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Mortality Salience, Martyrdom, and Military Might: The Great Satan Versus the Axis of Evil



Study 1 investigated the effect of mortality salience on support for martyrdom attacks among Iranian college students. Participants were randomly assigned to answer questions about either their own death or an aversive topic unrelated to death and then evaluated materials from fellow students who either supported or opposed martyrdom attacks against the United States. Whereas control participants preferred the student who opposed martyrdom, participants reminded of death preferred the student who supported martyrdom and indicated they were more likely to consider such activities themselves. Study 2 investigated the effect of mortality salience on American college students' support for extreme military interventions by American forces that could kill thousands of civilians. Mortality salience increased support for such measures among politically conservative but not politically liberal students. The roles of existential fear, cultural worldviews, and construing one's nation as pursing a heroic battle against evil in advocacy of violence were discussed.
Mortality Salience, Martyrdom, and Military Might:
The Great Satan Versus the Axis of Evil
Tom Pyszczynski
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
Abdolhossein Abdollahi
Zarand Islamic Azad University, Iran and Kerman Shahid Bahonar University, Iran
Sheldon Solomon
Skidmore College
Jeff Greenberg
University of Arizona
Florette Cohen
Rutgers University
David Weise
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
Study 1 investigated the effect of mortality salience on support
for martyrdom attacks among Iranian college students. Partici-
pants were randomly assigned to answer questions about either
their own death or an aversive topic unrelated to death and then
evaluated materials from fellow students who either supported or
opposed martyrdom attacks against the United States. Whereas
control participants preferred the student who opposed martyr
dom, participants reminded of death preferred the student who
supported martyrdom and indicated they were more likely to con
sider such activities themselves. Study 2 investigated the effect of
mortality salience on American college students’ support for
extreme military interventions by American forces that could kill
thousands of civilians. Mortality salience increased support for
such measures among politically conservative but not politically
liberal students. The roles of existential fear, cultural world
views, and construing one’s nation as pursing a heroic battle
against evil in advocacy of violence were discussed.
Keywords: terrorism; war; military intervention; terror management;
mortality salience
The specter of continuing violence in the Middle East
is one of the most vexing problems facing humankind in
the opening decade of the 21st century. Against the back
drop of the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center
(WTC) and Pentagon and the U.S. military actions in Af
ghanistan and Iraq, rhetoric from all sides of this conflict
continues to escalate. From the perspective of terror
management theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, &
Solomon, 1986), people who would not normally con-
done violent attacks on others can be motivated to sup-
port acts of aggression and sometimes even take up arms
themselves when their need for protection from existen
tial fear is heightened and they are confronted with an
outgroup that explicitly or implicitly challenges core as
pects of their cultural worldview. Although Pyszczynski,
Solomon, and Greenberg (2003) recently applied this
analysis to the ongoing strife in the Middle East, to date
there are no data documenting the role of terror man
agement processes in fueling hostile attitudes on either
side of this conflict. If the TMT analysis of the motiva
tional underpinnings of this conflict is sound, then re
minders of death should increase the willingness of peo
ple in both the United States and parts of the Islamic
world to support violent action against each other. The
two experiments reported here investigated the effect of
mortality salience on support for martyrdom attacks
against Americans among young Iranians and on sup
port for extreme military interventions in the Middle
East among young Americans.
PSPB, Vol. 32 No. 4, April 2006 525-537
DOI: 10.1177/0146167205282157
© 2006 by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc.
Terror Management Theory
TMT posits that the uniquely human awareness of the
inevitability and potential finality of death creates the
potential for existential terror, which is controlled by (a)
maintaining faith in an internalized cultural worldview
and (b) obtaining self-esteem by living up to the stan
dards of value prescribed by that worldview. Because
one’s cultural worldview is a symbolic psychological con
struction and because people are aware that there are
many different worldviews that provide alternative ways
of construing reality, confidence in one’s own worldview,
and thus the protection from existential anxiety that it
provides, depends on consensual validation from others.
When others share one’s worldview, faith in it increases,
making it more effective as a buffer against existential
anxiety. However, the mere existence of people with dif
ferent worldviews undermines this much-needed con
sensus, thereby threatening faith in the absolute validity
of one’s own worldview and reducing its anxiety-
buffering effectiveness. People attempt to defuse the
threat posed by alternative worldviews by disparaging
them and those who subscribe to them, attempting to
convert their adherents to one’s own worldview, or sim-
ply killing them, thus eliminating the threat to consen-
sus and asserting the superiority of one’s own worldview.
To date, more 250 experiments conducted in 14 dif-
ferent countries have provided support for TMT hy-
potheses (for reviews, see Greenberg, Solomon, &
Pyszczynski, 1997; Pyszczynski et al., 2003). Of particular
relevance to present concerns, research has shown that
reminders of death (mortality salience, MS) lead people to
conform more closely to the norms of their culture, pun
ish violators of those norms more severely, and react
more negatively toward those whose worldviews conflict
with one’s own. The most common finding has been that
MS increases worldview defense. For example, studies of
American college students have shown that MS engen
ders more negative evaluations of those who criticize the
United States and greater aggression toward those with
divergent political orientations (Greenberg et al., 1997).
Similarly, following MS, German college students ex
hibit more negative evaluations of and physical distanc
ing from foreigners (Ochsmann & Mathey, 1994), Israeli
children have more negative impressions of Russian Jew
ish immigrants (Florian & Mikulincer, 1998), and Japa
nese participants are more derogatory toward those who
criticize Japan (Heine, Harihara, & Niiya, 2002).
Findings supporting TMT hypotheses have been ob
tained using a variety of operationalizations of MS, in
cluding the typical open-ended questions employed in
the present research, death anxiety questionnaires, re
quests to write a single sentence about death, gory acci
dent footage, proximity to funeral homes and cemeter
ies, and subliminal presentations of the words death and
dead (Greenberg et al., 1997). Parallel comparison con
ditions in which participants are induced to think about
failure, embarrassment, physical pain, uncertainty, so
cial exclusion, paralysis, or meaninglessness do not pro
duce these results, suggesting that MS effects are specific
to thoughts of death (e.g., Baldwin & Wesley, 1996;
Greenberg et al., 1995; Landau, Johns, et al., 2004).
Other research has provided a detailed account of
the conscious and nonconscious cognitive processes
through which thoughts of death exert their effects on
judgments and other behavior (Pyszczynski, Greenberg,
& Solomon, 1999). This work shows that stimuli that lead
to heightened death thought accessibility reliably pro
duce worldview defense and that worldview defense ef
fectively reduces death thought accessibility to baseline
levels. Although MS inductions typically do not arouse
negative affect (e.g., Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon,
Pyszczynski, & Lyon, 1989), recent research indicates
that they increase the potential to experience anxiety
and that it is this increased potential that motivates
worldview defense (Greenberg et al., 2003). These stud
ies provide converging support for the TMT proposition
that cultural worldviews and self-esteem provide protec-
tion against the problem of death by reducing the poten-
tial for anxiety engendered by the heightened accessi-
bility of death-related thoughts.
Do Some Worldviews Provide Better
Protection Than Others?
What is it about cultural worldviews that provide pro-
tection from existential fear? This is a complex question
in that beliefs and values probably provide protection in
a variety of ways. The original presentation of TMT ar
gued that worldviews provide protection by “providing a
view of the world as orderly, predictable, meaningful,
and permanent” (Greenberg et al., 1986, p. 198). Consis
tent with this view, Landau, Johns, et al. (2004) demon
strated that MS increases peoples preference for well-
structured information and encourages closure upon
simple solutions to inferential problems, particularly
for people high in personal need for structure. More
recently, a complementary set of studies (Landau,
Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Martens, 2005)
showed that MS reduces liking for art that seems to lack
clear structure or meaning. This work suggests that all
else being equal, worldviews that offer a clear vision of an
orderly meaningful world are likely to be particularly
appealing when thoughts of mortality are activated.
