Here's a candidate for the weirdest political observation of 2007: Hillary Clinton had better hope voters don't pass any funeral homes on their way to the polls.
That's because research by social psychologists over the past 20 years has repeatedly found that even subtle reminders of death—like standing near a mortuary—can skew people's attitudes and behaviors toward ways to make themselves feel safer and more secure. In a forthcoming study in the peer-reviewed Leadership Quarterly, University of Richmond Prof. Crystal Hoyt presents evidence that a sniff of the macabre can bias subjects in favor of male candidates, sometimes even when a female opponent displays more "macho" traits. With all the reminders of terrorism and death in the news—not to mention on the campaign trail—it's not an irrelevant problem for the only woman in the race.
To invoke thoughts of death in a laboratory setting, Hoyt had half the participants answer two open-ended questions about their own death during the course of an initial survey, while the other half, the control group, answered an innocuous question about exams. (Previous research has found that these effects are present only when thoughts of death are subconscious, so the study included a built-in delay after the questions.)
When presented with two generic candidates for governor, one male and one female, the subjects who responded to the death questions showed a decidedly greater preference for the person of their own sex, a finding consistent with observations that under these conditions, people gravitate toward others like themselves.
Having demonstrated this, Hoyt added another layer of complexity. In a second study, she randomly assigned the candidates with either assertive or communal traits, such that some subjects were forced to choose between an assertive woman and a communal man, for example, as a way of probing exactly how ingrained gender stereotypes are in making such decisions.
Under these circumstances, female subjects demonstrated a pronounced preference for the more assertive leader regardless of gender, suggesting that whatever inclination they had to vote for a woman when reminded of death was trumped by the desire for a more controlling leader. Men, on the other hand, had far more reservations about abandoning their own. Even when presented with an assertive, "macho" female against a communal male, they were divided in their choices. Reminders of mortality, it appears, pulled them in two directions—both toward their own gender and toward the image of a controlling leader, which conflict when that leader is a woman.
It is here that female candidates run into trouble. As Hoyt notes, research overwhelmingly suggests that women who demonstrate only these stereotypically male qualities are often perceived negatively.
"It's very difficult for Hillary. She has this double bind she's in," Hoyt says. "As these images and thoughts of terror become prevalent, my results indicate that people are going to want a very masculine, tough leader. Hillary does a good job of that, I think. At the same time, abundant research shows that when a woman is tough, we tend not to like her much."
To overcome that, Hoyt suggests, Clinton needs to temper the image with more communal traits—something Hoyt sees her attempting with appearances on talk shows that target women and by mentioning her personal life more often.
Tom Pyszczynski, a psychologist at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs who first developed the field known as "terror management theory" with two colleagues in the mid-1980s, studied the effects of death references in the 2004 election and expressed hope that awareness of the phenomenon might counter its effects.
"Back in 2004, we thought it was really important that the world knew that these death reminders made people more likely to support Bush," he said. But Pyszczynski, who makes no bones about being personally liberal, said he and his colleagues had no luck in their efforts to advise the Kerry campaign on how it might combat these effects.