Oliver James: A vote for immortality

It was fear of death wot won it for George Bush in last year's presidential election, if a series of psychological experiments are to be believed. Whether the same could be true for Tony Blair in May is less sure.

The four experiments were conducted before the presidential election and originally designed to test terror management theory (TMT), rather than as political analysis. TMT posits that human awareness of mortality makes it our core terror; we use culture in general, and leaders in particular, to create a protective shield against fears arising from the inevitability of this demise.

In the first experiment, reminders of death were provided to a sample of subjects by asking them to respond to questions about death and dying. Members of a control sample were given questions about watching TV.

Both samples were then asked to read a highly favourable opinion of the measures taken by Bush after 9/11 and to say how much they endorsed his actions. Those previously reminded of their death were significantly more likely to endorse his policies.

The second experiment established that, on its own, being reminded of 9/11 increased subjects' awareness of their own mortality. The third showed that reminders of 9/11 and reminders of mortality, per se, were equally effective in generating support for Bush, whether the subjects were leftwing or conservative.

The experimental coup de grace directly assessed how likely subjects were to vote for Bush or Kerry after exposure to reminders of mortality or 9/11. Both reminders increased Bush's vote.

According to TMT, a leader who has the a priori status conferred by being president, who has a charismatic style and advocates strong home security with aggressive military solutions overseas, will ring the bell of our need for security from death.

Another study presented subjects with a hypothetical charismatic leader who promised citizens a significant role in a noble mission. If they had previously been reminded of their death they were more likely to want to support him. Indeed, President Roosevelt's approval ratings surged after Pearl Harbor, likewise John F Kennedy's in the Cuban missile crisis and George Bush Senior's after the start of the first Gulf war. Blair got a similar boost after the invasion of Iraq.

But the implications of the study for Blair may not be as simple as they were for Bush. After all, it was the Americans who were attacked. Banging on about 9/11 or the World Trade Centre probably does not equate as directly with death for people in Britain.

Whether some boffin in the Cabinet Office has drawn Alastair Campbell's attention to these studies or not, there has certainly been plenty of "terror-threat" talk recently. But it may not have the same impact on British voters as it did on Americans when it came from Bush. As the opinion polls show, a great many voters just think "liar, liar, pants on fire" when reminded of terrorism threats by Blair.

Having said all that, I do occasionally feel that it might be advisable to move out of London in case of a dirty bomb. With that kind of thought probably sloshing around in the back of many minds, would it not be possible to activate our fear of death subliminally, convincing us that Father Tony at the helm will protect us?

Trouble is, the leader stirring up the fear needs to be perceived as charismatic (so don't bother trying it, Michael Howard). If the opinion polls are right, British voters now think of Tony in the same way as a wife does during a blazing row with her faithless, philandering husband.

Of course, if the warnings came from that nice Gordon Brown next door, it might be another matter ...

· Oliver James is the author of They F*** You Up - How to Survive Family Life

oliver.james@observer.co.uk

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.