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Imagined Danger Makes Us More Politically Conservative

After thinking about a possible catastrophe, we favor a Republican politics.

Dih Andréa/Pexels
Source: Dih Andréa/Pexels

By Berit Brogaard & Dimitria E. Gatzia

In Terry Gilliam’s film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Doctor Parnassus and his ragtag crew travel as sideshow performers luring audience members up on stage and through a magical mirror into the imaginarium, where Doctor Parnassus guides their imagination.

Once on stage, the audience members are presented with a choice between difficult and transient perseverance and “the fabled bliss of ignorance,” mirroring Doctor Parnassus’ own wager with the devil.

Deeply infatuated with a young woman, Doctor Parnassus chose youth in exchange for his daughter’s soul but later regrets and engages in yet another wager with the devil: his daughter’s soul in exchange for the souls of five strangers. When gullible spectators choose blissful ignorance rather than difficult and heartbreaking perseverance, Doctor Parnassus captures their soul.

Doctor Parnassus regretted his rash choices of what initially appeared to be unrivaled among alternatives. But is that the fate for all of us? Can we ever chose and not regret? How do we make choices when their real outcome is only disclosed once the choice has already been made?

One attractive proposal is that we make choices by first imagining ourselves in alternate scenarios and then comparing these imaginings, much like Doctor Parnassus and the visitors of his imaginarium.

For example, when you are deciding whether to dine out or at home, you are imagining yourself dining at the restaurant and you are also imagining yourself dining at home.

Let’s say that when you imagine yourself dining at the Italian restaurant, you imagine being served a delicious mushroom risotto and sipping a glass of chianti while engaging in a pleasant conversation with your partner. When you imagine yourself dining at home, by contrast, you imagine having made a mediocre spaghetti-and-meatball dish, which, after all the cooking is done, leaves you with an unmanageable mess in the kitchen. Given just these two imaginative scenarios, you will likely choose to hit the Italian place and forget all about yesterday’s plan to save money.

Now, our choices are not as rational or reliable as we would like to think. We have known for a long time that unconscious thoughts and external factors guide decisions associated with consumer behavior, parenting, race relations, and even addiction (see e.g., Jost et al., 2003). As a result, the aim of appealing to imagination is not to put us mere mortals back in charge but rather to explain why we make irrational, unreliable decisions as often as we do. The answer lies in the role imagination plays in the decision-making process.

Take the process of decision-making in politics. How do we make political decisions? Current evidence indicates that participants respond to real or imaginary threats by adopting conservative political or social viewpoints (Jost & Hunyady, 2002; McGregor et al., 2005).

For example, in one study, liberal participants were asked to describe in writing the feelings the thought of their own death aroused in them and what they thought would happen to them physically as they died and once they were dead. They were then asked to first indicate their opinions about capital punishment and abortion from a list of 10 diverse attitude statements and then answer 10 questions about their convictions for each of the opinions the selected. The results indicated that imagining their own death caused liberals to adopt more conservative attitudes on capital punishment or abortion (Nail et al., 2009).

Evidence of the connection between threat and conservatism have also emerged from neuroscience, where a number of studies indicate that there is a positive correlation between conservatives and the size of the right amygdala (a region of the brain implicated in processing fear, see Kanai et al., 2011). In addition, conservatives display greater activation in the right amygdala during a risk-taking task than liberals (Schreiber et al., 2013).

Given that imagining a threat (e.g., imagining being vulnerable) elicits conservative responses, we would expect that imagining being impervious to a threat would elicit liberal responses. Indeed, one study found that physical invulnerability (e.g., feeling invincible) lessened exclusion-triggered negative attitudes toward stigmatized groups (Huang et al, 2013). Participants were asked to imagine that they had a superpower. Participants in one group imagined that the superpower rendered them invulnerable to physical harm while participants in the control group imagined that the superpower allowed them to fly. After imagining having these superpowers, participants were then asked to rate their positivity towards marginalized groups (e.g., the obese, illegal immigrants, Muslims, or drug addicts). The researchers found that the participants who imagined being invulnerable to physical harm were significantly more positive towards marginalized groups than their counterparts who imagined being able to fly.

A more recent study used the same imaginative task to determine whether conservative participants would elicit more liberal responses (Napier et al., 2017). As with the aforementioned study, participants were asked to imagine that they had a superpower that made them invulnerable to physical harm. The researchers found that making conservatives feel physically safe increased their liberalism on social and political issues. By contrast, priming did not affect the social or political attitudes of liberals as they chronically perceived themselves as being less threatened.

Although we typically think of the political decisions we make as rational, reliable and within our conscious control, the empirical findings suggest that even our political choices are heavily influenced by and limited by our imagination.

Doctor Parnassus regretted having chosen eternal life when he grew old and spectators no longer cared about his tricks and immortality became “everlasting torment.” The limits of his imagination made him choose an existence where he was “Forgotten. Lost. Alone and desperate.”

Imagining being the victims of immigrants “stealing” our livelihood or “out-groups” destroying our morals or imagining acts of terrorism taking the lives of our loved ones plays a decisive role in the choices we make. In order to make enlightened choices, we must deliberately broaden our imaginative capacities and envision a more positive worldview. We must imagine the world as we hope it will turn out and stop irrationally reacting in response to fear of what the world will become.

As Aristotle argued in Politics, the true aim of political decisions is to inculcate us with moral and epistemic virtues. A real engagement in politics, therefore, requires the courage to embrace what may initially seem unimaginative and learn to envisage a more welcoming and tolerant world.

A longer version of this essay first appeared in The Junkyard, A. Kind (ed.).


Huang, J., Ackerman, J. A., & Bargh, J. A. (2013) Superman to the rescue: Simulating physical invulnerability attenuates exclusion-related interpersonal biases. J Exp Soc Psychol. 49(3): 349–354.

Jost, J. T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A. W., and Sulloway, F. J. (2003) Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychol. Bull, 129, 339–375.

Jost, J. T., Hunyady, O. (2002) The psychology of system justification and the palliative function of ideology. In Stroebe, W. and Hewstone, M. (eds.), European Review of Social Psychology, Vol. 13, Psychology Press. Hove: England (pp. 111–153).

McGregor, I., Nail, P. R., Marigold, D. C., & Kang, S. J. (2005) Defensive pride and consensus: Strength in imaginary numbers after self-threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89: 978–996.

Kanai, R., Feilden, T., Firth, C., & Rees, G. (2011) Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults. Current Biology 21: 677–680. 10.1016/j.cub.2011.03.017

Nail, P. R., McGregor, I., Drinkwater, A. E., Steele, G. M., Thompson, A. W. (2009) Threat causes liberals to think like conservatives. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45: 901-907.

Napier, J. L., Julie Huang, J., Vonasch, A. J., & Bargh, J. A. (2017) Superheroes for change: Physical safety promotes socially (but not economically) progressive attitudes among conservatives. European Journal of Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.2315

Schreiber, D., Fonzo, G., Simmons, A. N., Dawes, C. T., Flagan, T., Fowler, J. H., & Paulus, M. P. (2013) Red brain, blue brain: Evaluative processes differ in Democrats and Republicans. PloS One 8: e52970. 10.1371/journal.pone.0052970

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