In addition, in accord with TMT, research has shown
that ideologies depicting one’s group as special and
uniquely valuable are especially effective for terror man
agement purposes. One recent study showed that MS
increased preference for a hypothetical charismatic
gubernatorial candidate who promoted a grand vision
emphasizing the superiority of the ingroup but not for
candidates who emphasized accomplishing tasks or egal
itarian relationships (Cohen, Solomon, Maxfield,
Pyszczynski, & Greenberg, 2004). These findings suggest
that worldviews that enhance the perceived value of
one’s group are likely to be especially appealing as buf
fers against existential anxiety.
Ernest Becker (1975), Eric Fromm (1969), Otto Rank
(1958), and Robert J. Lifton (1999) argued that world
views that depict one’s group as engaged in a heroic
struggle against evil may be particularly effective for en
hancing the meaningfulness of one’s worldview and the
value of one’s group and therefore especially useful for
warding off death-related fear. Thus, when death
thought accessibility is heightened, leaders who help
people feel good about themselves by portraying their
groups as undertaking a righteous mission to obliterate
evil might be particularly alluring. In support of this
proposition, four recent studies demonstrated that
MS increased American college students’ support for
George W. Bush, a leader who has portrayed the United
States as engaged in a mission to vanquish evil around
the globe (Landau, Solomon, et al., 2004). Study 1
showed that relative to a neutral control condition, MS
increased agreement with an essay praising Bush and his
policies in Iraq. Study 2 established that subliminal pre-
sentation of the number 911 or the letters WTC, both
closely associated with the terrorist attacks, increased the
accessibility of death-related thoughts relative to a neu-
tral control condition. Study 3 demonstrated that rela-
tive to thinking about an upcoming exam, both MS
and reminders of the September 11 terrorist attacks in-
creased agreement with the pro–Bush essay. Finally,
Study 4 showed that although American college students
in a control condition focused on thoughts of intense
pain preferred Democratic presidential nominee John
Kerry over President Bush, this preference was com
pletely reversed after exposure to MS. Indeed, Cohen,
Ogilvie, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski (in press)
found that although registered voters in a control con
dition preferred Kerry by a 4 to 1 margin, in an MS condi
tion, Bush was preferred by a 2.5 to 1 ratio.
This reversal of preference in the MS condition re
flects a departure from most previous TMT research in
that it suggests that heightened death concerns can lead
people to shift from the worldviews with which they af
filiate under less threatening conditions, or at least shift
toward emphasizing different elements of their overall
These findings are consistent with the notion that MS
increases the appeal of worldviews in which one’s own
group is portrayed as pursuing a heroic fight against evil.
However, President Bush differs from Kerry in a variety
of ways, so the Bush findings could have resulted from
factors other than his emphasis on the heroic triumph
over evil. The present research was designed to provide
additional evidence regarding the appeal of ideologies
that focus on a clash between one’s own people and evil
forces, particularly with regard to the role that terror
management processes might be playing in the current
“clash of civilizations” (Huntington, 1996) occurring be
tween parts of the Middle East and Western world.
Specifically, we examined the effect of death-related
concerns on support for extremist solutions to the ongo
ing conflict between the United States and some seg
ments of the Islamic world. Whereas George W. Bush has
designated some nations in this region as spokes in an
“axis of evil” and supporters of martyrdom attacks as
“evil-doers,” in some parts of the Middle East, the United
States is referred to as the “Great Satan” and an “enemy
of Allah.” Some Islamic fundamentalist groups, such as
Al Qaeda, take this view to the extreme, advocating mar
tyrdom in the form of suicide bombings against the
United States and its allies as the highest form of heroism
and service to Allah and their culture. In a parallel man
ner, some Americans support preemptive war against
countries that might threaten our security in the future
and the use of “shock and awe-inspiring” military force
that could kill thousands of innocent civilians as part of
the “war on terror.” If such attitudes serve a terror man-
agement function, then reminders of death should in-
crease support for martyrdom attacks against Americans
among persons in Middle Eastern cultures and increase
Americans’ support for extreme military action against
those who oppose the United States in the Middle East.
Study 1 examined the effect of MS on support for mar
tyrdom attacks against the United States among young
adults in a Middle Eastern country. To this end, we con
ducted one of the first TMT studies with an Islamic popu
lation in Iran, a country with a long and ongoing history
of conflict with the United States. Whereas the majority
of TMT research has been conducted in North America,
Europe, and Israel, and some studies have been con
ducted in Eastern Asia and Australia, only a very few as
yet unpublished studies have been conducted in the pre
dominantly Islamic countries of the Middle East. Given
that Muslims make up approximately 18% of the worlds
population and that Islam is the worlds fastest growing
religion (Esposito, 2000), this is a serious gap in the TMT
literature. In addition to the primary goal of addressing
the important global issue of understanding psychologi
cal factors that increase support for martyrdom attacks,
Study 1 was designed to provide information about the
role of TMT processes in this understudied segment of
the world’s population.
Pyszczynski et al. / DEATH VIOLENT SOLUTIONS 527
Although there has been a tremendous amount of
scholarly discussion and informed speculation about
what leads people to support terrorist violence, very little
empirical research on this topic has been conducted. In
deed, to our knowledge this is the first experimental in
vestigation of a psychological variable posited to have a
causal impact on such tendencies. Available evidence
from demographic and case studies shows that contrary
to common stereotypes, suicide bombers tend to be psy
chologically well adjusted, well educated, and financially
well off compared to their countrymen. Based on inter
views with members of Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo cult,
which was responsible for the 1995 nerve gas attack on a
Tokyo subway, Lifton (1999) noted that the members’
“familiar ordinariness” was one of their most disturbing
characteristics. Interviews with suicide bombers and
other terrorists suggest some similarity between the
recruitment, commitment, and solidarity-producing
strategies used by their organizations and those used by
other cults (e.g., Ignatieff, 1993).
In Terror in the Name of God, Jessica Stern (2003) con
cluded from a series of in-depth interviews with a variety
of religious terrorists from diverse groups (Christian,
Muslim, Jewish, Hindu) that alienation from the main-
stream, feelings of humiliation for both oneself and
one’s people, a desire to avenge past and present griev-
ances, and most important, a desire to restore order and
morality to a world viewed as bereft of these qualities play
major roles in inspiring terrorist violence and support
for it among those who do not directly participate in it.
Similarly, Bruce Hoffman (1993) proposed that for reli-
gious terrorists, “Violence [is] first and foremost a sacra-
mental act or divine duty executed in direct response to
some theological demand or imperative” (p. 2). Stern’s
and Hoffman’s ideas are thoroughly compatible with
TMT in that these terrorists seem to be strongly focused
on heroically contributing to a triumph over what they
perceive to be a great evil. Thus, we believe that TMT
provides an overarching theoretical framework for de
lineating at least one basic motive underlying efforts to
use extreme violence against those viewed as evil. Study 1
provided an initial test of the TMT analysis by examining
the effect of reminders of death on support for martyr
dom missions against Americans. We hypothesized that
MS would lead to more favorable evaluations of a “fellow
student” who supported martyrdom attacks relative to
a student who opposed them and would also increase
interest in joining the martyrdom cause.
In Study 1, 40 undergraduates (14 women and 26
men; mean age = 22.46) at two universities in Iran were
randomly assigned to MS or aversive thought control
conditions and then read and evaluated questionnaires
supposedly completed by two fellow students at their
universities, one supporting and one opposing martyr
dom attacks; thus, the design was a 2 × 2 mixed factorial.
Participants were tested individually; all verbal in
structions and materials were presented in Farsi. After
obtaining informed consent, participants were told that
the study was an investigation of the effects of personality
on impression formation. They then completed a ques
tionnaire containing filler items to sustain the cover
story, followed by the MS manipulation (Rosenblatt
et al., 1989) presented as a new personality measure. The
MS induction consisted of two open-ended questions:
“Please, briefly describe the emotions that the thought
of your own death arouses in you” and “Jot down, as spe
cifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as
you physically die.” The dental pain control condition,
used in many previous MS studies, consisted of parallel
questions about experiencing dental pain. Participants
then completed the Positive and Negative Affect Scale
(PANAS; Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988) followed by a
word search task to provide a delay and distraction
before obtaining the dependent measures.
