The Siren’s Call: Terror Management and the Threat
of Men’s Sexual Attraction to Women
Mark J. Landau
University of Arizona
Jamie L. Goldenberg
University of South Florida
University of Arizona
University of California, Davis
University of Missouri
University of Arizona
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
Why do sexually appealing women often attract derogation and aggression? According to terror
management theory, women’s sexual allure threatens to increase men’s awareness of their corporeality
and thus mortality. Accordingly, in Study 1 a subliminal mortality prime decreased men’s but not
women’s attractiveness ratings of alluring women. In Study 2, mortality salience (MS) led men to
downplay their sexual intent toward a sexy woman. In Study 3, MS decreased men’s interest in a
seductive but not a wholesome woman. In Study 4, MS decreased men’s but not women’s attraction to
a sexy opposite-sex target. In Study 5, MS and a corporeal lust prime increased men’s tolerance of
aggression toward women. Discussion focuses on mortality concerns and male sexual ambivalence.
Keywords: gender, physical attraction, sexism, sexuality, terror management
The high, thrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him, lolling there in
their meadow, round them heaps of corpses rotting away, rags of skin
shriveling on their bones . . . Race straight past that course!
—Homer, The Odyssey
Cross-culturally and historically, men1harbor profound ambiv-
alence toward women’s power to provoke sexual desires. Exhila-
rated by women’s sexual allure, men celebrate their virility, wan-
tonly pursue mating opportunities, and exalt distinctly captivating
women to divine status. Yet men also experience anxiety over
sexual provocations, leading them to renounce base desires and in
some cases punish the women allegedly responsible for inciting
their arousal. Existentially oriented theorists such as Otto Rank
(1930/1998), Norman O. Brown (1959), and Ernest Becker (1973)
have proposed that the human body—especially the physicality of
sex—is problematic because it serves as a perpetual reminder of
the inevitability of death to an animal oriented toward staying
alive. In support of these ideas, research derived from terror
management theory (TMT; e.g., Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Sol-
omon, 1986) has demonstrated that uneasiness over the physical
aspects of sex stems in part from mortality concerns (see Golden-
berg, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 2000, for a review).
Extending this analysis, men’s ambivalence toward sexual attrac-
tion and women in general might be understood as a response to
the existential threat posed by the power of provoked sexual
interest to make one’s corporeal, and thus mortal, nature apparent
(see also Goldenberg & Roberts, 2004). The current article pre-
sents the results of five experiments testing this idea.
Mad About You
In almost every culture of which we are aware, men have
disparaged and feared women almost as vigorously as they have
1For the purposes of this article, our use of the term men refers to
Mark J. Landau, Jeff Greenberg, and Andy Martens, Department of
Psychology, University of Arizona; Jamie L. Goldenberg, Department of
Psychology, University of South Florida; Omri Gillath, Department of
Psychology, University of California, Davis; Sheldon Solomon, Depart-
ment of Psychology, Skidmore College; Cathy Cox, Department of Psy-
chology, University of Missouri; Tom Pyszczynski, Department of Psy-
chology, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Andy Martens is now in the Psychology Department at the University of
Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
This work was partially supported by National Science Foundation
Grants SBR 9729946 and BCS 0241371. We thank Dena Norris, Jeremy
Fahrenbrink, and Samantha Zipp for their assistance in data collection.
Many thanks go to Eric Osborne for help with materials. Jim Dobbins also
assisted in data collection and made contributions to a draft of this article.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Mark J.
Landau, University of Arizona, Department of Psychology, P.O. Box
210068, Tucson, AZ 85721-0068. E-mail: email@example.com
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
2006, Vol. 90, No. 1, 129–146
Copyright 2006 by the American Psychological Association
adored and pursued them (see Gilmore, 2001, for a historical
overview). Most of the earliest writings, folklore, and holy texts
(e.g., the Bible, the Qur’an, Buddhist and Hindu scripture) depict
women as contaminating, iniquitous personifications of danger and
evil (e.g., the Siren’s intoxicating charm luring innocent men into
oblivion; Pandora and Eve introducing suffering to the world; the
association of the vagina with danger, suffering, and social disor-
der in peoples ranging from the Wichita Indians of Kansas to the
Muria of central India; see Hays, 1964). Even in contemporary
Western societies, women are often branded as temptresses mali-
ciously bent on perverting reason, swaying men from righteous-
ness, defiling all that is sacred and pure, and undermining the
moral fabric of culture (Gilmore, 2001; Lakoff, 1987; Spiro,
A pervasive theme underlying men’s fearful and derisive atti-
tudes toward women is ambivalence toward their own sexual
inclinations. On the one hand, there is a marked gender asymmetry
in desire for sex (Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Clark & Hatfield, 1989).
Compared with women, men think about sex more, have more
favorable attitudes toward it (Oliver & Hyde, 1993), desire to
copulate with a wider variety of partners (Symons, 1979), exag-
gerate their number of partners (N. R. Brown & Sinclair, 1999;
Regan & Dreyer, 1999), seek and initiate more sex (Byers &
Heinlein, 1989), consume massive amounts of pornography, some-
times obtain sex by force, and sacrifice resources to induce consent
or to purchase sex outright. However, there is also ample evidence
that men are distressed over their sexual responses (Barlow, 1986;
Koukounas & McCabe, 2001), deny sexual interest, and condemn
These guarded reactions to woman and sexuality are commonly
observed in religious traditions. Many Christian texts (e.g., the
Malleus Maleficarum, 1486), for example, designate women’s
sexual lure as the principal cause of sin in the world. The Torah
prohibits women from cooking on the Sabbath day lest they disrupt
men’s religious aims by bending over the oven. Catholic churches
also once mandated that women cover their heads during mass to
prevent angels from being overwhelmed with lust, and female
cantors were prohibited on account of their distractingly erotic
voices. As expressed by a contemporary minister, “sexual ‘thorns-
in-the-flesh’ are surely the greatest instruments of humility to
bring the clergy to their knees in prayer” (quoted in Balswick &
Thoburn, 1991, p. 280). In Buddhist traditions, “sex is a base drive
and an insurmountable obstacle to ultimate salvation (nirvana)
whose achievement requires, among other things, the extinction of
sexual desire” (Spiro, 1997, p. 154). To protect themselves against
sexual enticement, men have embraced various forms of asceti-
cism (from hermetic retreats and self-castrations to cults of vir-
ginity and straightedge subcultures; see Atkinson, 2003; Hayt,
2002) that emphasize self-restraint and bodily purity as a protest
against hedonistic bodily indulgences.
Outside the domain of religion, men have also feared the power
of women’s sexual lure in undermining societal order (e.g., por-
nography regulations) and personal control (Edgerton, 1971;
Freud, 1931; Gilmore, 2001). Women’s sexual influence has even
been branded as debilitating, poisonous, and fatal (Spiro, 1997).
For example, men in the 19th century were encouraged to use diet
and exercise to temper “venereal excess,” which was associated
with a host of health complications. Also, many different peoples
have independently associated ejaculation with the loss of virtue
and vital life force (e.g., Lederer, 1968) and depicted women as
transforming man’s unique nature into lowly life forms (e.g.,
squealing pigs; Dinnerstein, 1976).
Men’s sexual preoccupations have had dire consequences for
women’s lives and well-being. Even in the most purportedly
egalitarian societies, women who commit the slightest transgres-
sions against local sexual regulations face strict sanctions (Linden-
baum, 1976). For example, women constituted 80% of the alleged
witches (whose evil derives from their carnal lust) who were
humiliated, banished, and executed in 17th-century New England
(Lehman & Myers, 1993). The Mundurucu of Brazil prohibit
women from being in proximity to sacramental tools at the cost of
gang rape or execution (Murphy, 1960). Also, many cultures
practice female circumcision and even infibulation, in which not
only is the clitoris removed but the vagina is stitched up until
marriage. In other extremes, serial killers, both real (e.g., Christo-
pher Wilder, Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy) and fictitious (popular
in slasher movies), have favored prostitutes and other allegedly
iniquitous women. More insidiously, many of the prevalent derog-
atory terms for women are explicitly sexual (e.g., slut, whore), and
women who are typically associated with sex (sex industry work-
ers, sorority girls, even blondes; Pitman, 2003) are targets of
belittlement, harassment, physical and sexual abuse, social cen-
sure, and victim derogation. Men tend to juxtapose these attitudes
and practices with an equally strong aforementioned tendency to
adore and even worship women, resulting in what many have
referred to as the Madonna–whore dichotomy (Tanzer, 1985) or
pedestal–gutter syndrome (Tavris & Wade, 1984).
In sum, one significant dimension underlying men’s misogynis-
tic attitudes and behavior has been a deep-seated concern over
women’s power to provoke sexual desire. Although cross-cultural
and historical evidence attests to the influence of this concern on
men’s responses to sex and women, few efforts have been made to
systematically address why sexual desire is sometimes regarded
with profound suspicion, and why sexually appealing women often
attract derogation and even aggression. Below we present an
existential account of sexual ambivalence that may cast some light
on these and related issues.
An Existential Approach
Our account of men’s sexual ambivalence is derived from TMT
(Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991) and its theoretical
antecedents, such as Søren Kierkegaard, Otto Rank, Norman
Brown, and Ernest Becker, who converged on the notion that
shame, anxiety, and disgust surrounding the physical aspects of the
self reflect an underlying concern with vulnerability and mortality.
