Why School Shootings Produce More Political Polarization

Thoughts of death inspire us to cling more tightly to the beliefs that give our lives meaning—including our ideological stances.
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A sign hangs on a fence at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 27th, 2018.

A sign hangs on a fence at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 27th, 2018.

Yet again, America is grappling with the difficulty of finding mutually acceptable solutions in the wake of a mass shooting, this time at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. With each new tragedy, hope arises that the horror will shock us into action. Instead, it drives legislators deeper into their ideological corners.

New research reveals the psychological impulses that underlie this unhelpful hardening of positions—and suggests a possible pathway around them.

"Media coverage of mass shootings may cause a boomerang effect among certain segments of the public," producing "counter-pressure against gun control initiatives," S. Mo Jang of the University of South Carolina writes in the journal Media Psychology. That's because thoughts of death lead people to align themselves more emphatically with the beliefs and institutions that give their lives meaning.

This idea stems from terror management theory, which is based on the seminal theories of anthropologist Ernest Becker. According to this extensively researched school of thought, humans buffer their fear of death "by construing the universe as an orderly, comprehensible, predictable and meaningful place, where death can be literally or symbolically transcended," in the words of a 2011 study.

That intense, often semi-conscious need drives many to adhere more rigidly to the belief systems that allow them to make sense of the world. This can take the form of stronger allegiance to one's country or religion, or increased devotion to an ideology that provides a sense of certainty—such as the strain of conservatism that opposes gun laws.

In three studies, Jang shows how this dynamic can be triggered by mass shootings. The first featured a diverse panel of 201 United States citizens, who read a report about a recent massacre (at San Bernardino or Sandy Hook), or "a mundane news story about animals."

They then completed a series of 25 word fragments, which could be turned into either death-related or non-death-related words. (For example, "coff—" could be completed as either "coffee" or "coffin.") As expected, those who read about a shooting were more likely to create death-related words, meaning mortality was on their minds.

The second study featured 303 U.S. citizens, half of whom were instructed to respond to one prompt—"Please describe briefly the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you"—and one question—"What do you think happens to you as you physically die, and once you are physically dead?" The others "responded to parallel questions by writing about watching television."

After completing a brief interim task, all participants then answered a series of polling questions about gun control devised by the Pew Research Center. These included their level of support, if any, for stronger background checks, and a ban on assault weapons.

Jang reports that Republicans who thought about their own death "displayed a decreased level of support for gun control, but an increased level of support for open carry." The positions of Democrats were not significantly impacted by the exercise, but the shift in Republican views resulted in greater political polarization.

These results were replicated in the third and final study.

The findings suggest gun-control advocates should "take care not to overly trigger death concerns among the public" to avoid this backlash effect, Jang writes. That will, of course, be tricky.

But it seems clear that people who are reminded of their mortality often retreat to the perceived safety of their rigid ideology. And that's a huge impediment to finding common ground.

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