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


Meaning of the word stress

Transcript of the Feature Health matters on Radio X (16 September 2013)

I’m Tom Meyers, Stress Coach and welcome to the first episode of Health Matters here on Radio X. In Health Matters I’ll be taking a closer look at the S word that has become one of the biggest challenges to our health and wellbeing STRESS. Stress, What is it? Why has it become a nuisance? and most importantly …What can YOU do about it?

In this weeks episode I like to establish first the meaning of the word stress. Many people use the word to refer to the trials and tribulations of life …. traffic jams, worries, too much work, deadlines or in other words the causes of stress. While others use it to describe the way they feel… Gosh I feel so stressed today. The more accepted meaning of stress however – and the way I’ll refer to it – in Health Matters – Is nor the cause or the feeling

When I talk about stress it is about the biological nature of stress. Stress as in the body’s autonomic response to internal or external demands, resulting in biological and behavioural changes.  I know… that’s a mouthful… but over the coming episodes of health matters I hope it will get clearer why I use this definition. Stress as an autonomic response means that it is a reflex …  and a result of our biological evolution.  To what purpose – you may ask -? Well the stress response was created to protect us from danger.

It’s a survival mechanism that will increase your heart rate, breath rate and blood pressure, will divert glucose throughout your body to where it is needed, contracts muscles and shuts down your thinking…. All at once for that just in time jump you make to get out of the way of that oncoming car that will surely have knocked you down if you hadn’t had such a great reflex.

The disadvantage of this survival mechanism – sometimes also referred to as the fight and flight response – is that on an evolutionary level it hasn’t really evolved itself significantly …. some say it hasn’t changed since the time we were cavemen and cavewomen. So imagine that this mechanism was made for the lifestyle of that prehistoric man and woman and now look around you… Life has changed a bit don’t you agree? To describe it in another way … we’re a commodore computer with the latest mac software. Mmm I think there might be some functional conflict there?

And so we’re arriving at a fundamental question that we must ask ourselves of why stress has become a nuisance… is our biology in conflict with our culture?  The American Institute of Stress mentions that an estimate of 75 – 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress related problems. With those facts and figures in mind – I hope you agree -that it is time to take stress a bit more seriously.  So what can we do about it?

Here is one that I consider one the best – self help – stress release tools known to us which can be done anytime, anyplace, anywhere.  BREATHING, conscious slow breathing with a cycle of 6 breaths a minute which is inhaling for 5 seconds, release and exhale for 5 seconds. Repeat this exercise a minimum of 3 times a day for 3 minutes and feel how 9 minutes of your day invested in yourself can make the difference to your health and wellbeing.

For the full exercise download the FREE  eBook Reaset: The return to Ease and the mp3 with the sound of waves and seagulls in a sequence of 6 breaths a minute 🙂 

There, this was the first Health Matters episode with information, facts and figures and the first tip to tame stress and improve your health and wellbeing.

Would you like to listen to this feature again then go to the “listen again section’ of the website

I’m Tom Meyers have a great week and I’ll see you again next Monday here on Radio X.

And remember practice makes perfect.