Like all life forms, humans have a basic predisposition to avoid
threats to continued existence. They accomplish this in large part
by virtue of their distinctive and immensely adaptive intellectual
capabilities (e.g., extended temporal thought, self-awareness, and
the associated capacity for abstract, symbolic thinking). These
skills are a paradoxical achievement, however, as they render the
individual aware of the utter fragility of life and the inevitability of
his or her own death. Even in the absence of any immediate threat,
people recognize that their desire to live will inevitably be thwart-
ed—a recognition that threatens to overwhelm them with paralyz-
ing anxiety. To maintain psychological equanimity and enable
routine activity, people construct shared, symbolic conceptions of
LANDAU ET AL.
reality that imbue the world and one’s own existence with tran-
scendent meaning, order, and permanence. By viewing their life as
playing out within a symbolically meaningful reality, the individ-
ual can sustain the feeling that he or she is more than a mere
transient animal fated only to annihilation upon death. According
to TMT, we can understand a wide range of behaviors as attempts
to maintain meaning and value in the ultimate service of managing
deeply held mortality concerns.
From this perspective, the body is problematic. Although people
perceive themselves as unique individuals with meaningful histo-
ries and lofty life projects, they are nonetheless encased in a
lumbering body that aches, bleeds, and binds them to the fate of
every other living thing, namely inevitable decay and death. Peo-
ple are at some level aware that their body is, in effect, their
inviolable contract with death—a constant reminder of their falli-
bility—and go to great lengths to deny this by elevating them-
selves above their mere animal existence to something more dig-
nified, unique, and permanent. This antagonism between the
mental (eternal, ethereal, sacred) and the corporeal (temporal,
material, profane) is expressed in many intellectual traditions (e.g.,
dualism), religious convictions (e.g., the soul), and cultural prac-
tices (e.g., excessive grooming and adornment), all seeking to
instill humankind with an immortal essence independent of the
body and thus view the self as free from accidental termination or
eventual dissolution from the ravages of time. In short, people
have regarded the corporeal with shame and disgust and have
placed great value on erecting what Stephen Jay Gould (2002)
referred to as golden barriers to set themselves apart from the rest
of the animal kingdom, in large part because of an awareness of the
connection between the physical and the mortal.
Extending TMT to address the question of why sex is so often
a source of anxiety, guilt, and general distress, Goldenberg and
colleagues (e.g., Goldenberg, Cox, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, &
Solomon, 2002; Goldenberg et al., 2000; Goldenberg, Pyszczyn-
ski, McCoy, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1999) claimed that although
sex can be immensely pleasurable, it also threatens to make ap-
parent one’s physicalness and thus mortality. As with menstrua-
tion, eating, excretion, and other bodily activities, one response to
this threat is the rigid imposition of culturally constructed regula-
tions, such as with rules about who can engage in which sexual
activity with whom and under what conditions. People also be-
come highly invested in imbuing the physical act of sex with
symbolic significance (e.g., by equating sex with uniquely human
values like romantic love, spiritual ascendancy, etc.). Moreover,
they attempt to override biological inclinations through extensive
self-regulation (e.g., denying temptation and denouncing “plea-
sures of the flesh”). Although these ways of relating to sex may
also serve other, more practical functions, Goldenberg et al. (e.g.,
1999) proposed that people’s frequent uneasiness with sex, and
their vigorous efforts to mask its raw physicality, are at least in part
(quite unconscious) attempts to obscure the link between sex and
Empirical Assessment of the Existential Approach
According to TMT’s mortality salience (MS) hypothesis,
heightening the salience of mortality should intensify reliance on
and defense of psychological structures that help one sustain faith
in the meaningfulness and significance of one’s life. Over 200
experiments to date have supported hypotheses derived from this
idea. For example, MS has led to polarized attitudes toward those
who uphold or violate cultural values (Greenberg et al., 1990),
increased discomfort for those behaving in ways that violate cul-
tural standards (Greenberg, Simon, Porteus, Pyszczynski, & Sol-
omon, 1995), and heightened aggression against those who chal-
lenge one’s beliefs (McGregor et al., 1998). Furthermore, these
effects have been obtained with diverse operationalizations of MS,
including subliminal priming (Arndt, Greenberg, Pyszczynski, &
Solomon, 1997) and proximity to a funeral home (Pyszczynski et
Further, MS effects have been shown to be specific to mortality;
they are not elicited by other aversive stimuli, increased self-focus,
or the salience of cultural values (e.g., Greenberg, Simon, Harmon-
Jones, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1995). The model by which
thoughts of death affect behavior (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, &
Solomon, 1999) posits that conscious contemplation of mortality
first arouses direct, threat-focused proximal defenses involving
suppression of death-related thoughts or denying vulnerability to
various risk factors. Once death-related thought is no longer in
focal awareness, distal symbolic terror management defenses,
which serve to bolster faith in a meaningful worldview and one’s
sense of self as special and permanent, are activated to manage the
potential for anxiety engendered by the heightened accessibility of
implicit death-related thought. For explicit MS inductions, this
increase in symbolic defense occurs most reliably following a
delay and distraction. Also, Arndt et al. (1997) found that present-
ing death-related words beneath conscious awareness led to an
immediate increase in death thought accessibility and symbolic
defenses relative to neutral or control words (for a recent review of
research supporting this model, see Arndt, Cook, & Routledge,
2004). This and other evidence supports the central claim of TMT
that specific concerns about death influence a wide range of
behaviors directed toward sustaining faith in a meaningful world-
view and a sense of personal significance (see Greenberg, So-
lomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997; Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Green-
More pertinent for our present purposes, Goldenberg et al.
(2001) focused on the threat of corporeality and found that MS, but
not another aversive prime, increased preference for an essay
distinguishing humans from other animals and increased disgust
reactions to bodily products and functions. More recently, Gold-
enberg et al. (2002) found that thinking about aspects of one’s
physicality led to an increased accessibility of death-related
thoughts, and Goldenberg et al. (2004) found that, among individ-
uals high in neuroticism (who lack an effective buffer against
death concerns; Hoelter & Hoelter, 1978), MS increased avoidance
of even pleasurable physical sensation.
Focusing specifically on sex, Goldenberg et al. (1999) found
that individuals high in neuroticism responded to MS with less
interest in the physical aspects of sex (e.g., “feeling my genitals
respond sexually”) and increased accessibility of death-related
thought when reminded of those physical aspects. Goldenberg et
al. (2002) found that these effects held for both individuals high in
neuroticism and individuals low in neuroticism when humans’
similarity to other animals was made salient. In short, the claim
that uneasiness about sex is rooted in mortality concerns is sup-
ported by evidence that MS results in an intensified need to
distance from the physical aspects of sex, especially when one’s
TMT AND SEXUAL ATTRACTION
creaturely nature is made apparent, and that reminders of the
physical, but not romantic, aspects of sex increase death accessi-
bility. Further, symbolic or meaning-lending constructions (e.g.,
love) have been shown to buffer the threatening association be-
tween physical sex and death (Goldenberg et al., 1999; Study 3).
Indeed, Mikulincer and colleagues (see Mikulincer, Florian, &
Hirschberger, 2003) have shown in a large body of research that
long-term romantic partners serve a fundamental role in assuaging
Considering our original question—what is threatening to men
about women’s sexual allure?—from a terror management per-
spective, we think it plausible that the threat derives in part from
the power of attraction to undermine the man’s sustained avoid-
ance of mortality concerns. The experience of raw sexual attrac-
tion, unembellished by symbolic interpretations, transforms the
individual from something unique and special to an impulsive,
animalistic, material, and finite piece of biological protoplasm
(Rank, 1930/1998). Even subtle reminders that he is at the mercy
of his libidinal appetites may thus threaten the man’s symbolic
defenses against mortality concerns. Although this proposal is
consistent with a long theoretical tradition, the present research is
the first to examine the role of mortality concerns in the threat of
women’s sexual allure.
Is the threat of sexual attraction unique to men? We think that
underlying existential concerns motivate men and women alike to
see themselves as unbounded to their creaturely instincts and
appetites and that yielding to sexual temptation can potentially
undermine this striving and engender much of the guilt and anxiety
that men and women experience regarding sex. However, as Gold-
enberg and Roberts (2004) have recently proposed, because of
men’s ardent sexual desire and their relatively more body-centered
sexuality (i.e., tied more to physical attraction and pleasure than
women’s because of various aspects of their physiology, social-
ization, etc.; e.g., Buss, 1989), they may be especially vulnerable
to confrontations with their own corporeality via sexual attraction.
This is consistent with the historical prevalence of men’s associ-
ation between women’s sexual allure and death, hypervigilance
over yielding to the pleasures of the flesh, and contempt and
derision for women who provoke lustful thoughts. For these rea-
sons, and because men’s ambivalence toward women has had
severe social repercussions, the current studies focus primarily, but
not exclusively, on men’s responses to women.
In sum, prior terror management research suggests that MS
leads people to react unfavorably to anyone or anything that
renders their corporeality salient. Accordingly, we propose that the
experience of sexual attraction can exert this regressive pull on
men and will thus lead to denial of sexual attraction and derogation
of women when mortality is salient. On the basis of these ideas,
Study 1 tested the hypothesis that subliminal mortality primes
would reduce objective ratings of alluring women’s physical at-
tractiveness and sexiness among male but not female raters. Study
2 assessed whether mortality-salient men minimize their perceived
sexual, but not friendly, intent in an interaction with a sexually
appealing woman. Study 3 evaluated the hypothesis that MS would
result in unfavorable attitudes toward seductive, but not whole-
some, women. Study 4 examined men and women to assess
whether women exhibited mortality-induced distaste for a seduc-
tive member of the opposite sex. Finally, Study 5 tested the idea
that MS combined with reminders of carnal lust would increase
men’s tolerance for aggression against women.
We claim that men harbor ambivalence toward sexually alluring
women in part because of the existential threat of sexual attraction.
