Research shows shared traumas drive political preferences in certain directions.


First published in September 2021.


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it an abundance of emotion relating to threat, loss, uncertainty and anxiety. These emotions heavily affect the ways in which we make decisions. It’s widely recognised that emotions such as fear, threat and anxiety even influence the way we vote.

The pandemic served as a reminder of human fragility and the inescapability of death. These psychological forces will inevitably influence our behaviour. That could include our decisions at the ballot box.

In the 1980s, researchers developed the concept of terror management theory in the field of social psychology. Their work observes two notions – the first is that humans have biological response systems to deal with impending threats (fight or flight). The second is that humans have the cognitive ability to understand death.

With this knowledge, humans must manage the presence of intense anxiety (or even terror) by sustaining faith or belief in a view of the world that provides emotional security and fulfilment. Much of religion and cultural worldview functions as this – containing our fears and anxiety surrounding mortality. Further research has shown that similar forces are at work in our personal politics.

The foundation of people’s sense of security may shift to political sources. Public figures such as presidents and politicians – or even the nation itself – may come to serve as anxiety buffers.

Channelling our anxieties

It has been shown that reminders of mortality draw people toward charismatic leaders who sell simple visions, most commonly involving a “good” in-group and an “evil” out-group.

In a 2004 study, for example, support for George W Bush and his severe counter-terrorism policies increased among participants who had been shown stimuli reminding them of their own mortality and reminding them of 9/11. The researchers concluded that he was providing a sense of symbolic protection in his patriotic rhetoric and the way he identified an evil out-group after the tragedy.

Further work has shown that politicians and the state play a significant role in managing public anxiety in times of uncertainty – something referred to as “emotional governance”.

Institutions such as the National Health Service, for example, can do more than just provide medical care in the most literal sense. They also play a role in our emotional security. That much has been seen during the pandemic, when expressing support and gratitude for healthcare workers has become such an important part of our culture.

The importance and vulnerability of the NHS was so often at the forefront of our minds during the pandemic. In the near future, we might therefore be particularly susceptible to promises from politicians about boosting pay for nurses, for example. We may be more impressionable to themes of patriotism, channelling our pride in the national institution that is the NHS into the nation itself. Strong feelings of attachment to the nation can offer reassurance and clarity following a public scare. Patriotism may also offer a cause to hold on to amid the recovery from the pandemic.

Vaccine polarisation

After the pandemic, voters may also find themselves further polarised as the culture war continues to divide people according to their views on certain social issues. Over the past year, that has included attitudes towards vaccines and lockdown rules.

Feelings towards vaccines were already entangled in politics before the pandemic. A study in 2018 found that conservative respondents in the US were less likely to express pro-vaccination beliefs. In April 2021, research found that Republicans were more likely to oppose the COVID-19 vaccination than Democrats. Research in Austria has found that non-voters had higher levels of vaccine hesitancy.

Vaccination hesitancy points to larger trends of distrust in institutions and political apathy – issues that were live before the pandemic but have found new outlets. We may therefore expect to see pandemic themes providing fresh opportunities for anti-establishment politicians.

When faced with threat in times of fear and uncertainty, it’s common for humans to elicit simplified worldviews. We seek out binary choices to deal with the complexities that come with crises because it feels safer to do so.

If the government has failed to provide us with a sense of security in the past, we will seek it elsewhere. The prevalence of conspiracy theories during the pandemic has shown us that we are particularly susceptible to simplified alternative narratives in times of difficulty.

We may expect politicians to capitalise on the pandemic, calling for tighter restrictions on borders for disease control, or even cite lockdown restrictions as an impediment on personal and civic freedoms. The potential of this has been demonstrated with the popularity of the anti-lockdown movement, which has acted as a tie between “the anarchist-left and the anti-establishment right”.

Fear may come to be a powerful factor in post-pandemic elections, particularly if politicians take advantage of anxieties surrounding future pandemics and the traumatic experiences of COVID-19. Voters may enact defence mechanisms and this may ultimately sway their opinions.

On the other hand, some voters may also seek leaders who offer reassurance and elicit trust – people who highlight a collective purpose for the common good and wellbeing of society, reminding us of the more cooperative moments in the pandemic. This would be an alternative path that might mitigate some of the more harmful forms of terror management we are likely to see in post-pandemic politics. 




— AUTHOR —

Tabitha A. Baker, PhD candidate in Political Psychology at Bournemouth University.


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[This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PMP Magazine on 10 Sept 2021, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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