How stress and terrorism affect election behaviour

The original article that I contributed to was published online in the APA Science section, the  Austrian magazine Profil and in the Tiroler Tageszeiting under the title: Wie sich Stress und Terrorängste auf das Wahlverhalten auswirken. (From APA: 22. 4. 2017)

Several studies provide evidence of benefits for right-wing populists.

The final round of the French presidential election campaign is being overshadowed by a terrorist attack. Scientific research over the last few years provides several indications that right-wing populists and politicians who rely on anxiety gaps can benefit from such a climate.

“It is obvious that psychological stress plays an important role in political decision-making” 

US psychologists found from a study during the Al-Aqsa intifada in Israel that individuals who are personally exposed to political violence react with fear and also adjust their political views accordingly. The results of their research provide “solid indications” for the assumption that “terrorism leads to non-democratic attitudes that threaten minority rights.” According to the study by Daphna Canetti-Nisim (1) and her colleagues it is obvious that psychological stress plays an important role in political decision-making

However, Anna Getmansky (2) from the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University and Thomas Zeitzoff from the Department of Politics at New York University suggest that the mere threat of terrorism has already an impact on election behaviour. They investigated the impact of Palestinian rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip on four Israeli elections from 2001 to 2009. “Our results show that the right-wing share of votes were two to six percentage points higher in those areas within the range of missiles.”

“We have found that greater liberalism is associated with increased volume of grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex“

It seems that anxiety tends to benefit right-wing conservative and authoritarian political forces. In 2011, a researcher from the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience found out that the political attitude also manifests itself in our brain structures: “We have found that greater liberalism is associated with increased grey matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, while conservatism with a increased volume of the right amygdala “, writes study author Ryota Kanai (3).

The researchers also assume that political orientation also expresses how people deal with anxiety and insecurity. Persons with a larger amygdala are considered to be more sensitive to fear and therefore would rather integrate conservative views into their belief system. On the other hand, the increased importance of the anterior cingulate cortex could be associated with greater tolerance against uncertainty and conflict. Although their data could not determine a causal link, they do reveal a link between brain structures and psychological mechanisms that are expressed in political attitudes.

A connection between conspiracy theories and stress has also been scientifically researched. Psychologists (4) from the University of Cambridge found out in 2016: The more people are under psychological pressure, the more vulnerable they are to conspiracy theories. Authoritarian attitudes are also associated with perceived social threats: those who feel latently threatened are more willing to limit the basic freedoms of others.

At the same time, stressed voters seem to be the ones who are most likely to stay away from the elections – a finding that is particularly relevant to the US and its low electoral participation. A researcher of psychologists and political scientists around Jeffrey A. French (5) from the University of Nebraska-Omaha discovered in 2011 that people who had the highest level of stress hormone cortisol most likely did not vote.

“Populists talk with the people on the level of fear, with their words, their gestures, with everything they have” 

The Brussels Osteopath and anti-stress expert Tom Meyers has looked at all these research results. Tom got interested in the reasons for this rise in right-wing populism, especially after the election of the right-wing populist and republican Donald Trump to US president and seeing the rise of populist parties in his own home country Belgium, in the Netherlands, but also in Austria.

”Populists talk to people on the level of fear, with their words, their gestures, with everything they have,” says Meyers. Stress is always limiting people. “In stress one thinks only of oneself. Everything outside becomes dangerous.” This is a normal protective function of the body (instinct) that is out to survive: Because for example if a car is approaching and you’re in the middle of the road (stress), one should not think too long about others.

Stress is an adaptive response to protect the body (no body no mind). People believe that they always act rationally. In fact, biological processes such as stress changes the way you think and behave: “We underestimate how strongly the body, neuro-hormonal systems affect our behaviour and our way of thinking,” (matter over mind) says Meyers.



(1) D. Canetti-Nisim, et al. (2009). A New Stress-Based Model of Political Extremism: Personal Exposure to Terrorism, Psychological Distress, and Exclusionist Political Attitudes. J Conflict Resolut. 2009 Jun; 53(2): 363–389. doi:  10.1177/0022002709333296

(2) A. Getmansky and T. Zeitzoff (2014). Terrorism and Voting: The Effect of Exposure to Rockets on Voting in Israeli Elections. American Political Science Association 108(03):588-604. DOI:

(3) R. Kanai, et al. (2011). Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults. Current  Biology. 2011 Apr 26; 21(8): 677–680. doi:

(4) V. Swami, et al. (2016). Putting the stress on conspiracy theories: Examining associations between psychological stress, anxiety, and belief in conspiracy theories. Personality and Individual Differences vol. 99 , Pages 72–76. DOI:

(5) J. A. French, et al. (2014). Cortisol and politics: Variance in voting behaviour is predicted by baseline cortisol levels. Physiology & Behaviour vol 133, 61–67 DOI:

The original German article:ängste-auf-das-wahlverhalten-auswirken.csp

2016 is yours to create

Do you, like me sense that we have arrived at a critical moment in time? At one side there is the noticeable change in climate, the increase in terror and although we have more means to be healthy there are more sick people now then ever before.

Where are we going from here? What will the future hold for us?


Well, you can sit by and wait for the future to happen and live by the outlook “que sera sera…” and with that also be contented with what you get. Or, you can say “I have a Dream…” and create your view of tomorrow. Whatever choice of view you decide today belief and behaviour is what will shape the future. Do you trust the belief and behaviour of others and wait for them to create the change, or like me envision and be to change you want to see in the world? Part of being human is that you have free will and thus a choice to undergo, level-to or rise up to the challenge.

So what do you want from 2016?

Whatever path you choose, be good to you, always.

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