Anatomy of Human Destructiveness
For the past 25 years three experiential social scientists have collaborated on the study of human aggression from a biological perspective as well as a cultural one. Their Terror Management Theory is based on the work of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker -- who theorized that humans' awareness and denial of death is the guiding force in human behavior -- and their own research which provides evidence to the theory that humans' innate fear of death is the basis for aggression. Their theory has been supported in more than 300 published studies in more than 14 countries, including numerous studies in Iran and Israel.
Terror Management Theory
TMT suggests that humans' awareness of the inevitability and finality of death may lead to existential terror. Humans control their fear of death by adopting a cultural worldview and by acquiring self-esteem. Self esteem is achieved by living up to one's cultural standards. Cultural worldviews are symbolic psychological constructions and because people are aware that there are many different ways of construing reality, confidence in one's worldview, and the protection from anxiety that it provides, depends on consensual validation from others.
Sheldon Solomon, PhD, Professor of Psychology and Interdisciplinary Studies at Skidmore College; Tom Pyszcynski, PhD, Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs; and Jeff Greenberg, PhD, Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona, outlined TMT in the book: In the wake of 9/11: The psychology of terror in 2002. TMT is widely known in academic psychology and related research circles in the United States, is routinely taught in many introductory psychology and social psychology courses, and has been cited in about 1,000 papers. Now the researchers' goals are to encourage national policymakers to transfer the empirical data supporting the theory and apply it to public policy so as to sabotage humanity's seemingly unyielding march toward self-obliteration.
Drs. Pyszcynski and Greenberg presented the theory and related papers at the American Psychological Association annual meeting in New Orleans in August. (Dr. Solomon, unable to attend, was interviewed by phone.)
TMT and Present World Violence
In current studies, the researchers are focusing on the role of terror management in political attitudes and violence in the Middle East.
Using a "mortality salience" paradigm whereby study participants are given subtle reminders of death (through open-ended questions, gory accident pictures, interviews in front of funeral parlors, and subliminal exposure to the words "death" or "dead") participants are then asked to complete questionnaires about social and political issues. The researchers claim that fears of mortality arising from the mortality salience initiate a defense of participants' cultural worldview.
In one study (American Roulette: the Effect of Reminders of Death on Support for George W. Bush in the 2004 Presidential Election) researchers hypothesized that a mortality salience induction would increase support for President Bush and decrease support for Sen. John Kerry. Registered voters were asked in September 2004 to indicate which candidate they intended to vote for. Sen. Kerry received substantially more votes among the control subjects, while Bush was favored over Kerry following a reminder of death, even among some self-identified Democrats. The findings suggest that the election may have been facilitated by nonconscious concerns about mortality in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing reminders of death in the guise of government-issued terror warnings. The studies were replicated among diverse groups including university students, municipal court judges, senior citizens, and passers-by on the street, according to Dr. Greenberg.
The reactions to mortality salience appear to be universal, Greenberg said. "Studies in the U.S. that involved showing people images of 9/11 or other scenes of death have resulted in a high percentage of people being willing to support the use of nuclear weapons against Iran. In Iran, the reminder of death increased support for suicide bombers."
Terror warnings spur patriotism
A researcher at Cornell University tested the TMT when analyzing the change in presidential approval ratings reported in Gallup poll data following government terror warnings issued between February 2001 and May 2004 and reported in the Washington Post. Robb Willer, a PhD candidate, hypothesized that government-issued terror warnings have a positive effect on presidential approval ratings and that government-issued terror warnings also have a positive impact on ratings of specific aspects of the president unrelated to terrorism, such as the president's handling of the economy. A time-series analyses of 26 terror warnings issued by government agencies over a 3-1/2 year period showed a consistent positive relationship between terror warnings and presidential approval. Each terror warning from the previous week corresponded to a 2.75 point increase in the percentage of Americans expressing approval for President Bush. The most significant jump in presidential approval occurred immediately after 9/11, when ratings increased from 51% approval on September 10 to 86% approval on September 15.
