people’s access to healthcare. So, rather than increasing support for conservative views, a health care threat increased support for liberal policies.

To take our study a step further, we examined shifts towards liberal political attitudes in a different context involving an environmental threat. In one story, participants read about a child who suffered from lead poisoning. In a different story, they read about a child who died from an asthma attack caused by excessive air pollution.

Similar to the first study, participants who read about an environmental threat expressed greater support for liberal attitudes. In this case, they supported liberal solutions to environmental issues, such as fining coal companies if their actions harmed local communities and prioritizing funding for the Environmental Protection Agency.

In our third study, we focused on a different threat, the threat of corporate misconduct as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. In particular, participants read about banks that illegally foreclosed on homeowners, who requested loan modifications from the post-recession Home Affordable Modification Program. In this study, we investigated whether people would support greater regulatory oversight, an approach supported by political liberals, after reading about corporate corruption.

Yet again, we found the same pattern of results.  Participants who read about a financial threat expressed greater support for liberal policies, this time in the realm of increased regulation on businesses.

In the end, we found consistent evidence that some threats push people to support liberal ideology. These findings clearly counter the earlier conclusion that threatening events mostly push people toward the political right. Although some threats, such as the threat of terrorism, cause people to support conservative policies, our research shows that certain threats can also shift people’s views in a liberal direction.

For further reading

Eadeh, F. R., & Chang, K. K. (2019). Can threat increase support for liberalism? New insights into the relationship between threat and political attitudes. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1948550618815919.

Lambert, A. J., Eadeh, F. R., & Hanson, E. J. (2019). Anger and its consequences for judgment and behavior: Recent developments in social and political psychology. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 59, 103-173.

About the Authors

Fade Eadeh is a postdoctoral scholar at Emory University. He studies threat, political attitudes, and emotions.  Katharine Chang is a research assistant at the National Institute of Health. Before this, she was an undergraduate student studying psychological and brain sciences at Washington University.

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