Senior Honors Projects, 2020-current

Political polarization and Terror Management Theory: How death anxiety deepens the divide between liberals and conservatives (or does it?)

Madison E. Sarlo, James Madison University


This project aims to uncover the role of death anxiety in political polarization using Terror Management Theory (TMT) as a framework by investigating whether mortality salience (MS) increases partisan hostility between liberals and conservatives, causes them to express more polarized attitudes on various political issues, or both. This project hypothesizes that MS will increase political partisan hostility more so than political attitude polarization due to the social and emotional rather than ideological nature of defense mechanisms against death anxiety. This research utilizes the often under-studied young voters during the 2020 Presidential Election in a swing state at a time of high political tension and animosity, adding to the importance of this work. The results showed no effect of MS on political attitudes, but MS caused participants to express slightly more positive feelings toward opposing partisans and slightly more negative feelings toward those in their own party, relative to non-MS controls. Results may be explained by the different effects of death anxiety versus death reflection. Theoretical implications are discussed.