This ambivalence has contributed to the tendency for some men to
dissociate themselves from their own creaturely impulses (Becker,
1973; N. O. Brown, 1959). Study 1 was designed to test the
hypothesis that death-primed men will give lower objective ratings
of the physical attractiveness and sexiness of alluring women. To
test this, we subliminally primed participants with death or pain
and then asked them to judge the attractiveness of anonymous,
Another goal of Study 1 was to show that the effects of death
reminders on evaluations of sexy women are specific to men. Prior
research by Roberts, Goldenberg, Power, and Pyszczynski (2002)
has demonstrated that when a female confederate inadvertently
dropped a tampon (as opposed to a hair clip), both male and female
participants responded to her unfavorably. These findings were
interpreted as demonstrating a reaction against the creatureliness
inherent in another’s body, in this case women. Goldenberg and
Roberts (2004) even suggested that there may be an existential
threat inherent in women’s bodies due to more obvious associa-
tions with reproduction (e.g., menstruation, pregnancy, and lacta-
tion). However, in the current series of experiments, we were
explicitly interested in how mortality concerns associated with
men’s desire contribute to ambivalent reactions toward sexually
attractive women. In other words, we claim that the role of mor-
tality concerns in negative reactions toward sexy women reflects a
threat inherent in one’s own body, when men’s own animalistic
inclinations are incited by women, and are not primarily a reaction
against alluring women per se. If the threat of sexual attraction
indeed represents an internal conflict between the pursuit of sex
and the denial of corporeality, rather than an inherent threat asso-
ciated with women’s bodies, then mortality primes should reduce
men’s, but not women’s, attractiveness ratings of alluring women.
A total of 64 (18 men and 46 women)2undergraduates participated in
exchange for extra credit. All participants reported to be heterosexual.
Materials and Procedure
Mixed-sex groups were run in a laboratory setting by a male experi-
menter. They were asked to participate in two ostensibly separate studies—
one a computerized word task and the other an evaluation exercise.
2The unequal number of men and women reflects the distribution of sex
in the participant pool. When we performed the primary analysis after
randomly removing 28 women to equalize cell sizes, the results revealed an
equivalent pattern of means, and the critical interaction and pairwise
comparisons remained significant.
LANDAU ET AL.
Subliminal mortality manipulation.
through a computer program designed to subliminally present death or a
control prime outside of conscious awareness (Arndt et al., 1997). The
experimenter first gave the instructions for the word-relation task, which
required participants to decide as quickly as possible whether two words
that flashed sequentially on the screen were semantically related or unre-
lated by pressing the right shift key or the left shift key, respectively. For
example, if the words flower and rose were presented, participants were to
press the right shift key to indicate that they are related, but if the words
sneaker and fajita were presented, they were to press the left shift key to
indicate that they are not. The experimenter then turned off the cubicle light
to reduce glare on the screen. The appropriate keys were marked with
Stimuli were presented on a 15-in Gateway color monitor controlled by
an IBM-compatible computer. The task was presented with DMASTR
display software, developed at Monash University and at the University of
Arizona by K. I. Forster and J. C. Forster (2001). The program synchro-
nizes the timing of the display and uses normal bit-mapped fonts. The first
few frames presented instructions and three practice stimuli centered on the
screen. There were then 10 trials sequentially presenting three words
centered on the screen. The first and third words were the target words for
which participants were supposed to determine the presence or absence of
a relationship. Actually these two words served as a forward mask (and
fixation point) and backward mask, respectively, and were displayed for
427.5 ms. The critical subliminal prime, either DEAD or PAIN, depending
on the condition, was presented between the two masking words for 42.8
ms. The control prime, PAIN, was chosen because it matched DEAD in
word size and frequency and because it is negative in valence. The
experimenter was blind to priming condition.
Upon completion of the computer task, participants were given a packet
of materials for the second study.
Target pictures and evaluations.
six pictures of six notably attractive women. To minimize familiarity, we
chose women who were not currently undergraduates at the university.
They wore diverse outfits, but all were dressed in a sexually appealing
though not aberrant manner (e.g., short skirts), and all smiled and looked
at the camera. They all sat on a waist-height stool and assumed slightly
different poses. The setting was a plain white hallway. The pictures were
randomized in order prior to the experiment. Participants were asked to
evaluate each target on six dimensions: attractive, alluring, beautiful,
desirable, inviting, and sexy. Responses were made on 9-point scales
ranging from 1 (not at all) to 9 (very much so).
Participants were then asked a series of ma-
nipulation check questions to assess their awareness of the stimuli display:
The experimenter led participants
The first part of the packet included
How many words did you see in each display? Did you ever see more
than two words flashed at a time? If yes, was it the same word or a
different word from the others you saw? If you think it was a different
word, list what you think it may have been.
On a separate page were the instructions “Assume that there was an
additional word that flashed across the computer screen. Out of the four
words, guess which one it might have been” followed by four words: fail,
dead, pain, and hurt. Participants inserted completed packets into a con-
fidential box and were fully debriefed.
Results and Discussion
Checks on Awareness of Subliminal Stimuli
To assess participants’ awareness of the subliminal stimuli, we
examined their responses to the priming questionnaire. Only 5
participants indicated that they saw three rather than two words in
each trial display; none of them chose dead as the additional word.
When asked to guess what a possible third word was from a list of
four words, participants in the death condition chose dead (from
four choices) less than 15% of the time, and those in the pain
condition chose pain less than 16% of the time. Thus, as in
previous research using this manipulation (e.g., Arndt et al., 1997),
there was no conscious retrospective awareness of the prime.
The six evaluation dimensions were internally reliable (for each
target, alphas ranged from .88 to .96) and were thus averaged to
form a composite attractiveness rating. Analyses using target as a
within-subjects variable yielded no significant main effects or
interactions with our primary variables, so we collapsed the ratings
across targets (actual composite scores ranged from 1.19 to 7.19).
These scores were submitted to a 2 (death vs. pain prime) ? 2
(sex) analysis of variance (ANOVA). Not surprisingly, we found a
main effect for sex such that men rated the female targets as more
attractive (M ? 5.5, SD ? 1.59) than did women (M ? 4.5, SD ?
1.19), F(1, 60) ? 6.39, p ? .01. This was qualified by the
predicted Prime ? Sex interaction, F(1, 60) ? 6.84, p ? .01
(means are presented in Table 1). Pairwise comparisons revealed
that death primes caused a significant decrease in perceived at-
tractiveness among men, F(1, 60) ? 6.28, p ? .02. Indeed,
whereas in the pain prime condition men gave higher attractive-
ness ratings than did women, F(1, 60) ? 9.06, p ? .01, there was
no sex difference in the death prime condition (F ? 1, p ? .90).
In contrast to men, women’s attractiveness ratings were not af-
fected by priming condition (F ? 1, p ? .40).
These results confirmed our hypothesis that mortality primes
would decrease men’s, but not women’s, objective ratings of
alluring women’s physical and sexual attractiveness. These find-
ings provide support for the claim that men’s ambivalent reactions
to sexually attractive women are at least partly rooted in mortality
concerns. If the threat stemmed primarily from the female targets’
bodies per se, then death-primed women should have also rated the
target women as objectively less attractive.
Study 1 provides evidence that, for men, mortality primes re-
duced perceived attractiveness of sexually alluring women. In
Study 2, we examined men’s perceptions of their sexual intent
toward a sexually alluring woman in a dyadic interaction. We also
assessed other positive but nonsexual reactions to the woman. We
hypothesized that men who encounter an attractive, friendly
Attractiveness Ratings of Sexy Women as a Function of Subliminal
Mortality and Control Primes and Participant Sex in Study 1
attractiveness. Means with different subscripts differ at p ? .05.
Scale ranged from 1 to 9. Higher scores indicate higher perceived
TMT AND SEXUAL ATTRACTION
woman under conditions of MS would be less likely to admit
sexual intent, but self-perceived friendliness, much like the roman-
tic aspects of sex (Goldenberg et al., 1999), would not be aversely
affected by MS. To test this idea, we had mortality- and control-
primed men interact with a sexually attractive female confederate
and then evaluate her and their own sexual behavior as well as
other nonsexual behaviors generally associated with friendliness.
We also controlled for the potential influence of self-perceived
mate value on participants’ evaluation of their own sexual intent.
There is evidence that those prone to anxiety (e.g., people high in
depression and neuroticism) report lower self-perceived mate
value and are more sensitive about social losses (e.g., being re-
jected) than gains (Kirsner, Figueredo, & Jacobs, 2003). On the
basis of these findings, an alternative explanation for our expected
pattern of results might be that MS results in a more conservative
self-esteem strategy, negatively influencing what men feel is real-
istically attainable (i.e., reduced mate value) and consequently
reducing their investment in appearing sexually engaged. To ac-
count for this alternative, we included a Mate Value Inventory
(MVI). We predicted that MS would not affect self-perceived mate
value, nor would mate value mediate the hypothesized MS effects.
Participants were 173heterosexual undergraduate men recruited to par-
ticipate in partial fulfillment of a course requirement.
Materials and Procedure
The experiment was run with participants individually in a lab setting. A
male experimenter ushered the participant into an anteroom and asked him
to wait for the other participant. The participant sat in one of two chairs
positioned on opposing sides of a small table. The chairs were placed
equidistantly from the table to control for proximity. A female confederate
(blind to priming condition) in an adjacent room began timing at the
moment the participant entered the lab and then entered 15 s later, inquiring
whether this was the correct room for the experiment. The experimenter
invited her to sit in the second chair. The confederate was a distinctly
attractive blonde wearing revealing denim shorts and a form-fitting top.
The outfit was chosen to be sexy but not at all aberrant for the area and the
season. In addition to her outfit, her perfume, hair, and makeup (all
attractively prepared) were consistent across sessions. The experimenter
explained that they would be participating in a study on first impressions
and the getting-acquainted process. They would be asked to complete some
standard personality questionnaires, briefly interact with each other in a
short task, and then privately give their impressions of the interaction.
Participants then entered separate cubicles, and the experimenter (blind to
condition) administered the packet of personality questionnaires described
MS manipulation and delay.
