Terror management theory  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Terror management theory (TMT) is a developing area of study within the academic study of psychology. Empirical support for TMT has originated from more than 175 published experiments which have been conducted cross-culturally both nationally and internationally (Solomon, 2004). It looks at what researchers claim to be the implicit emotional reactions of people when confronted with the psychological terror of knowing we will eventually die (it is widely believed that our awareness of mortality is a trait that is unique to humans). The theory was first developed in the late 1980s by Skidmore College psychology professor Sheldon Solomon, University of Arizona psychology professor Jeff Greenberg, and Colorado University at Colorado Springs psychology professor Tom Pyszczynski, who were graduate students at the University of Kansas at the time. The trio were inspired by the theories of Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death, 1973) and Freud, on how potent reminders of one's own ultimate death often provoke a belief in some form of mystical transcendence (heaven, reincarnation, spiritualism, etc.) Terror management theory attempts to provide a rationale for the motivational catalysts of human behavior when life is threatened.

The theory builds from the assumption that the capability of self-reflection and the consciousness of one’s own mortality can be regarded as a continuous source for existential anguish. This "irresolvable paradox" is created from the desire to preserve life and the realization of that impossibility (because life is finite).

Unlike other biological species, humans are aware of the inevitability of their own death. Culture diminishes this psychological terror by providing meaning, organization and continuity to people's lives. Compliance with cultural values enhances one's feeling of security and self-esteem, provided that the individual is capable of living in accordance with whatever particular cultural standards apply to him or her. The belief in the rightness of the cultural values and standards creates the conviction necessary to live a reasonable and meaningful life. This cultural worldview provides a base of making sense of the world as stable and orderly, a place where one rests their hopes on symbolic immortality (e.g., fame, having children, legacies of wealth or fortune) or literal immortality (e.g., the promise of a life in an afterworld).

Our cultural world view is a "symbolic protector" between the reality of life and inevitability of death. Because of this men and women strive to have their cultural worldview confirmed by others, thereby receiving the community’s esteem. However, when one’s worldview is threatened by the world view of another, it often results in one’s self-respect being endangered as well. In such a situation people not only endeavour to deny or devalue the importance of others' world views, but try to controvert the ideas and opinions of others which may, as a consequence, escalate into a conflict (ie. religious holy wars). As a result, mortality salience increases stereotypic thinking and intergroup bias between groups.

Two hypotheses have emerged from TMT research; the mortality salience hypothesis and the anxiety-buffer hypothesis. The mortality salience hypothesis says that if cultural worldviews and self-esteem provide protection from the fear of death, then reminding people of the root of that fear will increase the needs of individuals to value their own cultural worldview and self-esteem. The anxiety-buffer hypothesis provides the rationale that self-esteem is a buffer which serves to insulate humans from death. By doing so our self-esteem allows us to deny the susceptibility to a short-term life. Experiments supporting the two hypotheses above have been conducted in the US, Canada, Israel, Japan and the Netherlands. (Williams, Schimel and Gillespie, 2006).

Developing from the analysis of authoritative leadership by Erich Fromm (1941) in Escape from Freedom, people in a state of emotional distress by nature are prone to the allure of charismatic leaders. Research has shown that people, when reminded of their own inevitable death, will cling more strongly to their cultural worldviews. The data appears to show that nations or persons who have experienced traumas (e.g. 9/11) are more attracted to strong leaders who express traditional, pro-establishment, authoritarian viewpoints. They will also be hyper-aware of the possibility of external threats, and may be more hostile to those who threaten them. Additional research indicates those who are raised by authoritarian parents tend to conform to authority more frequently than those who are not. This perpetuates the belief that culture worldviews are a product of the socialization process and those who are socialized through authority are more susceptible to conformity when their mortality is made salient.

The theory gained media attention in the aftermath of 9/11, and after the re-election of President George W. Bush in the USA, Prime Minister Tony Blair in the UK, and John Howard in Australia.

Terror management researchers have shown that making mortality salient to research participants will lead to such changes in behaviors and beliefs that seemingly protect worldview and encourage self-esteem striving. This mortality-salient state is usually induced by having participants write down the emotions that come to mind when thinking about death, and expanded by having participants write about what they think will happen as they die and after they die. Following this procedure a brief delay is provided. Past research indicates mortality salience effects are more pronounced following a brief delay. Nevertheless, these researchers have not yet demonstrated that this happens for the reason they propose, namely to alleviate unconscious fears of death. Direct tests of this hypothesis are likely to soon emerge in the scholarly literature.

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