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Rutgers student finds correlation between political views, death anxiety

<p>Courtesy of Peter Niewrzol | Peter Niewrzol, a School of Arts and Sciences junior and Aresty Fellow, has conducted research that found that conservatives have a greater fear of death than their liberal counterparts.</p>

Courtesy of Peter Niewrzol | Peter Niewrzol, a School of Arts and Sciences junior and Aresty Fellow, has conducted research that found that conservatives have a greater fear of death than their liberal counterparts.

Death anxiety correlates to voters’ choices of presidential candidates, according to a recent study by a Rutgers Aresty fellow. 

Peter Niewrzol, a School of Arts and Sciences junior and an Aresty Fellow for Undergraduate Research, studied prejudice and death anxiety in voters supporting GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

"My original idea was that there is a lot of research suggesting a higher correlation with people who are more conservative and with people who have higher levels of death anxiety," Niewrzol said. 

This correlation occurs from the differences in conservative and liberal attitudes. 

Having a conservative attitude involves reminiscing on the past and glorifying past experiences, while a liberal attitude prefers unpredicted change in the future, he said. 

“(This) leads to people not wanting (these changes) and wanting to stay where they are,” he said. “And with the type of prejudice I’m looking at, called social dominance, there’s a top social group and then there’s lower social groups, which relates to the idea that there’s a status quo, and it should be upheld — similar to conservative attitudes.”

Results of the study show that there is a very significant increase in social dominance amongst Trump supporters compared to Clinton and Sanders supporters, Niewrzol said. There is a 99.99 percent likelihood that these results are not due to chance.

“So when we looked through the data and ran tests, there (were) areas of correlation of everyone with prejudice and death anxiety,” he said. “But it’s the strongest with people who support Trump and people who are highly committed to Trump, and that wasn’t surprising.”

There was no difference between Sanders and Clinton in regard to social dominance in their supporters, and findings were moderately low at around 30 percent, while the mean for Trump was around 60 percent, Niewrzol said.

The sample sizes were obtained using funding by the Aresty fellowship, he said. The money was used to run a survey using Qualtrics where respondents would enter their variables — age, sex and who they’re voting for — and participate in a self-report survey.

“So for prejudice, (we used) what’s called the social dominance orientation test and for death anxiety, it’s called a death anxiety scale,” Niewrzol said. “Both of these are widely accepted as valid and reliable means of gathering these attitudes that people have.”

Subjects recruited for the study did not just include Rutgers University students. Instead, individuals were recruited using Mechanical Turk by Amazon and included anyone in the country who was over 18 and could vote.

Initial research for the study began back in December and was completed in the beginning of April, with a total gathered sample size of 390 subjects.

“Looking forward, what we’re doing (is) a follow-up study over the summer. We are actually going to manipulate people’s fear of death by having people write about what they think happens when they die,” Niewrzol said, “To see how that relates to how they score on levels of prejudice and whether or not they are more committed to Trump, Clinton or Sanders.”

Niewrzol's initiative to pursue this study stemmed from his interests in social psychology as a field of research.

“A lot of what social psychologists will do is look at prejudice as an attitude that people have,” he said. “There’s been a lot of talk that Trump supporters have more prejudice and are more racist, and I was looking to either confirm or disprove that and felt that this was the perfect opportunity to look at that.”

College students are very interested in how the political process works and people want to learn about the election, Niewrzol said.

A scientific study confirms their existing beliefs and adds validity, which Niewrzol said makes it interesting and could affect who people vote for.

“Every day you can go on social media and the news and you see reports on everything, and I think a lot of the opinions people have on supporters are baseless,” he said. “And so I think that this study actually quantifies and qualifies what their past assumptions are.”

Samantha Karas is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies and English. She is a correspondent for The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @samanthakaras for more.

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