The MS manipulation followed two filler
questionnaires included to sustain the cover story and obscure the true
purpose of the study. In the MS condition, participants responded to two
open-ended questions (used in prior TMT studies; e.g., Rosenblatt, Green-
berg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Lyon, 1989): “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.” To ensure that the effects
are specific to thoughts of death and not merely generalized reactions to
aversive thoughts, we asked participants in the control condition to respond
to parallel questions about dental pain. A delay and distraction was then
created by having participants complete a self-report mood scale (Positive
and Negative Affect Schedule—Expanded Form [PANAS–X]; Watson &
Clark, 1991)4as previous research (e.g., Greenberg, Pyszczynski, So-
lomon, Simon, & Breus, 1994) has shown that the effects of an explicit MS
prime are more robust after a delay.
Participants inserted completed packets into envelopes and a box and
then cracked their cubicle door, at which point the confederate in the
adjacent cubicle counted 10 s and then opened her door. The experimenter
asked them both to return to their seats in the main room. He explained that
the next part of the study was concerned with how unacquainted people
form impressions of others on the basis of short interactions. After con-
firming that the participant and the confederate were indeed strangers, he
instructed them to interact for a few minutes and encouraged them to relax
and be themselves throughout the interaction. They were then told that to
structure the interaction they would be given forms with questions to ask
the other person. They drew slips of paper to determine whether they
received Form A or Form B. In reality, both slips of paper were marked A,
and the confederate always announced B. They were then administered
The experimenter encouraged both to get a sense of the other’s person-
ality and then left the room for exactly 4 min, during which the participant
and confederate exchanged questions and answers. The confederate’s an-
swers were scripted to give the impression that she was single, inviting, and
enjoyed a good time. A sample question asked of the confederate was
“What do you think of the dating scene at U of A?,” to which she
responded “I’ve dated a few guys here and there but nothing serious, ya’
know? I’m still looking for the right guy, but I guess I haven’t found him
yet . . . yeah I guess I’m still on the hunt, ya’ know?” To minimize
variability in the participant’s responses to her queries, we directed the
confederate to ask questions with straightforward answers (e.g., “What
restaurants do you like to go to?”). The confederate was well practiced in
being equally friendly to all participants on a range of communicative
dimensions (e.g., eye contact, smiling, intonation, attentiveness, etc.). The
experimenter returned and explained that they would now have a chance to
privately report their impressions of the other person and the interaction.
They returned to separate cubicles, where the experimenter administered
the packet described below. The participants were instructed to complete
the packet and then place it in the unmarked envelope provided and drop
the envelope in a box in the cubicle to ensure the anonymity of their
Interaction rating forms.
The interaction rating forms were modeled
after similar measures used by Abbey (1982). One form asked participants
to think about the conversation and then rate, on a 7-point scale ranging
3Although this is a low sample size, we felt it necessary to terminate the
study early because debriefings revealed that the deception involved with
the procedure was disturbing for some participants, suggesting that our
female confederate was indeed convincing and alluring.
4Use of the PANAS–X also allowed us to assess the possibility of
affective consequences of the MS inductions and to assess whether mood
played any mediating role in the reported effects. For Studies 2, 4, and 5,
we performed an MS ? Control Prime multivariate analysis of variance as
well as ANOVAs on the various subscales of the PANAS–X and ANOVAs
on the aggregate positive and negative affect scores. Consistent with prior
research, these analyses revealed no indication that MS influenced positive
or negative affect or their constitutive subscales. To ensure that MS effects
were not mediated by affect, we conducted analyses of covariance with the
affect subscales scores (including positive and negative affect) as covari-
ates, and the effects of MS remained statistically intact (the pattern of
significant results for all studies remained the same when positive and
negative affect were covaried out). Thus, we can be quite confident that, as
in past research, the reported findings are not caused by affective differ-
ences between the MS and control conditions.
LANDAU ET AL.
from 1 (not trying at all to be) to 7 (trying very hard to be), how much they
thought their interaction partner was trying to behave with respect to a
number of characteristics. Of these, 5 characteristics indicated sexual
intent: sexy, promiscuous, attractive, seductive, and flirtatious. To divert
participants’ attention from the centrality of the sexual items as well as
assess the specificity of MS effects on sexual interest, we asked partici-
pants to rate their partner on 15 positive but sexually neutral characteris-
tics: considerate, cheerful, interesting, talkative, likable, funny, warm,
kind, lively, assertive, intelligent, sincere, friendly, polite, and sociable.
Another form asked participants to rate their own behavior on the same 20
characteristics. Self- and other ratings were counterbalanced. A prelimi-
nary analysis revealed no main effects or interactions for order of presen-
tation, so this variable was excluded from subsequent analyses.
Participants were then administered Kirsner et al.’s
(2003) MVI to assess how they rated themselves on a number of purported
evolutionarily relevant categories indicative of value as a mate (e.g., wealth
and status, physical appearance, sexual fidelity). The scale demonstrated
acceptable internal reliability (? ? .85).
Results and Discussion
We expected that death-primed men would downplay their
sexual, but not friendly, intent toward the alluring woman com-
pared with control-primed men. Thus, we averaged participants’
ratings for the 5 items indicating how much they were trying to be
sexually flirtatious (? ? .83; range: 1.0–4.4), how much their
partner was perceived as being flirtatious (? ? .85; range: 1.4–
4.4), the 15 items indicating their own friendliness (? ? .93; range:
3.1–5.6), and their partner’s friendliness (? ? .90; range: 3.4–5.3).
See Table 2 for correlations between these measures.
A 2 (MS vs. dental-pain prime; between) ? 2 (self vs. other
ratings; within) ? 2 (sexual vs. friendly intent; within) ANOVA
revealed a main effect for sexual versus friendly intent, F(1, 15) ?
488.96, p ? .01, and an interaction between self- versus other
ratings and sexual versus friendly intent ratings, F(1, 15) ? 5.47,
p ? .03, both of which were qualified by the predicted three-way
interaction, F(1, 15) ? 4.40, p ? .05. To interpret this interaction
we performed separate ANOVAs for sexual and friendly intent.
We submitted sexual intent ratings to a 2 (MS vs. pain; be-
tween) ? 2 (self vs. other; within) ANOVA. The analysis revealed
no main effects (Fs ? 1). However, the predicted two-way inter-
action emerged, F(1, 15) ? 6.64, p ? .02 (see relevant means in
Table 3). Pairwise comparisons demonstrated that, within the MS
condition, men’s self-perceived sexual intent was lower than other-
perceived sexual intent, F(1, 15) ? 7.65, p ? .01. Furthermore,
men’s self-perceived sexual intent was lower in the MS condition
than in the dental-pain condition, F(1, 15) ? 7.15, p ? .02. No
other comparisons attained significance (Fs ? 1).
To assess whether the reduced interest was specifically sexual,
we performed a second mixed ANOVA on self- and other-
friendliness ratings. Results revealed a main effect for self- versus
other ratings, such that men perceived themselves as trying to be
more friendly (M ? 4.4, SD ? 0.71) than the confederate (M ?
4.2, SD ? 0.64), F(1, 15) ? 7.10, p ? .02. However, there was no
trace of an interaction with MS (F ? 1).
To test whether MS influenced participants’ estimates of their
own desirability as a mate, we conducted an MS ? Self versus
Other ANOVA with MVI scores as our dependent measure. There
were no changes in perceptions of self-perceived mate value (ps ?
.90). Furthermore, including MVI scores as a covariate resulted in
the same pattern of significant results relevant to our key predic-
tions, further suggesting that MVI did not mediate the effects of
MS on willingness to admit sexual intentions.
These results confirmed our hypothesis that, in the context of a
natural interaction with a sexy woman, MS would reduce men’s
perception of their own sexual interest but not perceptions of their
partner’s sexual interest or the extent to which either was trying to
be friendly. These results provide further evidence that mortality
concerns underlie men’s defensive distancing from their own
reactions to a sexually alluring woman.
One limitation of the present study is that, despite the multiple
measures taken to assure participants of confidentiality, they may
have still been concerned that their conversation partner would see
their responses, and therefore we cannot definitively rule out the
possibility that death-primed men were motivated to protect self-
esteem (e.g., Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 2004) and were
thus reluctant to admit their sexual intent for fear of rejection or
embarrassment. Although we think this alternative explanation is
unlikely for a number of reasons (e.g., it would be equally embar-
rassing to assume sexual intent on the part of one’s partner, but
there were no effects on this measure), the remaining studies, like
Study 1, were designed such that targets were not present. That
said, the realism provided by an actual woman in a relatively
natural context is a strength of this study.
The findings of Studies 1 and 2 demonstrate that death remind-
ers result in men downplaying the sexual attraction of and their
sexual intent toward alluring women. However, it is unclear
whether mortality concerns cause men to respond negatively to all
women or whether the effects are specific to sexually provocative
women. On the basis of the idea that people respond to mortality
by imbuing threatening aspects of existence with symbolic mean-
ing (e.g., Greenberg et al., 1997) as well as the specific findings of
Goldenberg et al. (1999, 2002), showing that MS leads to negative
Correlations (Overall and by Condition) Among Measures of
Self and Other’s Sexual and Friendly Intent Used in Study 2
Overall (N ? 17)
Self’s sexual intent
Mortality salience (n ? 9)
Self’s sexual intent
Dental pain (n ? 8)
Self’s sexual intent
* p ? .05.** p ? .01.
TMT AND SEXUAL ATTRACTION
that men defend against the threatening aspects of animalistic attrac-
tion to women by raising some women to a special status of whole-
some, virginal creatures (indeed, men have often clung to feminized
figures of cosmic beauty, fertility, and nurturance such as the Ma-
donna and child or Mother Earth). Attraction to women who appear
pure and wholesome should thus pose minimal existential threat.
