More on terror management theory — “mortality salience”

You may have wondered why our political and cultural climate has become so nasty; it seems that political and religious intolerance has never been more intense. In a previous post, I discussed terror management theory, based on the work of Ernest Becker (remember in “Annie Hall” when Woody Allen handed Diane Keaton a copy of Becker’s Denial of Death? and told her “you gotta read this!”). Terror management theory posits that awareness of human mortality has a major impact on human psychology.  A key concept  is “mortality salience.” It seems that terrorism evokes mortality salience, namely, fear of death and annihilation. The result is not good. Based on the result of their pre-9/11 study, Greenberg, et al, write, “Mortality salience appears to increase ingroup favoritism, rejection of those who are different, and authoritarian tendencies. This suggests that whenever events heighten mortality salienc e (e.g., newspaper accounts of catastrophes or violence in intergroup and interindindividual conflicts), in-group solidarity, out-group derogation, nationalism, religious extremism, prejudice, discrimination, and intolernace of deviance are likely to escalate. More generally, the findings are consistent with the oft-stated contention (e.g., Adorno et al, 1950; Allport, 1954; Becker, 1975) that prejudice and hostility toward those who are different may be one particularly costly means of coping with fears and insecurities” (p. 318). No wonder things are so rough in placers like Iraq or Pakistan, where the threat of annihilation is a daily reality. Seems that Americans are not immune either. 

Reference: Greenberg, J., et al. (1990). Evidence of terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural world view. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 2, 308-318. 


One Comment

  • Greg Turnbull wrote:

    Mortality salience (MS) connects to many social behaviors, some of which are not immediately obvious. For example, when MS is high, less stereotypically masculine guys become more attractive. The unanswered question is, “Why?”

    A recurring problem for evolutionary psychologists is that complex theories of human motivation cannot be tested satisfactorily (because, for example, we can’t frame a null hypothesis for what women want any more than we can explain why giraffes have long necks). Or in other words, “If my genes made me do it, is it still my fault?”

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