Participants were then told that the next part of the
study involved reading some questionnaires completed
by other students at their university and rating their im-
pressions of them. They were then given two question-
naires supposedly filled out by other students that
started with background information, followed by the
critical items used to vary that persons attitudes about
martyrdom attacks. These materials were designed to be
representative of commonly expressed views among this
population. A pilot study with a separate sample showed
that the materials were understandable and did not
arouse suspicion.
In the promartyrdom condition the “other student’s”
responses to the critical items were as follows:
What do you feel to be the most pressing world issue?
Showing the world that deaths in the name of Allah will
bring an end to the imperialism practiced in the West.
Do you have a life motto? One should treat all other true
believers as brothers; everyone else should be consid
ered enemies of Allah.
How do you perceive the role of the United States in the
Middle East? I believe the United States’ presence is
wrong. They are invading our holy land and threatening
our way of life.
Are martyrdom attacks on the United States justified?
Yes. The United States represents the world power which
Allah wants us to destroy.
In the antimartyrdom condition, the “other student”
What do you feel to be the most pressing world issue?
Convincing others in the world that Islam is a peaceful
religion and that Allah loves all men. The world must
know that not all Muslims are motivated by the hatred
and misguided beliefs that have led to many needless
deaths in the name of Allah.
Do you have a life motto? One should treat other hu-
mans with respect and care, no matter what racial, eth-
nic, or religious background.
How do you perceive the role of the United States in the
Middle East? Although I believe the United States’ pres
ences is somewhat intrusive, they did remove a tyrannical
leader from power in hope of establishing a more demo
cratic system of government.
Are martyrdom attacks on the United States justified?
No. Universally speaking, human life is too valuable to
be used as a means of producing change.
After reading each questionnaire (presented in coun
terbalanced order), participants indicated their impres
sions of the student by responding to the following ques
tions on 9-point scales (1 = most negative response,9=most
positive response): How much do you think you would like
this person? How much do you agree with this person’s
opinion? How intelligent do you believe this person to
be? and To what degree do you respect this person? To
get a more direct assessment of participants’ support for
martyrdom attacks, the final item asked them to “Rate
the degree to which you would consider joining their
After each session, participants were debriefed; none
showed any suspicions.
Results and Discussion
Reliability analyses of the four items evaluating the
“other student” indicated high internal consistency, with
Cronbach’s alpha of .95 and .90 for the pro- and anti-
martyrdom conditions, respectively. Therefore, compos-
ite measures of participants’ evaluations of the two
“other students” were computed by taking the mean of
the four questions. A 2 (MS vs. control) × 2 (pro- vs. anti-
martyrdom) ANOVA yielded a significant main effect for
MS, F(1, 38) = 19.86, p < 0001, and more important, a sig-
nificant MS × Martyrdom Attitude interaction, F(1, 38) =
66.04, p < .0001.
Relevant means are in Figure 1. Pair-
wise comparisons revealed that although participants
preferred the student who opposed martyrdom attacks
over the one who supported martyrdom attacks in the
dental pain control condition, t(38) = 5.47, p < .0001, MS
led to a dramatic reversal of this pattern such that after
being reminded of their mortality participants preferred
the student who supported martyrdom attacks over the
one who opposed them, t(38) = 6.02, p < .0001. Looked
at differently, MS led to significantly more favorable eval
uations of the promartyrdom student, t(38) = 10.45, p <
.0001, and a trend toward less favorable evaluations of
the antimartyrdom student, t(38) = 1.86, p =.071.
To get a more direct assessment of the effect of MS on
participants’ willingness to personally get involved in
martyrdom attacks, we conducted a parallel ANOVA on
their responses to the item that assessed their willingness
to consider joining their cause. This analysis revealed sig
nificant main effects of MS, F(1, 38) = 33.85, p < .0001;
martyrdom attitude, F(1, 38) = 6.31, p < .02; and the pre
dicted MS × Martyrdom Attitude interaction, F(1, 38) =
32.87, p < .0001. Relevant means are displayed in Figure
Pyszczynski et al. / DEATH VIOLENT SOLUTIONS 529
Mortality Salient Control
Figure 1 Evaluation of persons supporting and opposing martyrdom
attacks as a function of mortality salience. Higher scores in
dicate more positive evaluation of that person.
Mortality Salient Control
Figure 2 Willingness to consider joining pro- and antimartyrdom
causes as a function of mortality salience. Higher scores in
dicate greater willingness to consider joining the cause.
2. Although dental pain control participants indicated
greater interest in joining the antimartyrdom than the
promartyrdom cause, t(38) = 2.28, p < .05, MS partici
pants indicated greater interest in joining the pro-mar
tyrdom cause than the anti-martyrdom cause, F(1, 38) =
5.83, p < .0001. Whereas MS increased interest in join
ing the promartyrdom cause, t(38) = 9.40, p < .0001, it
had no effect on interest in joining the antimartyrdom
cause, t(38) < 1.
To determine whether MS affected mood, we ran
separate ANOVAs on the subscales of the PANAS. As in
previous studies (Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, McCoy,
Greenberg, & Solomon, 1999; Rosenblatt et al., 1989),
MS did not affect mood on any subscales (all Fs < 1), thus
ruling out the possibility that subjective mood produced
by MS is responsible for the change in attitudes toward
The results of Study 1 support TMT predictions. MS
produced a significant increase in both the favorability
ratings of the promartyrdom target person and willing
ness to consider joining his or her cause. Thus, thoughts
of death led young people in the Middle East who ordi-
narily preferred a person who took a pacifist stance to
switch their allegiance to a person who advocated sui-
cide bombings. These data support the proposition that
worldviews that construe one’s people as part of a sacred
campaign to triumph over evil are especially appealing
when terror management needs are heightened, even to
the point of pulling people from the values that guide
their attitudes and evaluations under conditions of
lower threat. This shift in allegiance will be considered in
greater detail in the general discussion. These findings
provide the first experimental evidence documenting
psychological determinants of the appeal of martyrdom
and suggest that TMT may provide useful insights into
the psychological forces that encourage such behavior.
Because we wished to make the target persons in this
study as realistic as possible, the pacifist and radical tar
get persons differed in several ways, including their feel
ings regarding nonbelievers, their statements about the
United States, and their support of martyrdom per se.
Thus, it is unclear exactly which aspects of the target per
sons’ attitudes were most influential in determining eval
uations of the targets. However, the views expressed by
the target persons reflect attitudes that tend to go to
gether in contemporary Islamic culture. People who
support martyrdom are unlikely to hold more positive
attitudes toward the United States than those opposed
to it.
It is worth noting that reminders of death influenced
attitudes and evaluations even in a country where death
is dealt with in a much more open manner than in the
West. For example, many older Muslim men and women
buy themselves a burial shroud and visit it once in a
while, and for some it is a common practice to crawl
down into their future graves to pray. Indeed, many Mus
lims in the Middle East report that they look forward to
their death so they can join Allah in paradise. The pres
ent findings show that reminders of death increase cul
tural allegiances even in cultures where death is openly
celebrated; this adds to other recent findings indicating
that TMT applies to non–Western cultures with very
different ideologies regarding death (e.g., Halloran &
Kashima, 2004; Heine et al., 2002).
Whereas Study 1 demonstrated the effect of MS on
support for martyrdom attacks among Iranian college
students, from the perspective of TMT, this tendency for
existential fear to increase support for extreme and vio
lent solutions to international conflicts is a general char
acteristic of the human condition. This suggests that sim
ilar forces are likely involved in fueling some Americans’
support for extreme military interventions in the Middle
East. Study 2 investigated American college students’
support for the use of extreme military force as
appropriate tactics for use in the war against terrorism.
