The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Terror Management Theory’

Some Upsides to Terror Management

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 1, 2012

From Science Daily:

Past research suggests that thinking about death is destructive and dangerous, fueling everything from prejudice and greed to violence. Such studies related to terror management theory (TMT), which posits that we uphold certain cultural beliefs to manage our feelings of mortality, have rarely explored the potential benefits of death awareness.

“This tendency for TMT research to primarily deal with negative attitudes and harmful behaviors has become so deeply entrenched in our field that some have recently suggested that death awareness is simply a bleak force of social destruction,” says Kenneth Vail of the University of Missouri, lead author of the new study in the online edition of Personality and Social Psychology Review this month. “There has been very little integrative understanding of how subtle, day-to-day, death awareness might be capable of motivating attitudes and behaviors that can minimize harm to oneself and others, and can promote well-being.”

In constructing a new model for how we think about our own mortality, Vail and colleagues performed an extensive review of recent studies on the topic. They found numerous examples of experiments both in the lab and field that suggest a positive side to natural reminders about mortality.

For example, Vail points to a study by Matthew Gailliot and colleagues in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2008 that tested how just being physically near a cemetery affects how willing people are to help a stranger. “Researchers hypothesized that if the cultural value of helping was made important to people, then the heightened awareness of death would motivate an increase in helping behaviors,” Vail says.

The researchers observed people who were either passing through a cemetery or were one block away, out of sight of the cemetery. Actors at each location talked near the participants about either the value of helping others or a control topic, and then some moments later, another actor dropped her notebook. The researchers then tested in each condition how many people helped the stranger.

“When the value of helping was made salient, the number of participants who helped the second confederate with her notebook was 40% greater at the cemetery than a block away from the cemetery,” Vail says. “Other field experiments and tightly controlled laboratory experiments have replicated these and similar findings, showing that the awareness of death can motivate increased expressions of tolerance, egalitarianism, compassion, empathy, and pacifism.”

For example, a 2010 study by Immo Fritsche of the University of Leipzig and co-authors revealed how increased death awareness can motivate sustainable behaviors when pro-environmental norms are made salient. And a study by Zachary Rothschild of the University of Kansas and co-workers in 2009 showed how an increased awareness of death can motivate American and Iranian religious fundamentalists to display peaceful compassion toward members of other groups when religious texts make such values more important.

Thinking about death can also promote better health. Recent studies have shown that when reminded of death people may opt for better health choices, such as using more sunscreen, smoking less, or increasing levels of exercise. A 2011 study by D.P. Cooper and co-authors found that death reminders increased intentions to perform breast self-exams when women were exposed to information that linked the behavior to self-empowerment.

One major implication of this body of work, Vail says, is that we should “turn attention and research efforts toward better understanding of how the motivations triggered by death awareness can actually improve people’s lives, rather than how it can cause malady and social strife.” Write the authors: “The dance with death can be a delicate but potentially elegant stride toward living the good life.”

Related Situationist posts:

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Edward P. Schwartz at Harvard Law Tomorrow (Tuesday)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 12, 2011

The Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (or SALMS) kicks off its fall Speakers Series this upcoming Tuesday, September 13 when Edward P. Schwartz will present his talk: “Facing the Fearful Jury: Terror Management Theory in the Courtroom” in Pound 101 at noon.

As part of our campus remembrance on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, SALMS invited Mr. Schwartz, a nationally recognized jury consultant, to share his insights into the psychology of juries in terrorism trials, with a particular emphasis on the upcoming trial of Tarek Mahenna in Boston federal court. Anyone interested in trial litigation, jury psychology, or the law of terrorism should particularly enjoy Tuesday’s talk. Check out Mr. Schwartz’s blog entry about the talk here and see a full description here.

Come for the talk, for the community, and for the free lunch – by popular demand, SALMS will again serve free Felipe’s burritos this year!

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Related Situationist posts:

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Think Progress or Die

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 30, 2009

Winter Cemetery - by andy in nycTom Jacobs, on Miller-McCune has a helpful summary, titled “Fearing Death? Think Progress,” of fascinating research on terror management theory.  Here are some excerpts.