A study conducted by Abdolhossein Abdollahian, PhD, a Professor at Zarand Islamic Azad University in Tehran, Iran, Dr. Pyszczynski, and colleagues at Skidmore College and the University of Arizona, investigated the effect of mortality salience on support for martyrdom attacks among 40 Iranian college students. Participants were randomly assigned to answer questions about either their own death or an aversive topic unrelated to death. Participants then evaluated materials from fellow students who either supported or opposed martyrdom attacks against the United States. While control participants preferred the student who opposed martyrdom, said Dr. Pyszcynski, participants reminded of death were more likely to approve the actions of suicide bombers following mortality salience and they also indicated they were more likely to consider such activities themselves. "These findings provide the first experimental evidence documenting the psychological determinants of the appeal of martyrdom," wrote the study authors.
In a study of 127 Rutgers University students, participants were asked whether they would support nuclear and chemical weapons and pre-emptive attacks against countries that might be a threat to the United States. The students who were first asked to think about their own deaths expressed support for extreme measures against other countries. "Despite their differences, Americans and Iranians have something in common-thoughts of death increase the willingness of people from both nations to inflict harm on citizens of the other nation," according to the authors.
In another Middle East study conducted three months prior to the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the Northern West Bank, Gilad Hirschberger, PhD, and Tsachi Ein-Dor, PhD, of Bar-Han University in Rabat Gan, Israel, examined whether reminders of death would lead conservative Israelis to support violent resistance against the disengagement plan. The researchers hypothesized that support for violent resistance would be particularly strong among participants that were in denial and unable to come to terms with the Israeli withdrawal.
"The current research represents a unique attempt to prospectively understand the reactions of people who were about to witness the collapse of their worldview," wrote the authors. "From a terror management perspective, worldviews are "standardized systems of death denial" (Becker, 1975, p. 154), and when worldviews come under threat, their proponents may feel that the road to eternal life has been obstructed. In this case, denial of the threat may be an effective way to shield oneself from existential terror. However, when denial ultimately fails, violence may be a preferred mode of coping because it constitutes a desperate attempt to salvage the disintegrating worldview."
Could understanding TMT deter human aggression?
Dr. Solomon suggested that individuals cling to worldviews because it gives them a sense of security and purpose. "Our position is that we're a unique form of life that builds constructs within our cultures that must be maintained and shared with others in our group. The constructs we build serve to deny death and give us comfort with our role in society. When alternative concepts of reality come along, they undermine our own. When there's panic rumbling beneath the surface, people take that anxiety and dump on someone else."
Social scientists like those who ascribe to TMT will continue to gather evidence that explains the causes of human aggression. At the same time TMT studies are undertaken by an ever expanding group of researchers, public and foreign policy leaders are being sought who will encourage education and understanding so as to mitigate the tendency toward aggression, rather than exploit it.
Becker E, (1973) The Denial of Death. New York: The Free Press.
Cohen F, Ogilvie D, Solomon S, et al. American Roulette: The Effect of Reminders of Death on Support for George W. Bush in the 2004 Presidential Election, Analysis of Social Issues and Public Policy, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2005.
Hirschberger G, Ein-Dor G, Defenders of a Lost Cause: Terror Management
and Violent Resistance to the Disengagement Plan, PSPB, Vol. 32 No. 6, June 2006 761-769.
Pyszczynski T, Abdollahi A, Solomon S, et al, Mortality Salience, Martyrdom and Military Might: the Great Satan Versus the Axis of Evil, Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2006 Apr;32(4):525-37.
Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2002). In the wake of 9/11: The psychology of terror. American Psychological Association.
Willer R, The Effects of Government-Issued Terror Warnings on Presidential Approval Ratings, Current Research in Social Psychology (Vol 10, No. 1) 2004.
This article was first published in Neuropsychiatry Reviews, November 2006