Study 2 examined Americans’ support for preemptive
wars, the use of nuclear and chemical weapons, and the
killing of thousands of innocent people as collateral
damage in the quest to destroy Osama bin Laden. The
theoretical rationale was identical to that leading to
Study 1: If viewing one’s nation as pursuing a valiant bat-
tle against evil serves a terror management function,
then reminders of one’s mortality should increase sup
port for extreme lethal measures as a means of vanquish
ing that evil. One particularly common reminder of mor
tality that is often raised in discussions of contemporary
American foreign policy centers around the September
11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center
and Pentagon. Landau, Solomon, et al. (2004, Study 2)
showed that even subliminal presentation of the letters
WTC or the numbers 911 increase the accessibility of
death-related thoughts. Thus, it was predicted that re
minders of both one’s own death and the 9/11 attacks
would increase support for a variety of extreme mili
tary solutions to the current conflict in the Middle East
among American college students.
We also addressed an additional question in Study 2:
Does MS affect support for extreme military force
among all people, or does it primarily affect those with
political orientations or personality characteristics that
are associated with support for such measures? This gets
back to the complex issue of how cultural worldviews
serve their terror management function. Wicklund
(1997) raised the question of whether MS leads people
to gravitate toward their existing worldview or toward
worldviews that reduce ambiguity. More recently, Jost,
Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway (2003) proposed that
MS pushes people toward supporting more conservative
ideologies. According to TMT, when the need for pro
tection from existential fears is heightened, people will
gravitate toward whatever is most likely to provide effec
tive protection from this potential terror. Because the in
dividual’s cultural worldview functions to provide this
fortification, MS will generally lead to greater commit
ment to and perhaps more extreme ways of affirming
that worldview. However, cultural worldviews are com
plex structures that contain many elements, some of
which may be in conflict with others. There may thus be
situations in which less dominant thoughts and values
may be more effective in providing protection than
those that make up the person’s central attitudes and val
ues. In these instances, MS may lead people to gravitate
toward positions associated with enhanced security that
they might otherwise eschew when their need for exis-
tential protection is less.
Supporting extreme military solutions in a war
against evil may be a particularly potent way of protect-
ing oneself from existential anxiety. Vanquishing an en-
emy that is construed as evil is likely to boost one’s self-
esteem by asserting one’s greater strength and moral
superiority while at the same time affirming the values
that differentiate one’s own group from the outgroup.
On the other hand, some worldviews may view lethal vio-
lence as unacceptable or as a form of evil itself and thus
steer those who subscribe to such views away from sup
porting solutions to conflicts that entail the killing of
others. Clearly in the United States, political conserva
tives are more prone to negative attitudes toward out
groups (Jost et al., 2003) and are more supportive of tak
ing military action against Iraq (Gallup, 2005). Thus, MS
seems most likely to increase support for extreme mili
tary actions among conservatives. Therefore, in Study 2,
we examined whether participants’ political orientation
moderates the hypothesized effect of MS on support for
American use of extreme military tactics in the Middle
East. However, prior TMT research is somewhat equivo
cal on this issue. On one hand, Greenberg, Simon,
Pyszczynski, Solomon, and Chatel (1992) found that
conservatives became more negative toward a different
other after MS, but liberals did not. On the other hand,
Landau, Solomon, et al. (2004) found that MS increased
liberals’ as well as conservatives’ support for President
Bush. Therefore, there was no strong basis for an a priori
prediction as to whether political orientation would or
would not moderate the predicted effect of MS on Amer
icans’ support for extreme military actions.
In this study, 127 Rutgers university undergraduate
students (95 women and 32 men) were recruited to
The experimenter introduced the study as concern
ing the relationship between personality attributes and
opinions about matters of public interest. Participants
were given a booklet, told to work through it in order, to
respond to the questions with their “gut reactions,” and
informed that they could withdraw from the study at any
This questionnaire packet began with two filler ques
tionnaires to sustain the cover story followed by the MS
induction, parallel questions focused on intense physi
cal pain (used in Landau, Johns, et al., 2004, Study 4), or
a terrorism prime condition. Terrorism salience partici
pants were asked to “Please describe the emotions that
the thought of the terrorist attacks on September 11,
2001, arouses in you” and “Write down as specifically as
you can, what happened during the terrorist attacks on
September 11, 2001.” All participants then completed
the PANAS and a short passage to serve as a distraction.
Participants then completed the dependent measure
consisting of the following five statements:
1. It is entirely appropriate to engage in preemptive at-
tacks on countries (e.g., Iran, Syria, North Korea) that
may pose a threat to the United States in the future,
even if there is no evidence they are planning to attack
us right now.
2. If necessary, the United States should use nuclear weap
ons to defend our interests at home and abroad.
3. If necessary, the United States should use chemical
weapons to defend our interests at home and abroad.
4. If we could capture or kill Osama bin Laden we should
do it, even if thousands of civilians are injured or killed
in the process.
5. The Patriot Act should be strengthened, even if we have
to relinquish personal freedoms to make our country
more secure.
Participants indicated their agreement with each state
ment on 5-point scales (1 = strongly disagree;5=strongly
Participants then completed a final page of the book
let soliciting demographic information; specifically, gen
der, ethnicity, religion, and political orientation (“How
would you describe your political orientation?” on a 9-
point scale; 1 = very conservative;5=moderate;9=very lib
eral). Participants were subsequently debriefed and
Pyszczynski et al. / DEATH VIOLENT SOLUTIONS 531
Results and Discussion
The four items measuring support for extreme force
revealed acceptable internal consistency, Cronbach’s al-
pha of .83. Consequently, a composite index was formed
by calculating the mean score on these four items. An
ANOVA revealed no effect of the priming manipulation
on political orientation, F(2, 125) = 1.23, p = .30; conse-
quently, political orientation was used as a predictor in
the primary analyses.
The composite index served as the dependent vari
able in a regression analysis with priming condition (MS
vs. pain control vs. 9/11), political orientation, and the
product of the two as predictors. Priming condition was
dummy coded, yielding separate vectors for the MS ver
sus pain control and 9/11 salience versus pain control
contrasts and for the interaction of each of these con
trasts with political orientation (Aiken & West, 1991).
The only significant main effect to emerge was for the
MS versus control contrast, β = .21, SE = .21, t = 2.04, p =
.04. This MS main effect was qualified by two significant
interactions: Political Orientation × MS versus control,
β = –.25, SE = .12, t = 2.27, p = .03, and Political Orienta
tion × 9/11 versus control, β = –.28, SE = .10, t = 2.26, p =
.03 (see Figure 3).
Analyses of simple slopes suggest that political orien
tation predicts variation in support for extreme military
interventions within the MS (β = –.44, SE = .09, t = –2.59,
p = .01) and 9/11 (β = –.38, SE = .07, t = –2.83, p = .005)
conditions but not within the control condition (β = .07,
SE = .08, t = .47, p = .64); higher levels of political
conservativism were associated with greater support for
extreme military measures in these two conditions. To
provide tests of the differential effects of the two primes
for people on the liberal and conservative ends of the po-
litical spectrum, we compared the projected means in
the MS and 9/11 salience conditions with that of the con-
trol condition at one standard deviation above and be-
low the mean on the political orientation scale (Aiken &
West, 1991). These analyses revealed that the contrasts
MS versus pain, β = .45, SE = .33, t = 2.80, p = .006, and 9/
11 versus pain, β = .36, SE = .28, t = 2.44, p = .01, reached
significance among conservatives but not among liber
als. None of the other contrasts were significant (p
.36). As Figure 3 shows, liberals support for extreme
force remained relatively low across the different prim
ing conditions, whereas conservatives’ support for ex
treme force significantly increased in both the MS and
9/11 salience conditions relative to the control condi
tion, with MS and 9/11 salience moving them across the
midpoint of the scale.
