The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Terror Management’

Sheldon Solomon on Ernest Becker and Terror Management

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 17, 2011

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Posted in Emotions, Ideology, Life, Video | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Sheldon Solomon (Briefly) on Terror Management

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 14, 2011


As graduate students at the University of Kansas in the late 1970s Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and I were interested in understanding the psychological underpinnings of prejudice and ethnic conflict as well as the nature and function of self-esteem. In 1980, I accidentally stumbled across the work of the late cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who in books such as The Birth and Death of Meaning (1962), The Denial of Death (1973), and Escape From Evil (1975) argued that the uniquely human awareness of death, and the denial thereof, guides and directs a substantial proportion of human behavior. According to Becker, culture consists of humanly created (albeit quite unconsciously) beliefs about the nature of reality shared by individuals in groups to reduce or eliminate the potentially overwhelming terror engendered by the awareness of death by providing a sense of meaning and value that in turn confers the possibility of literal and/or symbolic immortality. Terror management theory resulted from our efforts to translate Beckers ideas into a formal theory that could be subjected to empirical scrutiny.

According to terror management theory, people “manage” the potential terror associated with death through a dual-component anxiety-buffer consisting of a cultural worldview (beliefs about the nature of reality that provide a sense that the universe is meaningful, orderly, and stable and that provisions for immortality) and self-esteem (the perception that one is living up to the standards of value associated with the social role inhabited by individuals in the context of their culture, and hence rendering them eligible for safety and security in this life and immortality thereafter).

Thus, while cultures vary considerably, they share the same defensive psychological function in common: to provide meaning and value and in so doing bestow psychological equanimity in the face of death. All cultural worldviews are ultimately shared fictions, in the sense that none of them are likely to be literally true, and their existence is generally sustained by social consensus. When everyone around us believes the same thing, we can be quite confident of the veracity of our beliefs.

But, and here’s the rub, when we do encounter people with different beliefs, this poses a challenge to our death-denying belief systems, which is why people are generally quite uncomfortable around, and hostile towards, those who are different. Additionally, because no symbolic cultural construction can actually overcome the physical reality of death, residual anxiety is unconsciously projected onto other groups of individuals as scapegoats, who are designated all-encompassing repositories of evil, the eradication of which would make earth as it is in heaven. We then typically respond to people with different beliefs or scapegoats by berating them, trying to convert them to our system of beliefs, and/or just killing them and in so doing assert that “my God is stronger than your God and we’ll kick your ass to prove it.”

In order to test terror management theory, we designed what we call the mortality salience paradigm, which basically entails asking people to think about their own death (e.g., by asking them to respond to some questions about dying, or by subliminal exposure to death-related words, or being interviewed in front of a funeral parlor) and then asking them to make judgments about people or events that either bolster or threaten important aspects of the individuals cultural worldviews. We hypothesize that to the extent that culture serves a death-denying function, then making mortality salient should increase affection and altruistic behavior toward those who share or uphold cherished cultural beliefs, as well as increase hostility and disdain to those who disagree with cherished beliefs, or merely hold different ones.

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Shared Human Experiences

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 3, 2011

Matt Motyl and his co-authors recently posted their excellent article, titled “Subtle Priming of Shared Human Experiences Eliminates Threat-Induced Negativity Toward Arabs, Immigrants, and Peace-Making” on SSRN (forthcoming  (April 20, 2011). Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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Many studies demonstrate that mortality salience can increase negativity toward out-groups but few have examined variables that mitigate this effect. The present research examined whether subtly priming people to think of human experiences shared by people from diverse cultures increases perceived similarity of members of different groups, which then reduces MS-induced negativity toward out-groups. In Study 1, exposure to pictures of people from diverse cultures engaged in common human activities non-significantly reversed the effect of MS on implicit anti-Arab prejudice. In Study 2, thinking about similarities between one’s own favorite childhood memories and those of people from other countries eliminated MS-induced explicit negative attitudes toward immigrants. In Study 3, thinking about similarities between one’s own painful childhood memories and those of people from other countries eliminated the MS-induced reduction in support for peace-making. Mediation analyzes suggest the effects were driven by perceived similarity of people across cultures. These findings suggest that priming widely shared human experiences can attenuate MS-induced inter-group conflict.

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Download the article for free here.

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Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Implicit Associations, Life | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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 »

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