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Mortality Salience

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Please read The _____ Must Go On for my most recent article (January 2011) on mortality salience and terror management theory as they relate to finding value in life.

One of the most awesomely dismissive responses I have gotten to my project has been to be told, by someone claiming to be a mental health worker, that people naturally fear death and unpleasant events like suicide, and one way they deal with their fear is to construct a philosophical system in which the fear is somehow accounted for rationally. While I commend the creativity of this method of refusing to consider my ideas, and while I certainly prefer it to outright abuse, I think the commenter has it backwards. Non-suicidal people fear death, and the reminder provided by the suicide that (a) death is inevitable and (b) life is not necessarily meaningful, pushes the non-suicidal person into a form of psychological reaction referred to by Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg as worldview defense.

Pyszdzynski, Solomon, and Greenberg wrote the compendium of sociological research into “terror management theory” (nothing to do with terrorism, it’s the psychological terror of death) called (misleadingly) In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. The book reports on research that demonstrates that mortality salience – awareness of one’s eventual death – is highly likely to cause a person to engage in worldview defense – a psychological defense mechanism against the fear of death in which a person bolsters his or her worldview. This might mean intensifying connections with one’s in-group – patriotism and racial bigotry are commonly intensified – or being more willing to punish minor moral transgressions.

One of the first studies, for example, tracked the responses of municipal court judges to mortality salience. Judges were divided into two groups, each completing the same set of initial personality questionnaires, but with one group receiving a “mortality salience” trigger that was not given to the control group. The mortality salience condition judges were asked to respond to the following: “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you.” and “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.” The judges were then presented with a hypothetical legal case involving a prostitution charge, created to appear similar to those the judges dealt with daily. Say the authors:

Our primary interest was in testing the hypothesis that the judges who were reminded of their mortality by the death-related questions would set an especially high bond for the alleged prostitute. We chose judges for the study because they are rigorously trained to make such decisions rationally and uniformly. Also, we had them pass judgment on an alleged prostitute because it is a crime that violates important moral convictions of most citizens in our culture.

Indeed, the judges in the mortality salience condition imposed an average bond of $455, compared to an average bond of $50 in the control group.

This 1989 study was only an early indicator of the “terror management” hypothesis that mortality salience triggers worldview defense. Dozens – over a hundred – later studies have since replicated, isolated, and explored the worldview defense response. The authors of the book are concerned, in particular, with the “mortality salience” condition presented to the United States by 9/11, and the “worldview defense” responses to it, including intensifying patriotism and nationalism, intensifying bigotry, and suppressing dissent – and, on the positive side of the “worldview defense” equation, increasing altruism and the quest for meaning.

Terror management research has major implications for the social treatment of suicide rights. The suicide, and in fact any discussion of suicide, must act as a mortality salience induction. This acts to intensify views already in place and to make the subject defend his worldview in other ways. “Suicide is wrong/selfish” has to be a widely held belief that we might expect to be intensified through mortality salience induction, and heaping scorn on those who advocate suicide rights, along with misguided “altruistic” attempts to artificially reduce suicide rates without reducing anyone’s suffering, would also be expected methods of worldview defense. The terror management theory does not bode well for the increased acceptance and availability of suicide in our current political system.

There is a note of hope from the terror management theory research, though – it’s that worldview defense acts to bolster the political views already held by the subject, whichever view the subject holds. Mortality salience-induced subjects who read essays about anti-flag-burning laws, for instance, were more likely than control subjects to favor writers who took the subject’s position – whichever position the subject initially held – and to react negatively to writers who took the opposite position. They didn’t just all heap scorn on the flag-hating hippies; apparently, mortality-induced flag-hating hippies were just as likely to heap scorn on the fascist flag worshippers.

Worldview defense may be inevitable (though psychological health and self-esteem seem to reduce the incidence and severity of worldview defense), but what matters is the initial position held by the subject. If more people began to confront the suffering experienced by would-be suicides and consider the possibility that suicide might not be selfish and wrong, the next time he or she heard about suicide and was thereby mortality-induced, the worldview that got defended might be one in which people should have the right to commit suicide.


Written by Sister Y

June 4, 2008 at 10:34 pm