The item assessing support for the Patriot Act was sub
jected to the same regression analysis. A main effect was
found for both MS, β = .22, SE = .25, t = 2.30, p = .02, and
9/11 salience, β = .21, SE = .25, t = 2.16, p = .03. These
main effects were moderated by political orientation; Po
litical Orientation × MS versus control: β = –.32, SE = .14,
t = 3.01, p = .003; Political Orientation × 9/11 versus con
trol: β = –.30, SE = .12, t = 2.54, p = .01. As Figure 4 shows,
the simple slopes for political orientation predicting
support of the Patriot Act were significant in the MS and
9/11 salience conditions, β = –.63, SE = .11, t = –3.93, p <
.001 and β = –.47, SE = .08, t = –3.71, p < .001, but not in
Conservatives Liberals
Political Orientation
Support for Extreme Force
Figure 3 Support for the use of extreme military force as a function
of mortality salience, 9/11 salience, and political orienta
tion. Higher scores indicate greater support for use of mili
tary force.
Conservatives Liberals
Political Orientation
Support for the Patriot Act
Figure 4 Support for the Patriot Act as a function of mortality sa
lience, 9/11 salience, and political orientation. Higher
scores indicate greater support for use of military force.
the control condition, β = .01, SE = .09, t = .05, p = .96. We
followed the same procedure as described earlier to fur
ther explore the significant interactions. These analyses
revealed that MS and 9/11 salience led to increased sup
port for the Patriot Act among conservatives, β = .57, SE =
.37, t = 3.75, p < .001, β = .45, SE = .36, t = 3.13, p = .002, but
not among liberals, ps .46.
Study 2 conceptually replicated and extended Study 1
by demonstrating that reminders of both one’s own mor
tality and the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and World
Trade Center increased support for both extreme mili
tary interventions in the Middle East and the Patriot Act
among politically conservative Americans. However,
these inductions had no effect on either measure among
politically liberal Americans. Similar to the present find
ings, Greenberg et al. (1992, Study 1) found that politi
cal conservatives responded to MS with more negative
evaluations of political liberals but that political liberals’
evaluations of political conservatives were not affected
by MS. Greenberg et al. argued that the value of toler
ance that is central to liberal ideology is inconsistent with
hostile reactions toward those who are different, making
negative reactions to MS a potential threat to self-esteem
and thereby preventing liberals from responding to MS
in this way. Consistent with this reasoning, a follow-up
study by Greenberg et al. (1992, Study 2) demonstrated
that when the value of tolerance is primed, neither liber-
als nor conservatives derogated attitudinally dissimilar
others in response to MS. Thus, it seems likely that liber-
als did not become more supportive of extreme military
interventions or the Patriot Act in response to reminders
of death or 9/11 in the present study because the values
of their worldviews typically oppose such measures.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, political orientation
was not associated with scores on either measure in the
control condition. This might reflect the extreme nature
of the attitudes assessed (e.g., using nuclear and chemi
cal weapons); indeed, our conservative participants
tended to oppose both extreme military force and the
Patriot Act in the control condition, just as our Iranian
participants preferred the antimartyrdom target in
Study 1. However, when reminded of either death or 9/
11, politically conservative participants’ support for
these issues rose just past the midpoint of the scales.
These findings show that MS can lead to an expression of
attitudinal tendencies that are not exhibited under less
threatening conditions.
The present findings demonstrate that thoughts of
death increases people’s readiness to support extreme
violent solutions to global conflicts. The same induction
that increased Iranians’ support for martyrdom attacks
against Americans increased Americans’ support for ex
treme military interventions in the Middle East, both of
which could entail the loss of thousands of innocent
lives. 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. The same psycho
logical inclinations that make them want to kill us make
us want to kill them—regardless of which specific group
is referred to by the words us and them.
It is somewhat encouraging that in the control condi
tions, Iranian participants preferred the antimartyrdom
student and American participants showed a relatively
low level of support for the use of lethal military power.
However, the fact that reminders of death produced dra
matic increases in support for extremist solutions on
both sides provides chilling testimony to the impact of
the fear inevitably produced by war and violence on such
allegiances and supports the TMT contention that exis
tential concerns about one’s own mortality contribute to
cultural, ethnic, and religious conflicts. It seems highly
likely that death concerns are unusually salient in both
cultures at this moment in history. Landau, Solomon,
et al. (2004, Study 2) showed that even subliminal pre-
sentation of the tragedy-associated digits 911 or letters
WTC increase death thought accessibility in American
college students. Although the events of September 11
are not as salient as they once were, they are still a com-
mon topic of conversation, and symbols associated with
that event are still commonly displayed in most parts of
the country. Similarly, stories and pictures of victims of
the war in Iraq and other places in the Middle East are
found in newspapers, television programs, and Web sites
throughout the Middle East.
These results are consistent with previous research
showing that reminders of death can lead to more nega
tive, hostile, and aggressive responses to members of
outgroups and those who do not share one’s beliefs and
values (e.g., Greenberg et al., 1997). However, these
findings extend previous research by showing that MS
leads to increased support for the use of lethal force and
the acceptance of thousands of civilian casualties as ac
ceptable collateral damage in one nation’s struggle with
a rival foreign power. The MS induction used here made
no mention of the current conflict between the United
States and parts of the Muslim world, and no participant
in either study mentioned this conflict in his or her re
sponse to the MS questions; thus, it seems clear that it was
thoughts of one’s own death and the existential prob
lems these thoughts arouse rather than more specific
reminders of the ongoing conflict that produced this
shift toward support for extreme solutions in both coun
tries. The fact that thoughts of the 9/11 terrorist attacks
produced equivalent effects in Study 2, in conjunction
with Landau, Solomon, et al.’s (2004, Study 2) finding
Pyszczynski et al. / DEATH VIOLENT SOLUTIONS 533
that 9/11 priming increases the accessibility of death-
related thoughts, suggests that the increased support for
extreme military solutions produced by reminders of
this tragedy is likely at least partly due to the activation of
death-related thoughts. To our knowledge, these are the
first studies to demonstrate a causal impact of a psycho
logical variable on support for the use of lethal force in
international conflict.
Psychological Processes Underlying These Effects:
Terror Management and Other Possibilities
Although the practical import of these findings seems
clear, questions about the precise processes that mediate
these effects must be considered. Because we did not in
clude neutral control conditions, the first question con
cerns whether the death-related thoughts increased
support for violent solutions or the thoughts of pain acti
vated in our control conditions reduced them. Fortu
nately, in a wide range of studies with American partici
pants, pain control conditions have been compared to
neutral control conditions as well as to a variety of other
aversive thought control conditions with virtually identi-
cal patterns of results in all cases (e.g., Greenberg,
Pyszczynski, Solomon, Simon, & Breus, 1994; Landau,
Johns, et al., 2004; Landau, Solomon, et al., 2004;
Schimel et al., 1999). For example, in Landau, Solomon,
et al. (2004), the findings were virtually identical in all
three studies whether the control condition was neutral,
exam salience, or pain salience. In addition, MS effects
have been found using a variety of ways to heighten
death thought accessibility, ranging from proximity to a
funeral home to subliminal death word primes (con
trasted with pain and neutral words). Thus, the findings
of Study 2 are very likely the result of an MS-induced
increase in support of extreme solutions among conser
vative participants.
However, in Study 1, because we used Iranian partici
pants, there may be more reason to wonder if thoughts
of dental pain might have had an impact on the results.
For example, one might speculate that in light of the cul
tural belief that death is something to look forward to,
Iranians may be more frightened by dental procedures
and that this fear led them to decrease their support for
the martyrdom-espousing student. This seems unlikely
though for several reasons. First, in a conference presen
tation, Abdollahi (2004) reported several studies dem
onstrating that relative to both neutral and aversive
thought control conditions, MS produces worldview de
fense effects in Iran parallel to those found in the United
States. For example, he found that among Iranian ado
lescents, subliminal presentation of death-related pic
tures led to harsher judgments of an adolescent’s viola
tion of a cultural norm than did subliminal presentation
of neutral pictures (cf. Florian & Mikulincer, 1998), and
among Iranian college students, MS led to increased in
terest in marriage, relative to both no treatment and
dental pain control conditions, which did not differ
from each other. Thus, the effects of MS in Iran seem
quite similar to those found in the United States. We also
conducted a simple study in which 20 Iranian and 20
American college students were asked to indicate how
scared they were of dental work. Although the difference
was not significant, if anything, Americans reported be
ing more scared than Iranians, means of 4.55 and 3.45,
respectively, t(38) = 1.65, p = .11. Thus, it seems highly
unlikely that it was thoughts of dental pain rather than
death that led to changes in the Iranian participants’
support of violent solutions.