In this vein, Glick and Fiske (2001) have provided evidence that
men polarize their perceptions of women, exalting some to a
pedestal and consigning others to the gutter. In particular, Glick
and Fiske propose that women who challenge or attempt to steal
men’s power, either through nontraditional gender roles or seduc-
tion, elicit hostile sexism, whereas women who conform to tradi-
tional gender roles and comply with men are responded to with a
benevolent sexism, which is subjectively favorable but still pro-
motes inequity. We agree with Glick and Fiske that men exhibit a
curious mix of reverential and contemptuous attitudes toward
women and that women who threaten to undermine important
goals are often denigrated. We add that the particular threat of
women as seductresses also has existential implications for men
who are threatened by perceptions of themselves as mere forni-
cating animals (see also Goldenberg & Roberts, 2004). We there-
fore hypothesized that MS would reduce attraction to a seductive
woman but not a wholesome-appearing woman. To test this idea,
we asked mortality- or control-primed men to rate their attraction
to and interest in dating a young woman portrayed in either a very
wholesome or a very seductive manner.
Participants were 55 male undergraduates who participated for course
credit. All reported being either heterosexual or bisexual except for one
individual who did not respond to the sexual orientation item and therefore
was not included in the analysis. Because interest in dating the woman was
assessed in this study, we collected information on participants’ relation-
ship status: 55% were single, 29% were in a committed, nonmarried
relationship, and 16% were married.
Materials and Procedure
Participants were tested in small groups by a male experimenter and told
that they would be completing two ostensibly separate studies. The first
study was described as a personality assessment of college men and
included the MS manipulation; the second study was described as a film
study. The experimenter explained that he was involved in making a short
film and needed input on choosing which actress would be featured in the
film. He said that because this was an all-male study and because the
psychology study was extremely short, they were going to be asked to
provide their impressions of a woman on the basis of her picture. The
picture varied as to whether the woman was dressed seductively or
MS manipulation and delay.
As in Study 2, the MS manipulation
followed a couple of fillers intended to maintain the cover story. A
word-search puzzle was included immediately after the MS or dental-pain
prime to provide the necessary delay and distraction.
Seductiveness of the woman.
To assess attraction to women as a
function of seductiveness, we asked male participants to provide their
reactions to a woman who was supposedly responding to an advertisement
to star in a short film. The advertisement was depicted as follows:
Wanted: Women from ages 18 to 26 to play the leading part in a short
film. Please send 2 to 3 pictures of yourself as you look on an average
day. We are looking for someone that naturally fits this role, so please
send pictures that accurately portray who you are.
Each participant was given one picture to evaluate. Participants were
shown a photograph of an attractive college-aged woman with long blond
hair. In the wholesome condition, she was dressed in a long-sleeved
sweater and blue jeans and smiled pleasantly. In the seductive condition,
she was wearing a very short miniskirt and a sleeveless top and assumed a
seductive expression (i.e., a coquettish grin) and posture.
We performed a pilot study to ensure that participants judged the
seductive target as more seductive than the wholesome target. We pre-
sented the pictures to 30 participants (15 men) and asked them, “To what
extent do you think the model in the photograph is attempting to appear
seductive (that is, how much is she trying to be sexually attractive)?” and
“To what extent do you think she is attractive?” Responses were made on
a 7-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much so). A t test
confirmed that our manipulation was effective: Participants judged the
seductive female target as more seductive (M ? 5.3, SD ? 1.53) than the
wholesome target (M ? 2.3, SD ? 1.03), t(28) ? 6.28, p ? .01. Further,
there was no difference in how attractive the targets were rated as a
function of the seductive–wholesome manipulation (Ms ? 3.1 and 3.3,
respectively, p ? .73). Considering only men’s responses, the seductive
model was still rated as more seductive than the wholesome model, t(13) ?
2.89, p ? .01, and still equally attractive, p ? .68.
Attraction and interest in dating.
sessed with seven items reflecting varying degrees of interest. Participants
were instructed to “use your imagination. If you were to meet the person
in this picture face to face, what would your reaction be? Those of you who
are currently not single, please pretend that you are for this exercise.” They
were then asked to rate, on a 7-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7
(very much), the likelihood of the following statements: “I would think this
woman is attractive”; “I would be particularly attracted to this woman”; “I
could be ‘turned on’ by this woman”; “I would be interested in going on a
date with this woman”; “If this date was a positive experience, I would be
interested in dating for a significant period of time”; “I would think that
this is the type of person with whom I could have a lasting relationship”;
“I would be willing to engage in a one-night-stand with this woman if the
opportunity presented itself.”
Attraction to the woman was as-
Results and Discussion
The seven items had a high degree of internal consistency (? ?
.91) and were therefore averaged to form a composite measure of
attraction (actual scores ranged from 1.2 to 6.0). The results of a 2
(MS vs. pain) ? 2 (seductive vs. wholesome woman) ANOVA
revealed a main effect in which MS decreased attraction to the
Self and Other Sexual Intent as a Function of Mortality
Salience in Study 2
M SDM SD
Means with different subscripts differ at p ? .05.
Scale ranged from 1 to 7. Higher scores indicate more sexual intent.
LANDAU ET AL.
woman, F(1, 52) ? 14.62, p ? .01. However, this effect was
qualified by a significant interaction such that MS decreased
attraction to the woman only when she was dressed seductively,
F(1, 52) ? 6.97, p ? .01 (see relevant means in Table 4).5Pairwise
comparisons revealed that men were less attracted to the seductive
woman after MS, F(1, 52) ? 20.88, p ? .01, whereas there were
no effects of MS in the wholesome woman condition (p ? .41).
Looked at differently, whereas in the absence of MS there was
actually a nonsignificant trend for greater attraction to the seduc-
tive woman (p ? .12), the trend was reversed in the MS condition,
and participants reported being significantly less attracted to the
seductive woman, F(1, 52) ? 4.55, p ? .04. There were no effects
of participants’ relationship status, nor was there any interaction of
relationship status with our manipulated variables (ps ? .35);
further, including relationship status as a covariate did not affect
our significant pattern of results.
These results confirmed our hypothesis that MS would decrease
men’s attraction to a woman portrayed as seductive but not the
same woman portrayed as wholesome. By showing that MS effects
on attraction were specific to targets of a certain type, these results
are consistent with other research (e.g., Goldenberg et al., 1999)
demonstrating that sex is not perceived as threatening when it is
transformed into something culturally meaningful and valued (e.g.,
love). Our findings supplement Glick and Fiske’s (2001) explana-
tions for men’s dichotomized attitudes toward women. Although
we agree that power and other sociopolitical factors contribute to
polarized attitudes toward women, these data strongly suggest that
existential concerns associated with sexuality also influence which
women are degraded and which are deified.
The preceding studies have focused primarily on men’s judg-
ments of sexually attractive women in part because men’s ambiv-
alence toward women’s sexual influence seems to have important
social repercussions. However, one implication of our analysis
remains to be tested—namely, that the threat of sexual attraction is
largely unique to men. Note that we are not claiming that women
don’t experience strong sexual attraction or that women are un-
threatened by confrontations with their own corporeality. Rather,
we suspect that women’s sexual attraction to men, particularly in
response to visual stimuli (Feingold, 1990; Herz & Cahill, 1997;
Janssen, Carpenter, & Graham, 2003), is less likely to be as
focused on the physical aspects of sex and sexual arousal than is
men’s attraction to women (Ellis & Symons, 1990; Knoth, Boyd,
& Singer, 1988; Leitenberg & Henning, 1995) and is thus less
likely to be a source of existential threat. If this is correct, then men
but not women will deny their attraction to and interest in a
sexually provocative opposite-sex other following MS. This hy-
pothesis was tested in the present study.
This study was also designed to address two potential limita-
tions of the preceding studies. The first involves whether pain
(implicitly or explicitly primed) provides an adequate control
condition for comparison with MS. Although pain controls have
often been used in past research, we cannot yet rule out the
possibility that the observed effects are due to increases in attrac-
tion and interest when pain is made salient (perhaps owing to
pain’s association with sexual sadism).6We address this possibil-
ity in the current study by replacing the pain prime with uncer-
tainty salience as our aversive comparison condition.7Further-
more, we included a neutral prime condition—imagining the
experience of shelving books—to assess attraction and interest
when no aversive thoughts are made salient. We predicted that
reminders of uncertainty or shelving books would not function like
MS in decreasing men’s sexual interest. The second concern
involves whether the use of male experimenters in the other studies
affected responses, perhaps by making competitive motives salient
among male participants. The current study therefore used a fe-
male experimenter. To test our hypothesis, we primed men and
women with death, uncertainty, or shelving books and, in an
ostensibly separate study, had them rate their attraction to and
interest in a sexually seductive opposite-sex target.
Participants were 86 (41 men and 45 women) undergraduates who
participated in partial fulfillment of a course requirement. Of these, 5 men
and 1 woman reported being gay or lesbian and were therefore not included
in the analysis. Regarding relationship status, 58% were single, 42% were
in a committed romantic relationship, and none were married.
5Although a factor analysis of these seven items revealed only one
factor, it is relevant to note that the two items reflecting longer term interest
(i.e., interest in dating for a long time and forming a lasting relationship)
are not responsible for the results. When these items were removed, we
obtained the same significant pattern of results (and on their own, the
interaction on the composite of these items did not reach statistical signif-
icance; p ? .11). Thus, although perhaps it would not be surprising if MS
made men more selective about a long-term commitment to a partner
(perhaps because of concern about maternal responsibility for their off-
spring), these results, along with the others, show that mortality concerns
affect men’s general sexual attraction.
6We thank an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.
