Terror Management Theory

1 January 2017

We have an internal guidance system called a conscience that allows us to think and act in a way close to our deepest values. We have an independent will that does not allow genetic influences or the environment to dictate our actions. We have an infinite creative imagination that allows us to create beyond our reality but perhaps the most uniquely human endowment we all possess is self-awareness. Self-awareness is the recognition of how we feel and how we behave.

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It also allows us to examine why we exist and ultimately, that we are going to die. While self-preservation is a characteristic to both humans and animals, the understanding of one’s own mortality is uniquely human. How do we, as humans, deal with the terror that is associated with this knowledge? According to Terror Management Theory (TMT), developed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski (1989), the need for “terror management” is a fundamental function possessed by humans and cultural systems.

Based on the writings of anthropologist Ernest Becker and inspired by Freud’s work on how death provokes belief in mystical transcendence, TMT can provide explanations for a variety of human behaviors and relate them to the basic reason of why humans protect themselves from mortality awareness (Magdalena Smieja et al. , 2006). The actuality that we are all going to die, one of the only certainties in life, is an on-going source of existential anguish for humans. This anguish stems from our desire to preserve life and the awareness of this impossibility.

Since we cannot resolve this paradox, we use culture as protection from the fear of death. By complying with the cultural worldview that our world is safe, balanced and constant, our sense of meaning enhances and our feelings of security and self-esteem heightens. When the 9/11 attacks struck and images of death and destruction were exposed to everyday Americans, most were motivated to protect their cultural worldview and to reject anyone who held an opposite view (Florian & Mikulincer, 1998).

TMT emerged as the leading answer why Americans defended their national ideologies after the terrorist attacks (Navarrete & Fessler, 2005). An illustration of this idea is the mortality salience hypothesis. Simply stated, if a psychological structure provides protection against anxiety, then reminding people of the source of this anxiety should increase the need for that structure (Pysczcynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1997). For example, if a spider was presented to an arachnophobe, than the need for someone to kill the spider would be increased by the frightened individual.

When our fears become a reality, we search for protection in any form. Analysis has shown that people who are in a state of emotional distress and who are reminded of their inevitable death are more attracted to strong, charismatic leaders who possess traditional and authoritarian viewpoints (Wikipedia, 2008). In a 2007 study, “work teams” were formed to determine if mortality salience causes discomfort and emotional disconnection in a more diverse group rather than a homogenous one (Van der Zee, Van der Gang).

The researcher’s hypothesized that when the threat of death was presented, more negative attitudes would result in the diverse team and a longing to identify with individuals that shared cultural norms was expected. What they found however, was that regardless of the group members, when a mortality threat was presented, individuals felt negative attitudes towards everyone, including those who shared their cultural viewpoint.

While this study suggests that there is no need to be around similar people during times of vulnerability, the researchers recognize that the individuals in these groups were mere observers and not actually interacting with each other. Another hypothesis that emerged from TMT research is the anxiety-buffer hypothesis. This hypothesis stresses the importance of high self-esteem and how it can shield individuals from experiencing death anxiety. Individuals with high self-esteem feel that they are an ideal example of their culture and enjoy the protection from the mortality concerns that their culture offers (Hirschberger et al. 2002). Studies that exemplify the anxiety-buffer hypothesis are those that link TMT and risky sexual behaviors.

In a 2004 study, researchers noted that by making mortality salient, a willingness to engage in life-threatening behaviors, such as unsafe sex, was reported (Orit Taubman, Ben-Ari). This study suggests that engaging in risky sex represents two facets of vulnerability related to the threat of death. One is the absolute fear or extermination which is associated to having the risky sex and the other is the need to love and have intimacy, a uniquely human trait that is related to self-esteem.

Basically, when faced with mortality, humans yearn to fulfill their basic needs of love, even if that means risking life itself (Orit Taubman, Ben-Ari). The studies mentioned above describe the role Terror Management Theory plays in people’s cultural worldviews and self-esteem and the negative consequences that can result from the hear of death. While the research performed on this theory is vast and extensive, an obligation to improve studies regarding TMT associated with self-esteem and cultural worldviews still remains.

Creating a reliable questionnaire that fully demonstrates a person’s actual feelings and ideas is needed in order to fully understand the affects TMT has on culture and self-esteem. I fear that many of the individuals who participated in past studies were concerned with responding in a socially desirable manner and hence social desirability response bias may have lowered the validity of these studies. I intend to eliminate as much bias as possible by assuring participants that their responses are anonymous and that the questions are worded as impartial as possible.

My study on Terror Management Theory will have four parts: a self-esteem questionnaire, a mortality salience questionnaire (with a control group), a distraction so that the feelings towards death are unconscious, and a cultural worldview questionnaire. By making sure the social desirability response bias is reduced, I hypothesize that participants whose mortality is salient will correlate positively to a negative attitude towards cultural worldviews that are not similar to their own.

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