Another issue for Study 2 is whether the effects of 9/
11 salience resulted from heightened death thought ac
cessibility or some other aspect of 9/11-related thought.
Consistent with a likely role of death-related thought,
Landau, Solomon, et al. (2004) found that subliminal
presentations of 911 or WTC increased death thought
accessibility to levels comparable to those produced by
the standard MS induction used here (see e.g., Arndt,
Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1997) and that 9/
11 and MS priming had equivalent effects on support for
President Bush prior to the 2004 election. Other re-
search has shown that subliminal reminders of death
produce increases in worldview defense equivalent to
that produced by conscious contemplation of death
(Arndt et al., 1997). The fact that in Study 2 the 9/11
means were virtually identical to those found for the MS
induction fits well with these prior findings. Although
these considerations are consistent with the view that the
9/11 and MS primes produced their effects through sim
ilar mechanisms, it is nonetheless possible that different
processes were involved. To definitively address this is
sue, research focused specifically on the network of asso
ciations and feelings aroused by reminders of 9/11 will
be needed.
Although we did not assess the underlying cognitive
processes through which death-related thoughts in
creased advocacy of violence in this pair of studies, other
research has precisely delineated the processes by which
the MS induction used in these studies produces its ef
fects. In fact, more than 20 studies have been devoted to
this question and have supported a terror management-
based dual process model of defense (Pyszczynski et al.,
1999; for a recent review, see Arndt, Cook, & Routledge,
2004). This work indicates that MS effects result from a
delayed increase in the accessibility of death-related
thought, that worldview defenses reduce this height
ened accessibility back to baseline levels, and that the
function of these defenses is to reduce the potential for
anxiety engendered by death-related thought close to
The best supported alternative account of MS effects
is that thoughts of death arouse feelings of uncertainty
(McGregor, Zanna, Holmes, & Spencer, 2001; van den
Bos, 2001). For example, van den Boss (2001) reported
studies suggesting that uncertainty salience replicates
MS effects on responses to perceived unfair treatment
and inequity. Based on this work, one could plausibly
argue in the present context that the uncertainty pro
duced by thoughts of death motivated the preference for
decisive measures directed toward eradicating evil. This
view cannot be ruled out for the present studies; how
ever, both conceptual and empirical issues cast some
doubt on this interpretation.
First, it is not clear why the MS induction would pro
duce more uncertainty than the controls used in these
studies, dental pain and intense pain, or in other studies
(e.g., worries after college, social exclusion, giving a
speech in public). In one important sense, death is the
only certain future event. What is uncertain about it is
when and how it will happen and what happens after
ward. Interestingly, Iranians generally seem far more
certain about what happens afterward than Americans,
so that aspect may be less uncertain for them, yet the MS
induction clearly affects them. People are likely to be un-
certain about worries after college, about when and how
intense pain or dental pain will occur and what that and
its aftermath will be like, and matters like how they will
do on upcoming exams. Thus, when MS has different ef-
fects than such aversive future events, it seems unlikely
that uncertainty is the operative factor. More damaging
to an uncertainty interpretation, a substantial set of re-
cent studies has found quite different effects for the MS
induction used here and uncertainty salience (e.g.,
Friedman & Arndt, in press; Landau, Johns, et al., 2004;
Routledge, Arndt, & Goldenberg, 2004). Despite this ev
idence supporting the discriminant validity of the MS in
duction, the relationships among death, uncertainty,
and other existential threats is surely a worthy topic for
further investigation.
The Axis of Evil Versus the Great Satan
From a TMT perspective, people protect themselves
from the fear of death inherent in the human condition
by aligning themselves with aspects of cultural world
views that enable them to view themselves as significant
contributors to a meaningful and enduring reality. Be
cause some Islamic groups and leaders advocate martyr
dom against the United States as a heroic means of van
quishing evil, alignment with martyrdom causes has
become a means of attaining this sense of death-
transcending significance. Some Islamic sects preach
that martyrdom attacks are the duty of all good Muslims
and that those who do so will be rewarded by a blissful
afterlife, the ultimate victory over death. Similarly, Presi
dent Bush has repeatedly construed U.S. military cam
paigns in the Middle East as part of a “war on terror” in
which “lovers of freedom” pursue a valiant mission to
root out “evil-doers” who “hate freedom.”
Our findings are consistent with the view that MS in
creased attraction to martyrdom and extreme military
measures because these positions are specifically di
rected toward eradicating evil. It may be that for most
people, inhibitions against killing other people can be
overcome only when the target is viewed as inherently
evil. However, these positions are associated with a vari
ety of other attitudes and beliefs, so at this point, we can
not be sure that this specific aspect of the worldview was
responsible for these effects. More precisely controlled
studies are clearly needed to determine the specific role
the desire to vanquish evil, isolated from associated atti
tudes and beliefs, plays in these findings and terror man
agement in general.
Of course, our primary goal with these studies was to
enhance our understanding of the psychological forces
that encourage support for violent solutions to the ongo
ing conflicts in the Middle East. This research indicates
that the increased awareness of death can lead people to
desire to inflict harm on those who are construed as ene-
mies. This suggests that the frequent reminders of death
that inevitably result from armed conflicts may be fan-
ning the passions that sustain these conflicts. Although
TMT theorists have argued that terror management pro-
cesses play an important role in the problems in the Mid-
dle East (Pyszczynski et al., 2003), these studies provide
much needed evidence that this is indeed likely to be
Polarization of Worldviews or Shift Toward
Security-Providing Worldview Elements?
The question of whether thoughts of death push peo
ple to confirm their preexisting worldviews or to move
toward belief systems that are especially likely to provide
security (cf. Jost et al., 2003; Wicklund, 1997) is a com
plex one. Although a large research program will be nec
essary to fully address this question, the present findings
do bear on it. In both studies, the MS inductions led par
ticipants to move toward supporting positions that were
generally not supported in the control conditions. This
shift toward positions not favored under neutral con
ditions has emerged in several other TMT studies. For
example, Cohen et al. (2004) showed that MS greatly
increased support for a charismatic leader who gar
nered little support under control conditions; Landau,
Solomon, et al., (2004) demonstrated that MS led to a
dramatic reversal of preferences for George Bush over
John Kerry among college students who were registered
and intended to vote in the 2004 American presidential
election; and Schimel et al. (1999) found that MS led
Pyszczynski et al. / DEATH VIOLENT SOLUTIONS 535
participants who preferred a stereotype disconfirming
African American under control conditions to prefer an
African American who confirmed widely shared racial
stereotypes. It seems clear that reminders of mortality
do not simply lead to an amplification of tendencies that
exist under more neutral conditions. Rather, MS leads
people to gravitate toward conceptions of reality that
provide security in one way or other. Often this entails
affirming the dominant aspects of one’s worldview, but
as the present and other results demonstrate, sometimes
this entails moving toward less dominant aspects of the
worldview that are heavily associated with feelings of
superiority, structure, and security.