7McGregor, Zanna, Holmes, & Spencer (2001) and van den Bos (2001)
have recently suggested general uncertainty as a possible alternative ex-
planation of MS effects, according to which MS may be a special case of
the general impact of uncertainty. Although a large body of evidence
suggests that MS effects are generally not the result of uncertainty concerns
and are specific to death (Goldenberg et al., 2001; Greenberg et al., 1997;
Landau et al., 2004; Mikulincer, Florian, & Hirschberger, 2003), our use of
the uncertainty-salience prime afforded a further test of this alternative.
Attraction to Women as a Function of Mortality Salience and
Target Seductiveness in Study 3
attraction. Means with different subscripts differ at p ? .05.
Scale ranged from 1 to 7. Higher scores indicate more sexual
TMT AND SEXUAL ATTRACTION
Materials and Procedure
The materials and procedure were similar to those of Study 3, except that
we used only a seductive target. Mixed-sex groups of about 5 participants
were run in a lab setting by a female experimenter who explained that they
would be participating in two separate studies, the first a personality
survey, the second a pilot study on how people make judgments about
others. In cubicles, participants were administered the personality packets
MS manipulation and delay.
As in Studies 2 and 3, the MS manipu-
lation followed a couple of filler questionnaires. Control-prime participants
responded to parallel questions pertaining to either uncertainty or shelving
books. Specifically, we used van den Bos’s (2001) uncertainty salience
induction, in which participants respond to the following open-ended
questions: “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your
being uncertain arouses in you” and “Please write down, as specifically as
you can, what you think physically will happen to you as you feel
uncertain.” The PANAS–X and a neutral filler served as the delay and
After inserting their completed packets into confidential envelopes and
dropping them into a box, participants began the second experiment by
turning on the monitor in front of them and following the instructions on
the screen. Using MediaLab software (Jarvis, 2004), participants com-
pleted some filler questions (e.g., “Are you right or left-handed?”) and
were then told that they would see a picture of a person and make some
judgments. On the basis of participants’ earlier indication of their sex, the
computer automatically presented them with a picture of a sexually seduc-
tive opposite-sex target (both pictures were matched in size and contrast).
Target attractiveness and seductiveness.
ensure that men and women gave comparable attractiveness and seduc-
tiveness ratings for their respective targets. We gathered pictures of po-
tential targets from a popular Web site—www.hotornot.com—where peo-
ple submit their picture to have their attractiveness assessed by anonymous
viewers. We chose targets who (a) appeared to be sexually inviting the
viewer, (b) received attractiveness ratings of 9.5 or above (on a 10-point
scale), and (c) who had been evaluated by at least 800 visitors of the site.
In a classroom setting, we presented 33 women and 19 men from the same
participant pool used in the main study with high-definition color photo-
graphs of six of the most appropriate opposite-sex targets. For each picture,
participants were asked to rate, on 7-point scales ranging from 1 (not at all)
to 7 (very much so), the following: “To what extent do you think this
person is physically attractive?” (means ranged from 2.5 to 5.1 for female
raters; 3.6 to 6.5 for male raters); “To what extent do you think the person
in the photograph is attempting to appear seductive (that is, how much are
they trying to be sexually attractive)?” (means ranged from 3.6 to 6.5 for
female raters; 4.5 to 6.5 for male raters); “How much is this person trying
to appeal to the viewer in a sexual way (that is, trying to ‘turn the viewer
on’ sexually)?” (means ranged from 3.7 to 6.4 for female raters; 4.7 to 6.4
for male raters). The pictures were presented in one of three random orders,
We conducted a pilot study to
and preliminary analyses found no effects for order. We conducted a series
of t tests comparing pairs of male versus female targets (there were no
effects for order in these analyses), and although men gave higher ratings
in many cases, one target pair received equivalently high attractiveness and
seductiveness ratings. The final female target looked seductively at the
viewer and was provocatively lifting up her shirt with one hand (although
only a small portion of her bare midsection was visible). She received an
attractiveness rating of 5.3 (out of 7; SD ? 1.11), a seductiveness rating of
6.5 (SD ? 0.69), and a sexual appeal rating of 6.4 (SD ? 0.76). The male
target wore a revealing athletic shirt, smiled seductively at the viewer, and
was displaying his muscular arms and chest. He received an attractiveness
rating of 5.1 (SD ? 1.40), a seductiveness rating of 6.5 (SD ? 0.62), and
a sexual appeal rating of 6.4 (SD ? 0.75). These ratings were not statis-
tically different (ts ? 1, ps ? .60).
Attraction and interest in dating.
above the picture stated, “If you were to meet the person in the picture face
to face, what would your reaction be? Those of you who are not currently
single, please pretend that you are for this exercise.” Three questions
adapted from Study 3 appeared on the screen (one at a time): “I would
think this person is attractive; I would be particularly attracted to this
person; I would be interested in going on a date with this person.” All
responses were made on a 7-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree)
to 7 (strongly agree). After making their ratings, participants were asked to
indicate their sexual orientation, current relationship status, and religious
affiliation. They were then fully debriefed.
For the current study, the instructions
Results and Discussion
The three attraction/interest items had a high degree of internal
consistency (alpha for male raters ? .91, for female raters ? .91)
so we analyzed their average (actual scores ranged from 2 to 7).
The results of a 3 (MS vs. uncertainty vs. neutral) ? 2 (sex)
ANOVA revealed no main effects (ps ? .20) but a significant
interaction, F(2, 74) ? 3.09, p ? .05 (see relevant means in Table
5). Consistent with our hypothesis, the pattern of means and
pairwise comparisons revealed that mortality-salient men showed
less attraction for the female target compared with uncertainty-
salient men (p ? .02), neutrally primed men (p ? .02), and
mortality-salient women judging male targets (p ? .01). No other
pairwise comparisons approached significance (all ps ? .35). It is
noteworthy that, as in Studies 1 and 3, the mean for men in the
control-prime conditions is on the high-attraction side of the
scale’s midpoint, whereas the mean in the MS condition is on the
low-attraction side. As in Study 3, there were no effects of rela-
tionship status, nor was there any interaction of relationship status
with any other variables (Fs ? 1, ps ? .40). Also, including
relationship status or length of current relationships as covariates
Attraction to a Seductive Opposite-Sex Target as a Function of Mortality Salience and
Participant Sex in Study 4
Mortality salience UncertaintyShelving books
M SDM SDM SD
differ at p ? .05.
Scale ranged from 1 to 7. Higher scores indicate more sexual attraction. Means with different subscripts
LANDAU ET AL.
did not affect our significant pattern of results. Further, there were
no main effects, interactions, or covariation effects of religious
affiliation (Fs ? 1).
These results confirmed our hypothesis that MS would decrease
men’s, but not women’s, attraction to and interest in a sexually
seductive opposite-sex target compared with aversive and nonav-
ersive controls. These findings support our claim that, although
women generally respond defensively to reminders of their corpo-
reality, the threat is not as inherent in their experience of sexual
attraction as it is for men. We suspect that women do not perceive
such a threat when viewing a sexually seductive man because
women’s sexual attraction, particularly that based on visual infor-
mation, is less directly tied to physical arousal (Knoth et al., 1988).
Taken together, the results of the preceding studies demonstrate
that men respond to mortality reminders with decreased sexual
attraction to and interest in women who may inspire lust, but not
those who appear chaste and wholesome. These findings support
the idea that mortality concerns contribute to men’s historically
robust ambivalence with their own sexual arousal and the women
who cause it. We believe this may be a particularly important
finding because widespread patterns of violence against women
(sexual assault and rape, wife battering, dowry death, female
genital mutilation, sadistic pornography) seem to be partly rooted
in men’s sexual ambivalence. In many cultures, women who are
not appropriately modest or discreet in behavior may be physically
punished and even murdered (e.g., some Muslim cultures; see
Antoun, 1968; Bouhdiba, 1985). Similarly, in cases of domestic
violence, which cause American women more injuries than auto-
mobile accidents, muggings, and rapes combined (see Teays,
1998), abused women inevitably say that men use four words when
swearing at them: bitch, cunt, whore, and slut (Dutton, 1995, p.
From our perspective, violence against women is due in part to
men’s resentment toward the purported source of their underlying
awareness of death. Men who are trying to transcend their hedo-
nistic bodily needs are constantly being “pulled back” by women’s
appeal, and this may contribute to violence against women. We
therefore wanted to see in Study 5 whether mortality-induced
concerns about sexual interest also heighten tolerance for aggres-
sion against women. If women’s sexual allure serves as an un-
wanted reminder for men of their own corporeality and thereby
undermines terror management, then reminders of one’s suscepti-
bility to women’s seductive influence should, under conditions of
MS, incite negative feelings toward women. Specifically, we hy-
pothesized that death-primed men who were made to think about
their vulnerability to animal-like lust would be more forgiving
toward those who aggress against women. To test this hypothesis,
we primed men with either mortality or a control topic and then
had them write about either a time when they experienced intense,
animal-like sexual lust or an experience with intense, sports-
related excitement, a topic that we expected would result in equal,
if not greater, arousal for men. This allowed us to test the hypoth-
esis that it is not generic arousal per se but the existential threat of
attraction that triggers negativity toward women. In an ostensibly
separate study, men were then asked to review two domestic
violence police reports—one reporting male-on-male violence, the
other reporting male-on-female violence—and then indicate what
they thought was an appropriate sentence for the perpetrator.
Generally, given prevailing cultural norms, we expected overall
harsher relative sentencing for the male–female perpetrator; how-
ever, on the basis of our analysis, we expected more lenience
toward this perpetrator following MS and lust primes.
The sample consisted of 56 heterosexual male undergraduates who
participated in partial fulfillment of a course requirement. Of these, 2
participants were dropped from the data analyses because they did not
complete the materials as instructed, and 1 reported a statistically extreme
score (exceeding three standard deviations from the condition mean),
leaving a total of 53 participants.
