December 29, 2017

Terror Management Theory (TMT): A Summary (Part 2)

Responses to "The Other"

As previously discussed, cultural worldviews are vital to human thriving, as they mitigate death anxiety that would otherwise be debilitating. Cultural worldviews are maintained through consensual validation. Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski (2015) explain:
Cultural worldviews gain strength in numbers. For beliefs to serve as effective bulwarks against existential terror, people must be absolutely certain of their validity. However, most of the core beliefs we depend on for psychological security are based on faith rather than fact; they cannot be unambiguously proven. Consequently, the more people who share our beliefs, the more sure we feel that they are correct. If just one person believed God spoke to Moses in the form of a burning bush, antipsychotic medication would be sought to relieve this poor soul of his florid delusion. But when the same belief is shared by millions of people, it becomes unassailable truth. (location 2275)

Being around people who don't share our worldviews is consequently problematic, especially when mortality has been made salient. Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Greenberg (2003) write that we try to minimize the threat of "the other" in one of five ways. First, we might convert to their worldview (p. 29). In other words, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, and adopt another worldview to mitigate your death anxiety. Second, we might try to convert them to our worldview (p. 30). Third, we might try to reconcile our two worldviews, incorporating parts of their worldview into ours (p. 31). Fourth, we might disparage our opponents, as making them seem pathetic and foolish bolsters faith in our own worldview (p. 29). Fifth, in extreme cases, we might try to annihilate them. "Often, the most compelling way to eliminate the threat posed by people who are to kill them and thus prove that your vision of reality must be right after all” (p. 32).

These authors argue that disparaging others is the most common response to people with different worldviews, and indeed some of the first TMT studies showed that reminding people of their mortality causes them to have less favorable views of those with opposing worldviews (Greenberg et al., 1990). Subsequent research has shown that mortality salience causes people to become more physically aggressive towards others.

McGregor et al. (1998), for instance, divided college students into two groups; one group was asked to write about their next exam, while the other was asked to write about their own mortality. Students were then given information about a student in a nearby cubicle, including that student's political identity. Students were told that the other student disliked spicy foods, and they were then asked to pour some hot sauce into a cup that the other student would have to consume. Students who'd written about their next exam poured out a modest amount of hot sauce for students who agreed and who disagreed with their political beliefs. On the other hand, students who'd been reminded of their mortality poured out a modest amount of hot sauce for students who shared their beliefs but a large amount, more than twice as much, for students with opposing political beliefs (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2015, locations 2471-2485).

Other studies have corroborated these findings. Pyszczynski et al. (2006) conducted a study in which Iranians were separated into two groups; participants in the first group were asked to write about dental pain, while those in the the second were asked to write about their own death. Participants were then asked to read two questionnaires, one completed by a Muslim who believed that martyrdom attacks against the United States were morally justified and another by a Muslim who believed that such attacks were not justified. Those who'd been asked to write about dental pain indicated that they were more interested in joining the cause of the anti-martyrdom respondent, while those who'd been asked to write about death indicated that they were more interested in joining the cause of the pro-martyrdom respondent (pp. 528-530).

Pyszczynski et al. (2006) conducted a similar student with American students. In this study, students were asked to write about either intense physical pain or the September 11 attacks. Students were then asked (a) whether they believed the US should engage in preemptive attacks against countries "that may pose a threat to the United States in the future, even if there is no evidence that they are planning to attack us right now," (b) whether the US should use nuclear and/or chemicals weapons "to defend our interests at home and abroad," and (c) whether the US should attempt to kill or capture Osama bin Laden "even if thousands of civilians are injured or killed in the process." Both liberal and conservatives students asked to write about physical pain tended to oppose these aggressive military actions. Liberal students asked to write about 9/11 were no more likely to support these aggressive actions, but conservative asked to write about 9/11 were significantly more likely to support such actions (pp. 531-533).

Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski (2015) point to another study which "found that death reminders made Americans more accepting of US intelligence using brutal and humiliating interrogation techniques (torture) on foreign suspects" (location 2498; see Luke & Hartwig, 2014). They also note that "[p]arallel studies in Israel found that reminders of mortality led politically conservative Israelis to view violence against Palestinians as more justified. These participants were also more supportive of a preemptive nuclear attack on Iran" (location 2498; see Hirschberger & Ein-Dor, 2006).

Practical Implications

TMT researchers have shown that the awareness of death can be an incredibly destructive force, contributing to neuroticism and a host of mental illnesses. Although adopting a worldview might effectively protect one against these problems, it can cause one to be aggressive towards outsiders, both verbally and physically. What's the answer, then? TMT research suggests three possibilities.

(1) Bolster your self-esteem. Considerable research has shown that self-esteem is correlated with lower levels of anxiety, as well as superior mental and physical health (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, & Schimel, 2004, p. 438). As discussed earlier, bolstering self-esteem also reduces death anxiety as well the need for worldview defense.

(2) Face death head on. Although our tendency might be to avoid thoughts of death, we might benefit from confronting these toughts. As we've seen, tremendous harm often comes when we try to banish death from awareness. Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski (2015) write, "Through diligent efforts to become familiar with the prospect (and the inevitable fact) of dying, one ideally becomes psychologically fortified to the point where, as Montaigne put it, 'I am at all hours as well prepared as I am ever like to be, and death, whenever he shall come, can bring nothing along with him I did not expect long before'" (location 3739).

(3) Engage in constructive forms of death transcendence. Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski (2015) write, "Making peace with one's death is surely a worthy goal with many psychological and social benefits. We humans are, however, not psychologically equipped to fully acquire such equanimity without an enduring sense of significance that extends beyond our individual existence" (location 3765). Borrowing from Robert Lifton, they discuss five types of death transcendence: (a) biosocial transcendence ("passing on one's genes, history, values, and possessions" or identifying "with an ancestral line of ethnic or national identity that perseveres indefinitely," (b) theological transcendence (believing in the existence of an incorporeal soul which will endure bodily death), (c) creative transcendence ("contributing to future generations through innovations in art, science, and technology), (d) natural transcendence ("identifying with all life, nature, or even the universe"), and (e) experiential transcendence (achieving " a sense of timelessness accompanied by a heightened sense of awe and wonder," something which can be achieved through drugs, meditation, certain cultural rituals, and "activities that provide a sense of flow, of losing oneself in contemplation and enjoyment") (locations 3765-3777).

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Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., & Lyon, D. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(2), 308-318.

Hirschberger, G., & Ein-Dor, T. (2006). Defenders of a lost cause: Terror management and violent resistance to the disengagement plan. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(6), 761-769.

Luke, T. J., & Hartwig, M. (2014). The effects of mortality salience and reminders of terrorism on perceptions of interrogation techniques. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 21(4), 538-550.

McGregor, H. A., Lieberman, J. D., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., Simon, L., & Pyszczynski, T. (1998). Terror management and aggression: evidence that mortality salience motivates aggression against worldview-threatening others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(3), 590.

Pyszczynski, T., Abdollahi, A., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Cohen, F., & Weise, D. (2006). Mortality salience, martyrdom, and military might: The great Satan versus the axis of evil. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(4), 525-537.

Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., & Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 435-468.

Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2015). The Worm at the core: On the role of death in life [Kindle version].

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