Study 2 provides additional insight into this issue by
demonstrating that preexisting differences in political
orientation predicted which participants responded to
MS by increasing their support for extreme military poli
cies. When reminded of their mortality, conservative but
not liberal participants increased their support for the
use of such tactics. Perhaps the inhibitions against such
tactics were simply stronger for liberal participants, or
the threat posed by Middle Eastern radicals was per-
ceived as stronger for conservative participants. Al-
though these findings suggest that preexisting attitudes
play an important role in determining how people will
protect themselves from existential concerns, we suspect
that other factors are involved as well. The logic of TMT
suggests that reminders of death should lead people to
gravitate toward whatever aspect of one’s worldview is
expected to provide the best protection at the time the
protection is needed. Providing a clearer explication of
the factors that determine which aspects will provide
superior protection is an important challenge for future
In our view, the most important contribution of this
research is to show that common psychological forces
contribute to support for extreme solutions to the cur
rent conflict in the Middle East in both the United States
and Iran. The same variable that increases support for
martyrdom attacks in the Middle East increases support
for use of extremely lethal military force in the United
States. To our knowledge, these are the first studies to ex
amine common psychological determinants of attitudes
on both sides of this volatile international conflict. These
studies show that scientifically rigorous research can
yield insights into the forces that encourage allegiance
to good versus evil ideologies that are currently threaten
ing the peace in much of the world. Given what is at
stake, a scientifically informed understanding of the
forces responsible for escalating the conflict between
the United States and the Islamic world is sorely needed.
Although frightening in their implications, the conver
gence in findings across the two nations raises the hope
that recognizing the role of a common psychological
force in fueling hostilities in both nations might create at
least some empathy within each country for people in
the other and perhaps even provide some impetus for
finding additional common ground that could be used
as a basis for seeking more peaceful resolutions to the
issues that divide us.
Cultural worldviews have been characterized as fitting
one of two types (Pyszczynski et al., 2003). The first type,
“the rock,” is a relatively secure, rigid conception that
emphasizes absolutes of good and evil; proponents of
such worldviews hold them with great certainty, and the
primary negative emotion they experience when their
worldview is threatened is anger directed toward that
which is designated as evil. The second type, “the hard
place,” is a more flexible and hence less secure
worldview that emphasizes the relativity and complexity
of assessments of right and wrong; proponents of such
worldviews live with uncertainty, and the primary nega
tive emotion they experience is anxiety. The present re
search suggests that when thoughts of death are highly
accessible, people, especially those with prior leanings in
this direction, gravitate toward the former rock type of
worldview, an inclination that can contribute to a cycle of
violence as groups lash out at the “evil” they perceive in
those whose worldview is different from their own.
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no significant effects on the mood measures.
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Pyszczynski et al. / DEATH VIOLENT SOLUTIONS 537
... Following these attacks, pundits, politicians, and scientists expected to see an upsurge in anti-Islamic prejudice. This intuitive expectation for a strong anti-Islamic reaction is grounded in much psychological research that suggests that these terrorist attacks are likely to increase prejudice toward Arab-Muslims for several reasons: First, terrorism exacerbates the sense of existential threat (Pyszczynski et al., 2006), may prompt a preference for conservatism and elevate security needs (Jost et al., 2003), and may lead to uncertainty (Van den Bos et al., 2005) and subsequent compensatory control (Kay et al., 2009). These psychological mechanisms have all been found to promote prejudicial reactions toward out-groups perceived as threatening. ...
... Terror management studies, for instance, have shown that reminders of death increase rejection of worldview-threatening individuals (Arndt et al., 1997;Greenberg et al., 1990), discrimination against those who are different (Greenberg et al., 1990;Harmon-Jones et al., 1996), and aggression against out-groups (Chatard et al., 2011;Hayes et al., 2008;Hirschberger et al., 2016;McGregor et al., 1998;Pyszczynski et al., 2006). Some studies suggest that terrorism reminders and death reminders have similar effects (Das et al., 2009;Landau et al., 2004;Pyszczynski et al., 2006), such that priming both death and terrorism increases support for political violence (Landau et al., 2004) against those believed to be responsible for the attacks. ...
... Terror management studies, for instance, have shown that reminders of death increase rejection of worldview-threatening individuals (Arndt et al., 1997;Greenberg et al., 1990), discrimination against those who are different (Greenberg et al., 1990;Harmon-Jones et al., 1996), and aggression against out-groups (Chatard et al., 2011;Hayes et al., 2008;Hirschberger et al., 2016;McGregor et al., 1998;Pyszczynski et al., 2006). Some studies suggest that terrorism reminders and death reminders have similar effects (Das et al., 2009;Landau et al., 2004;Pyszczynski et al., 2006), such that priming both death and terrorism increases support for political violence (Landau et al., 2004) against those believed to be responsible for the attacks. ...
Twenty years after 9/11, the impact of terrorism on social and political attitudes remains unclear. Several large-scale surveys suggest that terrorism has no discernible effects on direct, self-report measures of prejudice toward Arab-Muslims. However, direct measures may lack the sensitivity to detect subtle underlying attitudes that are considered socially unacceptable to openly express. To tap these subtle reactions, we assessed more sensitive and implicit measures of the cognitive-affective aspects of prejudice. Building on the justification-suppression model of prejudice, we hypothesized that terrorist attacks increase implicit bias toward Arab-Muslims, especially among individuals who are unable to regulate automatic hostile reactions due to personality or situational variables. Study 1, using data from Project Implicit (N = 276,311), showed that terrorist attacks increased implicit bias but not expressed prejudice toward Arab-Muslims. Study 2, using data from Google Trends, showed that terrorist attacks increased anti-Islamic searches on the internet. Four studies that collected original data (total N = 851) showed that the effects of reminders of terrorism on anti-Islamic implicit bias are moderated by individual differences in prejudice and automaticity (Studies 3-4), by the strength of implicit Muslim-terrorist associations (Study 5), and by momentary self-control depletion (Study 6). Overall, the present research indicates that despite little evidence for elevated overt expression of prejudice against Arab-Muslims following terrorist attacks, terrorist attacks increase anti-Islamic implicit bias whenever individuals are unlikely to control automatic hostile reactions. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2023 APA, all rights reserved).
... Using this technique, participants were asked to "briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you," and then "Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you physically as you die and once you are physically dead." Prior research has consistently shown that this method fosters MS (Pyszczynski et al., 2006). ...
... In the baseline condition, a variant of the baseline procedure used by Pyszczynski et al. (2006) was used. Using this technique, participants were asked to "write down five thoughts which come to mind when imagining the experience of a painful dental procedure." ...
This research sought to examine the impact of existential anxiety and threatened control on ingroup favoritism and to further discern whether these effects could be generalized to a non-Western culture. In study one, participants were assigned to a mortality salience (MS), a control threat (CT), or baseline condition, in which self-esteem and perceptions of control were assessed. Following this, they evaluated ingroup and outgroup targets. Participants in the MS and CT conditions rated ingroup members (i.e., New Zealanders) higher than outgroup members (i.e., Asians), while those in the baseline condition did not. In the MS condition, ingroup evaluations were positively correlated with self-esteem (but not locus of control). In the CT condition, ingroup evaluations were negatively correlated with feelings of control (but not self-esteem). Study two sought to assess these effects amongst participants from the Indian subcontinent. Ingroup favoritism was found in the CT condition only. Ingroup evaluations were positively correlated with self-esteem (but not control). These findings suggest that MS and CT influence ingroup favoritism via different psychological mechanisms, and that these influences may be culturally bound.
... However, in a broader context of terror management theory, a significant part of existing research suggests that differences in worldviews, especially those emphasizing the value of tolerance, can moderate the extent to which mortality salience motivates derogation of out-groups, by either neutralizing this effect (e.g., Greenberg et al., 1992;Pyszczynski et al., 2006) or even reversing it (Weise et al., 2012). Therefore, if we consider the threat of disease as a reminder of death, taking into account prior attitudes and worldviews in order to predict prejudicial reactions seems meaningful. ...
