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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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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