Materials and Procedure
Participants were run in a lab setting by a male experimenter who
explained that they would take part in two unrelated studies—the first a
survey of personality characteristics, the second a prescreening of materials
for future jury research. Participants were told that they would be asked to
review a couple of cases and report what they felt to be appropriate
sentences for the perpetrators. In cubicles, participants received the per-
sonality packet described below.
MS manipulation and delay.
As in Studies 2 and 3, randomly assigned
participants received a couple of filler personality questionnaires followed
by either the MS prime or the dental-pain control prime. As in Studies 2
and 4, the PANAS–X served as the necessary delay and distraction.
Lust versus sports primes.
The following page was a “Personal Expe-
riences Questionnaire,” a projective personality test purportedly designed
to assess how men respond to common experiences. Half of the participants
were randomly assigned to write about a time when an anonymous woman
or women aroused intense, animal-like sexual lust in them, as distinct from
a time when they experienced strong romantic feelings. To ensure that the
effects were specific to feelings of lust and not simply generic reactions to
arousing events, we had the other participants write about a time when
viewing a sports event aroused in them intense game excitement (see
Appendix for exact wording). Participants were (often shamelessly) candid
in their responses to both primes, describing in detail the event that aroused
intense sexual or sports-related arousal (e.g., lust: “Right then I just wanted
to pull her shorts down and start boning her,” “She had a great walk and
great legs—she looked at me and I caught her looking”; and sports:
“Arizona is my favorite team so watching the game gave me butterfly [sic]
in my stomach,” “The ball seemed to float in the air forever. And it cleared
the wall, I couldn’t control myself. I felt all tingly and happy inside.”). To
assess self-reported general arousal, we included two questions following
the prime: “How strong were your feelings of excitement during this
episode?” and “How intense was the physical arousal you experienced?”
Both questions were rated on a 9-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all
strong/intense) to 9 (extremely strong/intense).
Participants placed their completed packets in an envelope and a confi-
dential box. The experimenter then administered the packet for the second
Police reports and sentencing forms.
two official New York state trooper domestic violence incident reports
(DIRs). The contents of the two reports were fabricated with the guidance
of a senior state trooper to closely resemble actual DIRs. One report
described an incident involving a woman and her live-in boyfriend. After
a verbal altercation, the man is reported to have physically attacked the
woman, causing various bodily injuries. The other report described a
parallel incident involving a man who attacked his male friend following a
Participants were presented with
TMT AND SEXUAL ATTRACTION
verbal conflict. The scenarios were written such that the male and female
victims acted in similar ways prior to the attacks, both sustained verbal as
well as physical attacks, and both incurred injury of approximately equal
severity. In both cases, the victim requested arrest and the official charge
stood at third-degree assault. The perpetrator had the same arrest history in
both scenarios. The two forms were written in different handwriting to
maximize credibility. On both forms, all personal information was blacked
out, and participants were instructed to read over each case thoroughly and
then complete the attached questionnaire. Following each DIR, participants
were given the following instructions:
Now we’d like your opinion on an appropriate sentence for the
perpetrator in the preceding scenario. Below are some common pun-
ishments for 3rd degree assault, listed in increasing severity. Take the
role of a judge and circle the number next to one of the punishment
options that you think would be most appropriate in this case.
The responses ranged from 1 (defendant is given a written warning) to 12
(3 years in county jail with no parole). The sentencing options were written
with the guidance of the state trooper to reflect the actual sentences typical
of domestic violence cases. The two DIRs were counterbalanced in order.
After inserting their completed materials into a confidential envelope and
box, participants were fully debriefed.
Results and Discussion
The sentencing scores for the male–female perpetrator ranged
from 3 to 12 and for the male–male perpetrator, 1 to 11. Not
surprisingly, a paired t test indicated that participants gave more
severe sentences for the male–female perpetrator (M ? 7.5, SD ?
2.05) than for the male–male perpetrator (M ? 4.7, SD ? 1.76),
t(52) ? 8.77, p ? .01. To examine the participants’ relative
tolerance for aggression toward women, we computed a difference
score by subtracting sentencing ratings for the male–male perpe-
trator from sentencing ratings for the male–female perpetrator,
such that higher scores indicate more punitive sentencing for a
target that aggressed against a woman (actual scores ranged from
0–10). These scores were then submitted to a 2 (MS vs. pain) ?
2 (lust vs. sports prime) ? 2 (order of scenario) ANOVA.8The
predicted MS ? Lust Prime interaction emerged, F(1, 45) ? 5.05,
p ? .03 (see relevant means in Table 6). Pairwise comparisons
revealed that pain-salient men who wrote about lust did not differ
in their sentencing decisions from those who wrote about sports
(p ? .30). However, mortality-salient men who wrote about lust
assigned more lenient relative punishments to the male–female
perpetrator compared with those who wrote about sports, F(1,
45) ? 4.17, p ? .05. Also, among men who wrote about lust, those
in the MS condition gave more lenient relative sentences to the
male–female perpetrator compared with those in the dental-pain
condition, F(1, 45) ? 7.39, p ? .01. Those who wrote about sports
did not change their judgments as a function of MS (p ? .69).
The analysis also revealed two unexpected order effects. First
there was a Lust versus Sports Prime ? Order interaction, F(1,
45) ? 4.04, p ? .05. Inspection of means does not suggest any
clear interpretation, and because the interaction did not involve
MS, we did not consider it further. In addition, an unanticipated
MS ? Order interaction emerged, F(1, 45) ? 5.84, p ? .02 (see
Table 7 for relevant means). The means suggest that MS primes
led to less punitive relative judgments for the male–female perpe-
trator when this scenario was read first. There was no trace of a
three-way interaction (F ? 1), suggesting that order did not affect
the interaction of the two variables of interest.
To assess the extent to which these effects were due to gener-
alized arousal, we performed a t test comparing the lust-prime
conditions on the questions following the primes. Results indicated
that participants who completed sports primes rated their experi-
ences as more exciting (M ? 8.1, SD ? 1.27) than those who
completed lust primes (M ? 6.0, SD ? 2.03), t(51) ? 4.57, p ?
.01. Sports-primed participants also rated their experiences as
more physically arousing (M ? 6.7, SD ? 2.40) than lust-primed
participants (M ? 4.6, SD ? 2.09), t(51) ? 3.27, p ? .01. To
examine whether the findings of our primary analyses could be
attributed to generalized arousal, we included self-reports of ex-
citement and arousal as covariates and found that they did not alter
the significant pattern of results. These results cannot be accounted
for by general arousal per se because arousal in response to the
sporting event was actually greater than arousal in response to the
lust-inspiring event, and entering self-rated arousal as a covariate
did not significantly alter the pattern of significant results.
We additionally wanted to address two other alternatives: (a) a
general frustration hypothesis, according to which the lust prime
led men to think more about experiences (in this case, sexual
encounters) that they felt prevented from having; and (b) a self-
esteem threat hypothesis, according to which writing about anon-
ymous sexually attractive women threatened men’s self-esteem.
To assess these alternatives, we had two raters who were blind to
MS condition count frustration-relevant words (explicit mention of
feelings of frustration, anger, or resentment) and self-esteem-
relevant words (explicit mention of feeling negative self-regard in
response to the event) in the open-ended responses to the lust- and
sports-primes. Interrater reliability was .93, and inconsistencies
were resolved by verbal discussion. Contrary to the frustration-
and self-esteem-threat alternatives, the lust- and sports-prime re-
sponses did not differ in the number of frustration- or self-esteem-
relevant words (both ps ? .78). Further, entering these word
counts as covariates did not affect the key predicted effects. The
overall means for frustration and self-esteem-relevant words were
8We have reported difference scores to simplify presentation. If we
include the two sentencing decisions as a fourth independent variable, the
predicted three-way interaction is significant, and the predicted two-way
interaction (MS ? Lust) is significant for the female-abuser sentencing
(both ps ? .05) but not for the male-abuser sentencing (F ? 1). There was
no four-way interaction with order (F ? 1).
Mean Relative Sentencing Judgments of a Male–Female Abuser
as a Function of Mortality Salience and Lust Versus Sports
Primes in Study 5
MSD M SD
relative sentencing. Means with different subscripts differ at p ? .05.
Scale ranged from ?11 to 11. Higher scores indicate more punitive
LANDAU ET AL.
.25 and .10, respectively, suggesting very little spontaneous refer-
ence to these feelings. These results render simple frustration- and
self-esteem-threat alternatives highly unlikely. The low frequen-
cies of these words suggest that frustration and self-esteem threat
were not salient aspects of the recalled experiences. However,
given these low frequencies, it is not surprising that these
frustration- and self-esteem-threat scores did not show effects of
condition or covary significantly with the dependent measure.
Thus, a more sensitive measure of frustration and self-esteem
threat may be necessary to fully evaluate the potential roles of
These results confirmed our hypothesis that MS combined with
reminders of women’s carnal allure would lead men to recommend
a more lenient sentence for a perpetrator of male–female, relative
to male–male, violence. As in the preceding studies, men generally
expressed favorable attitudes toward women: Overall, the sentenc-
ing was higher for the male–female perpetrator than for the male–
male perpetrator. As predicted, however, juxtaposing reminders of
death with reminders of one’s susceptibility to raw, physical lust
resulted in the lowest relative sentencing, almost the same as that
recommended for the male–male perpetrator. Unlike the previous
studies, the target woman exhibited no trace of sexual availability.
Rather, the results seem to stem from a generalized negative
attitude toward women among men who are simultaneously con-
fronted with their mortality and susceptibility to carnal desire.
These results provide the first evidence that death-related thought
combined with the experience of provoked sexual interest contrib-
ute to aggressive tendencies against women.
