Research has yet to specify precisely the psychological processes by which threat may affect ideological preferences (but see Lambert et al., 2010 for several studies highlighting the role of anger). When process explanations are fully developed, they will need to take into account the physiology of the threat response as well as downstream effects on cognition, motivation, and political preferences. The literature in political psychology has rarely been very exact in its conceptual or operational definitions of threat, at least compared to cognitive neuroscience and related fields (Spezio & Adolphs, 2007). This difference can be partially attributed to the fact that the two subdisciplines emphasize quite different levels of explanation or analysis. In this article we focus on the cognitive, motivational, and behavioral consequences of threat.
Effects of Threat on Cognitive Capacity and Motivation
Threat and its typical emotional consequences, namely fear and anxiety, have been found to result in a number of cognitive, motivational, and behavioral implications, including risk aversion, attentional biases, and impaired performance on a variety of working memory and decision-making tasks (e.g., Jameson, Hinson, & Whitney, 2004; Mogg, Mathews, Bird, & Macgregor-Morris, 1990; Preston, Buchanan, Stansfield, & Bechara, 2007). For one thing, rumination and worry constrain the availability of mental resources required for memory and cognition (Eysenck & Calvo, 1992; Mathews & Mackintosh, 1998; Miu, Heilman, & Houser, 2008; Preston et al., 2007). Fear also leads to narrow, selective attention focused on threatening stimuli (Easterbrook, 1959). This can improve performance on a task such as the Stroop task in which there is a good match between the narrowed attention and the optimal response (Chajut & Algom, 2003).
Under many circumstances, however, such “cognitive narrowing” will result in suboptimal performance. For instance, Keinan (1987) found that when faced with the threat of electric shock, people engage in less systematic scanning of alternatives on a multiple choice analogy task. This results in hasty, inferior decisions made under high versus low threat. Threatening research participants by communicating (false) negative performance feedback impairs their digit span memory (Hodges & Spielberger, 1969) and reduces message elaboration in persuasion (Sengupta & Johar, 2001). Hillier, Alexander, and Beversdorf (2006) showed that an auditory stressor (90 dB white noise) reduced cognitive flexibility on a word association task.
Thus, it seems likely that threat—like cognitive load (Ford & Kruglanski, 1995; Gilbert & Osborne, 1989)—reduces both the motivation and capacity for information processing. In many situations, the two effects may be inseparable. Studies show that fatigue, time pressure, and exposure to loud noises all decrease the motivation to engage in extensive information searches and to perform elaborate cognitive operations (e.g., Kruglanski, 2004; Roets, van Hiel, Cornelis, & Soetens, 2008). Emotions research suggests that threat is experienced as aversive at least in part because it leads people to perceive that they lack both control and certainty (e.g., see Dechesne & Kruglanski, 2004; Ellsworth & Smith, 1988; Raghunathan & Pham, 1999; Tiedens & Linton, 2001). As a consequence, when people feel threatened they should be highly motivated to restore a subjective sense of certainty and control. As a result, they might resort to various cognitive-motivational “strategies” that, according to Kruglanski (2004), are tantamount to “closed-mindedness.”
Lay epistemic theory offers a useful way of linking what is known about the effects of threat on human cognition to social and political outcomes (Kruglanski, 1990, 2004). According to this theory, people vary (for dispositional as well as situational reasons) on a single motivational dimension ranging from a strong need to avoid cognitive closure to a strong need to reach closure. High need for cognitive closure represents a desire for “an answer to a question on a given topic, any answer . . . compared to confusion and ambiguity” (Kruglanski, 1990, p. 337), and it often leads to “black-and-white” thinking. The need for closure increases the tendency to “seize” and subsequently “freeze” on highly salient or accessible information when making decisions (Kruglanski, 1990). It arises when extended information processing is perceived to be costly or when the perceived benefits of possessing closure are high.
We propose that because threat reduces cognitive capacity and motivation and is associated with feelings of uncertainty and a lack of control, it should increase the perceived benefits of reaching closure. Consistent with this proposal, scores on an individual difference measure known as the Need for Cognitive Closure scale (NFCS; Webster & Kruglanski, 1994) correlate fairly highly with both state and trait measures of anxiety (Colbert, Peters, & Garety, 2006). Kruglanski (2004) also noted that many of the effects of inducing mortality salience (i.e., increasing death anxiety) mimic the effects of inducing cognitive closure through time pressure, mental fatigue, or environmental noise. Furthermore, as we have seen with regard to fear, threat, and anxiety, the need for closure is often associated with a decrease in systematic information processing (e.g., DeDreu, Koole, & Oldersma, 1999; Kruglanski, 2004).
The NFCS possesses five subscales that were designed to capture slightly different aspects of epistemic motivation: need for order, ambiguity intolerance, decisiveness, predictability, and closed-mindedness. Several psychometric studies on the NFCS have suggested that the five subscales do not always relate uniformly to each other or to other constructs (Kossowska & van Hiel, 2003; Neuberg, Judice, & West, 1997; Webster & Kruglanski, 1994). Specifically, the closed-mindedness subscale correlates weakly with the other four subscales and rarely loads on a second-order latent factor along with them (Mannetti, Pierro, Kruglanski, Taris, & Bezinovic, 2002; Neuberg et al., 1997). It also appears to correlate more strongly (and negatively) with measures of cognitive complexity and the personal “need for cognition” (e.g., Houghton & Grewal, 2000; Webster & Kruglanski, 1994).
Items on the closed-mindedness subscale are quite general, relatively context-free, and focused on motivation rather than skill per se. They include the following: “I do not usually consult many different opinions before forming my own view,”“I prefer interacting with people whose opinions are very different from my own,” and “When thinking about a problem, I consider as many different opinions on the issue as possible.” In terms of face validity, the items seem appropriate for tapping into motivational effects of threat, and—unlike measures of authoritarianism (e.g., Altemeyer, 1998)—their content is not overtly political in any way. Thus, any observed association between closed-mindedness and political orientation would provide clear support for the theoretical model of ideology as motivated social cognition and could not be dismissed as spurious due to item content. There are both conceptual and empirical reasons, then, to think that the deleterious effects of threat on epistemic motivation (i.e., a decreased desire to engage in extensive information search and processing) could be detected by the closed-mindedness subscale of the NFCS and that closed-mindedness is a theoretically plausible mediator of the threat-conservatism link.
Prior research has connected the need for closure to social and political strategies that are likely to increase the subjective sense of control and certainty. These include the rejection of opinion deviates, the encouragement of autocratic (vs. democratic) leadership, and preferences for opinion uniformity within the group (e.g., Kruglanski, Pierro, Mannetti, & De Grada, 2006). There is evidence that time pressure and cognitive load produce “conservative shifts” in political opinion, even among liberal respondents (Hansson, Keating, & Terry, 1974; Skitka, Mullen, Griffin, Hutchinson, & Chamberlin, 2002). Individuals' scores on the NFCS are significantly and positively correlated with right-wing authoritarianism (Webster & Kruglanski, 1994) and political conservatism (Chirumbolo, Areni, & Sensales, 2004; Jost et al., 2003). The need for cognitive closure is also associated with support for the death penalty and for military action against Iraq following 9/11 (Federico, Golec, & Dial, 2005; Jost, Kruglanski, & Simon, 1999). Thus, we hypothesize that motivated closed-mindedness would mediate the effect of threat on political orientation.