Death Goes to the Polls: A Meta-Analysis of Mortality Salience Effects on Political Attitudes


  • Correction added after online publication 24 Jan 2013: Due to a software glitch in the author's statistics analysis package, the related statistics in the article, as well as the last column in table 1, are incorrect. The fundamental conclusions of the research remain unchanged; the error simply adjusts some of the effect sizes and related statistics up or down by .05 or so, and has been corrected in this version of the article.


Terror management theory posits that people are motivated to affirm cultural meaning systems, including political ideologies, to avoid the awareness of mortality. Accordingly, studies show that increasing mortality salience (MS) intensifies people's attitudes toward political issues and figures. However, whereas in some studies MS increases affirmation of preexisting political ideologies, be they liberal or conservative (supporting a “worldview-defense hypothesis”), in other studies MS elicits a general shift toward conservatism, regardless of preexisting ideology (supporting a “conservative-shift hypothesis”). The current study used meta-analysis to assess the overall magnitude of MS effects on explicitly political attitudes and to clarify the nature of these effects by comparing effect sizes for these competing hypotheses. The overall effect of MS on political attitudes was large (r= .50). The effects of MS-induced worldview defense (r= .35) and conservative shifting (r= .22) were significant and statistically equivalent. We discuss the conditions (e.g., contextual salience of political values) under which conservative shifting or worldview defense occurs.