Full-text available
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed an enormous challenge in medical, economic, and political terms during the past months. The threat of disease, the more or less authoritarian biopolitics of the states, the concept of social distancing, dictate the need to examine the consequences of the pandemic on an ideological level. Making use of data collected before the pandemic (N = 82) as a point of reference, the aim of the present study was to test the hypothesis that right-wing authoritarianism (Authoritarianism – Conservatism – Traditionalism; ACT; Duckitt et al., 2010) increases under conditions of threat salience (Adorno et al., 1950; Sales, 1973), while appraising the possible moderating role of cultural liberalism. Furthermore, the hypothesis that threat predicts prejudice (e.g., Florack et al., 2003) was examined. Data were collected during three phases of the pandemic in Greece: the first weeks (N = 85), the lockdown (N = 131) and the lifting of the lockdown measures (N = 126). Results confirmed our hypotheses. An increase was found in Conservatism and Traditionalism, especially among less liberal participants, whereas more liberals appeared to express reduced levels of right-wing authoritarianism during the lifting of lockdown measures compared to the pre-COVID-19 period. A progressive expression of prejudice was also found, with cultural liberalism playing a limited but still moderating role in all three phases. Implications of the pandemic for the ideological level are discussed.
... [13] Neumann offers six dynamics drawn from the academic literature which help to explain online radicalization. [14] The first two relate to exposure to extremist propaganda: mortality salience can lead to individuals considering their own death and increase support for violence [15] and videos from conflict zones which portray Muslims suffering which create a sense of moral outrage. [16] The third and fourth mechanisms relate to online communities. ...
Full-text available
This article seeks to re-ontologize online radicalization. Individuals becoming terrorists after being exposed to online content have become a prescient concern for academics, policy makers, and journalists. Existing theoretical contributions to the concept have assumed that there are two ontological domains-online and offline-that can be meaningfully separated. This article will draw from several arguments from other fields which critique this position; the contemporary information environment enmeshes the two inseparably. This argument is then advanced to demonstrate that online radicalization is a redundant concept by drawing on empirical research as well as recent case studies of terrorism. Instead, scholars should consider holistic theories which account for a range of other factors beyond online communication technologies.
... In the political realm, they might become more drawn to charismatic leaders who defend their beliefs (e.g., Cohen et al. 2017). Reminders of death increase prejudice, including religious (Greenberg et al. 1990) as well as national and racial prejudice (e.g., Greenberg et al. 2001), and increases aggression against worldview violators (e.g., Hirschberger et al. 2016;McGregor et al. 1998;Pyszczynski et al. 2006). ...
The climate crisis is a seemingly impossible situation. The declaration of today’s Necrocene can create a sense of ontological insecurity in humans that triggers defenses that are not conducive toward coping with climate catastrophe. This chapter begins by explicating terror management theory as a theoretical frame in the context of education and then pivots to examining two educationally (im)possible pairings. The first pairing is (de)coloniality and social studies education, placed in the context of the defensive moves linked to ontological (in)security. The second (im)possibility is to link what is known from existential psychology to aspects of ahumanism. The tensions between these two pairings are numerous, and yet impossible problems entail impossible responses, in this case, an ahuman existentialism to help muddle through two broad and (im)possible problematics: the potential extinction of the human species (among other species) as well as the (human) limits of comprehending this demise.
Technical Report
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This study, carried out for the European Commission (DG JUST), examines the link between national civil liability rules and consumers’ attitudes towards AI-enabled products and services (AI applications). The study examines, based on behavioural analysis, the following two dimensions: - As regards the societal acceptance of AI applications, the study aims to assess the current level of acceptance of AI applications, the factors shaping it, as well as the awareness of potential challenges in obtaining compensation for damage caused by these applications and its effect on societal acceptance. - With respect to consumers’ trust and willingness to take up AI applications, the study aims to generate insights on the potential impact regulatory alternatives adapting the liability regime might have on consumers’ trust and their willingness to take up such applications, and on the causal mechanisms underlying this impact. The behavioural experiment was built around three types of AI applications and reflected two scenarios of damage caused by such applications: damage caused to the owners of the AI application and damage caused to a third party. Within each of these scenarios, three alternative liability regimes (from the following: fault-based liability with the burden of proof on the victim, a shift of the burden of proof regarding fault, strict liability of the owner = consumer, strict liability of another party) were presented in the form of fictional interviews with a lawyer. A reduced likelihood of obtaining compensation for damage caused by AI was assumed with respect to fault-based liability regimes putting the burden of proof on the injured party. In line with this study’s focus on Member States’ national liability rules, none of the posited alternative liability regimes corresponds to the existing Product Liability Directive.
We present three studies to examine intellectual humility (IH) contextualized to existential challenges across cultures. With samples (N = 1714) drawn from three regions (United States, Hong Kong, Netherlands), we explore the benefits and drawbacks of various configurations of IH and commitment to beliefs. In two studies, we created a measure of IH contextualized to existential concerns (Study 1; N = 344 adults in the U.S.), replicated its factor structure, and identified distinct profiles of belief commitment and IH (Study 2; N = 340 adults in the U.S.). Then, in our primary study (Study 3; N = 1030 adults from the U.S., Netherlands, and Hong Kong), we examined evidence for the cultural generalizability of the measure and profiles. Implications for future research on the measurement of IH, its manifestation across cultures, and its relevance to the existential domain are discussed.
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This chapter proposes that the potential for abject terror created by the awareness of the inevitability of death in an animal instinctively programmed for self-preservation and continued experience lies at the root of a great deal of human motivation and behavior. This chapter presents the results of a substantial body of research that attests to the broad influence of the problem of death on human social behavior and illuminates the processes through which concerns about mortality exert their influence. The chapter overviews the primary assumptions and propositions of terror management theory and a description of the initial research conducted to test the theory. It presents a detailed consideration of more recent research that establishes the convergent and discriminant validity of the mortality salience treatment and the robustness of its effects through the use of alternative mortality salience treatments and comparison treatments, and replications by other researchers; it extends the range of interpersonal behaviors that are demonstrably influenced by terror management concerns. Moreover, it demonstrates the interaction of mortality salience with other theoretically relevant situational and dispositional variables, and provides an account of the cognitive processes through which mortality salience produces its effects. Finally, this chapter discusses the relation of terror management motives to other psychological motives and gives a consideration of issues requiring further investigation.
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This study inquires whether terror management mechanisms depend on the development of the concept of death. Children aged 7 and 11 years (N = 104) were exposed to death salient or non-salient conditions and asked to rate their acceptance of in-group and out-group children. Death salience was manipulated by asking children to answer the Death Concept Scale before or after rating target stimuli. Children also answered a self-esteem scale, and their mothers completed a dogmatism scale. Death salience led to more acceptance of an in-group child and more rejection of an out-group child only among 11-year-old children. Among 7-year-old children, this manipulation led to a rejection of both in-group and out-group children. At both ages, these effects were mainly found among low self-esteem children and among children whose mothers scored high on the dogmatism scale. Results were discussed in the framework of terror management theory.
Previous research has demonstrated that when people are led to think about death they later exhibit more polarized judgments of ingroup and outgroup members. This reaction has been interpreted as an attempt to defend against existential anxiety by seeing oneself as a secure member of a meaning-conveying cultural group. This study examined the moderating influence of self-esteem and found that the polarization effect in response to mortality primes was most pronounced for high self-esteem individuals. An additional manipulation of meaninglessness-anxiety was unsuccessful in producing polarization, lending support to the theoretical centrality of death concerns. We discuss the relevance of these findings to terror management theory (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991).
Three experiments reported here provide empirical support for the hypothesis derived from terror management theory that unconscious concerns about death motivate allegiance to cultural beliefs. Study 1 contrasted exposure to a subliminal death-related stimulus, a standard mortality-salience treatment, and a neutral subliminal stimulus, and found that both the subliminal and the standard reminder of mortality led to more favorable evaluations of people who praised subjects' cultural worldview and more unfavorable evaluations of those who challenged it. Study 2 replicated this finding by comparing the effects of exposure to subliminal death stimuli and subliminal pain stimuli. Study 3 contrasted subliminal death stimuli, supraliminal death stimuli, and subliminal pain stimuli and found that only subliminal death stimuli produced these effects.