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[M]ost of us cling to the notion of human progress, insisting that our children will inhabit a more just society, or that our own contribution will make the world a better place. Why? Three social psychologists from the University of Amsterdam have come up with a reason: It makes it easier to accept the reality of our own deaths.

Not unlike religious faith, “belief in progress provides a protective existential buffer,” according to a paper just published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Expanding on the ideas of Terror Management Theory, lead author Bastiaan T. Rutjens argues that the belief in progress, which can be traced back to such Enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire and Hume, is “a secular faith” that is “one way of pervading our world with meaning.”

The researchers tested this thesis with three experiments. In the first and most central of these, 33 female participants wrote a short essay describing their thoughts and feelings about one of two subjects: dental pain, or their own deaths. After performing several additional tasks, they read an essay arguing that human progress is an illusion.

Finally, they were asked a series of questions to determine the extent to which they agreed with the anti-progress argument. Those who had thought about their own mortality were significantly less likely to accept the argument than those who had opined about toothaches.

The researchers consider this particular defense mechanism a reasonably healthy psychological response. After all, they note, previous studies have found that when people are confronted with their own mortality, “they tend to rate individuals with different cultural beliefs as less intelligent” in an attempt to forge a feeling of solidarity with people of their own ethnicity or nationality.

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The entire article is here.  For some related Situationist posts see “Terror Management Theory Goes Mainstream” and “The Situation of Ideology – Part II.”

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Terror Management Theory Goes Mainstream

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 22, 2009

In the Colorado Springs Gazette, Debbie Kelly has a nice article about the changing situation of Thomas Pyszczynski, a well known psychology professor at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (“UCCS”) who is one of several scholars behind terror management theory.

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Two decades ago, Thomas Pyszczynski’s ideas about how people use their cultural beliefs and values to shield themselves from anxiety about death — and how that plays out in international conflict — were viewed as kooky at worst, interesting at best.  9/11 changed all that.

In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Pyszczynski, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, was catapulted to visionary status. Words like “provocative” and “persuasive” replaced the doubts about his research, which led to a hypothesis he developed with two colleagues called “terror management theory.”

“He’d been bouncing around as a visiting assistant professor at two or three schools, and no one would hire him on a tenure track because his theories were iffy. We did. We thought he was going to be a star because he had a vision of a new way that social psychology would evolve. It turns out, he was absolutely right,” said Bob Durham, who was chair of the university’s psychology department in 1986, when Pyszczynski was hired.

Pyszczynski’s expertise on the social psychology of terrorism recently earned him one of the University of Colorado system’s highest honors: the title of distinguished professor. The award recognizes outstanding contributions to an academic discipline. In the 43-year history of UCCS, only one other faculty member has been bestowed the title from the board of regents, the university’s governing body.

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Pyszczynski’s ideas give insight into the connections between self esteem and human behavior, including ethnic violence and war.
And in the face of attack, his research showed, people tend to coalesce against a common enemy.

“So many of the things we’d seen happen in laboratory experiments played out in reality after 9/11,” he said.

“When Americans were faced with a dramatic reminder of death and vulnerability at the hands of people challenging our culture and values, we tried to discredit those people and get rid of them, and we became more enthusiastic about our own beliefs. The majority of Americans became more patriotic and Bush’s approval ratings almost doubled in a week.”

His terror management theory, developed in the mid-1980s, has been the basis for more than 350 studies in 20 countries, examining aggression, stereotyping, the need for meaning and structure, phobias, political preferences, martyrdom, group identification and related topics.

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At a recent reception in honor of Pyszczynski’s award, UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak said she is appreciative of the previous administrators who took a chance on hiring him “when he was not particularly mainstream.”

Then, she asked Pyszczynski, “How does it feel to be mainstream?”

Pyszczynski’s reply: “A little scary.”

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To read the entire article, click here.  For a related Situationist post, see “The Situation of Ideology – Part II.”

For those unfamiliar with terror management theory, you may find the following three videos worthwhile (three parts of one interview of Jeff Greenberg by Steve Paikin, approximately 25 minutes total).

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Posted in Emotions, Ideology, Politics, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

 
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