Another possible alternative explanation comes from just-world
theory (Lerner, 1980), according to which people are inclined to
believe that the world is a fair place. Perhaps MS was causing
some people to attribute more blame to the female domestic
violence victim, and thereby less to the perpetrator, to reassert faith
in a just world. This alternative, however, would have difficulty
explaining why MS would contribute to lighter sentencing for the
perpetrator only when the target was a woman. Given evidence
that victim derogation is most common when the perceiver fears
that the victim’s fate might befall him or her (Lerner & Miller,
1978), one would predict that, if anything, male raters would give
more lenient sentencing to the male–male perpetrator. Rather, the
results strongly support our hypothesis that lust, in conjunction
with concerns about one’s mortality, would lead men to be more
tolerant of aggression toward women.
The findings of Study 5—increased tolerance for aggression—
might be interpreted as inconsistent with the finding in Study 2 that
MS did not decrease men’s friendly intent in an interaction with a
sexy woman. However, we would note that (a) the friendliness
means in Study 2 for men in the MS and control conditions were
4.2 and 4.5, respectively (on a 7-point scale), suggesting that men
did not perceive themselves as especially friendly in either condi-
tion; (b) there was likely to be some social desirability involved in
not wanting to report being less than minimally cordial to a live
conversant—it would reflect poorly on the participant to acknowl-
edge being unfriendly; (c) Study 5 made sexual lust particularly
salient and then involved a very different paradigm that indirectly
assessed attitudes toward women through sentencing of a nonpre-
sent female victim, rather than a paradigm that directly assessed
self-perceived friendliness. For these reasons, we don’t think that
the friendliness findings in Study 2 are difficult to explain or that
they create a problem for interpreting the findings of Study 5.
Taken together, the results of five studies provide converging
support for the claim that terror management concerns play a part
in heterosexual men’s negative reactions toward sexual attraction
and women in general. Specifically, Study 1 demonstrated that a
subliminal mortality induction reduced men’s, but not women’s,
attractiveness ratings of sexually alluring women. Study 2 showed
that MS led men to downplay their sexual, but not friendly, intent
toward a friendly, attractive woman. In Study 3, MS led men to
decrease their interest in a seductive woman, but this effect was
eliminated when the woman appeared more wholesome. Study 4
found that the threat of sexual attraction may be specific to men:
Women didn’t respond to MS with a decreased attraction to a
sexually seductive man. Finally, Study 5 demonstrated that men
reminded of their corporeal lust following MS exhibited greater
tolerance of aggression toward women. In accounting for men’s
ambivalence toward women—vacillating between desire and de-
rision—the present results suggest that it is because of intense
desire, combined with distinctly human concerns about death, that
men sometimes distance from attraction to women and generally
Some Caveats and Complexities Regarding the
Implications of These Findings
Limitations of the Research
Some potential limitations of these studies are worth noting.
First, the participants in all these studies were college students;
future work is needed with older participants. Second, the results
of Studies 1 and 2 should be interpreted with caution given their
relatively small sample size (approximately 9 per cell). However,
the results of these studies are statistically significant in the pre-
dicted direction and are consistent with those of Studies 3–5,
which had larger sample sizes. As a third issue, the results of Study
4 indicate that women do not respond to mortality reminders with
decreased attraction to sexually provocative men, suggesting that
the findings from the other studies are relatively unique to men.
These results should be interpreted with caution, though, because
Study 4 differed from the others in its use of a female experimenter
Mean Relative Sentencing Judgments of a Male–Female Abuser
as a Function of Mortality Salience and Order of Scenarios in
M SDM SD
relative sentencing. Means with different subscripts differ at p ? .05.
Scale ranged from ?11 to 11. Higher scores indicate more punitive
TMT AND SEXUAL ATTRACTION
and in its use of control primes other than dental pain. However,
we do not think these differences undermine the generalizability of
the results. For one, Study 4 replicated the MS effect among men
from Study 3, and it is difficult to see why a female experimenter
would affect women’s but not men’s responses. Second, the
uncertainty-salience control has been successfully used in a num-
ber of published studies (e.g., Friedman & Arndt, 2005; Landau,
Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Martens, in press; Landau et
al., 2004; Martens, Greenberg, Schimel, & Landau, 2004). Indeed,
Landau et al. (2004; Study 5) directly assessed whether the dental-
pain and uncertainty control conditions led to different effects and
found that they did not differ from each other but differed signif-
icantly from MS. The present results of Study 4 similarly show no
differences in sexual attraction between the uncertainty salience
and a neutral control condition (shelving books). For these reasons,
we do not feel that Study 4’s changes in experimenter sex and
control prime detract from its relevance to the other findings,
although future studies may benefit by directly comparing these
Men’s Views of Women and Sex
We want to emphasize that we are not claiming that men
distance from and devalue all women or even those they find
attractive. Clearly, men generally celebrate both their virility and
sexually appealing women. Indeed, the findings that men in the
control conditions are generally attracted to appealing women
(Studies 1, 3, and 4) and invested in communicating sexual intent
(Study 2) are hardly surprising given prior research (e.g., Abbey,
1982; Schmitt, Couden, & Baker, 2001). Also, in Study 3 we found
that men in the control condition were marginally more attracted to
a sexually seductive woman than to a sexually conservative
woman. Furthermore, men in Study 5 exhibited a stronger ten-
dency to penalize a man who aggressed against a woman rather
than against another man. Nevertheless, the effects of mortality
reminders in all our studies suggest that because of terror man-
agement concerns, men rarely harbor unconditionally positive
attitudes toward women or their sexual attraction to them.
More generally, we do not claim that mortality concerns lead
men (or women) to unconditionally devalue sex. Sex is “of the
flesh” yet it often brings to mind meaningful symbolic constructs
(e.g., love) that neutralize the potential threat posed by the merely
physical act. Accordingly, Goldenberg et al. (1999) found that
mortality-salient participants distanced from the physical but not
the romantic aspects of sex. Sex may even serve a role in assuaging
mortality concerns when it functions as a source of self-esteem.
When sex is conceived of as a sport, for example, laying claim to
many and prestigious sexual conquests can bolster one’s self-
image. Along these lines, Goldenberg, McCoy, Pyszczynski,
Greenberg, and Solomon (2000; Study 2) found that MS increased
the appeal of sex for those who derive self-esteem from their
appearance. In another sense, sex may even remind people of
reproduction, which could be protective by offering a type of
symbolic immortality through one’s offspring. Although this may
occur under some conditions, Goldenberg et al.’s (1999) findings
suggest that the thought or experience of sexual arousal does not
necessarily bring the possible procreative function of sex to mind.
We suspect that men, given their susceptibility to and the preva-
lence of visual sexually stimulating imagery (e.g., TV, magazines),
think of sex far more often than they consider its role in producing
children. We think this is particularly likely to be true in the
present context, in which, with the possible exception of Study 2,
the male participants are reacting to sexy women who are poten-
tially arousing but are not actually available to serve procreative
functions for them.
Comparisons with Dutton and Aron (1974)
The present findings seem to run counter to Dutton and Aron’s
(1974) classic bridge studies of attraction. Dutton and Aron found
that men interviewed by a female experimenter while crossing a
scary, narrow bridge over a deep gorge were more attracted to and
interested in the woman than men similarly interviewed while
crossing a very safe bridge. Presumably this occurred because the
men misattributed some of their fear-induced arousal to attraction
to the young woman. However, in addition to creating arousal, the
scary bridge may have brought thoughts of death to mind. Yet, our
findings indicate that MS leads to less rather than more attraction.
Although on the surface this set of findings may seem contra-
dictory, a number of features of this earlier work can explain why
the scary bridge led to more rather than less sexual attraction. The
most obvious is that the scary bridge probably created substantial
actual physiological arousal, whereas none of our conditions prob-
ably did so. In addition, the female interviewer in those studies was
not wearing revealing clothing and was trained to be task oriented
rather than seductive (Donald G. Dutton, personal communication,
2005). Thus, she was closer to wholesome than sexually provoc-
ative, and Study 3 shows that the MS-induced reduction in attrac-
tion does not occur if the woman is not highly seductive in
Another important difference is that, while on the bridge, the
male participants, if scared, were likely to be consciously thinking
about death while interacting with the woman. A large body of
research shows that the effects of MS are quite different when
death thoughts are in focal attention rather than on the fringes of
consciousness (e.g., Arndt et al., 2004; Pyszczynski et al., 1999);
the defenses predicted by TMT are limited to the latter condition.
Consequently, the present research, like prior TMT research, in-
troduced a delay following the MS induction before exposure to
the women to be assessed. This difference between Dutton and
Aron (1974) and the present research suggests it would be inter-
esting for additional research to assess male feelings of attraction
when death thoughts are salient versus on the fringes of
We are not claiming that confronting the corporeality inherent in
one’s sexuality is a gender-specific problem. Indeed, the aware-
ness of death makes the body and sex problematic for men and
women alike (e.g., Goldenberg et al., 1999). That said, there is a
clear gender differentiation in sexual attitudes and responsiveness
that we suspect renders men more prone to raw, basic impulses for
physical sex and therefore more vulnerable to corporeality remind-
ers in the sexual attraction realm. Put differently, whereas women
are equally concerned with their corporeality, there is reason to
believe that they are not constantly confronted with it via their own
sexual attraction to men. Women are less motivated for sex (Davis,
LANDAU ET AL.
Shaver, & Vernon, 2004), they report less spontaneous desire and
think about sex less often (Knoth et al., 1988), and their motiva-
tions for sex, as compared with men’s, focus less on obtaining
physical pleasure (Davis et al., 2004) and more on giving and
receiving affection (Hill & Preston, 1996; Leigh, 1989). Further,
women have fewer sexual fantasies than men (Leitenberg & Hen-
ning, 1995), and women’s fantasies contain fewer references to
explicit, anatomically detailed sex acts and more references to
affection, romance, commitment, and emotional context (Barclay,
1973; Ellis & Symons, 1990; Follingstad & Kimbrell, 1986; Har-
din & Gold, 1988; Kelley, 1984). The historical and anthropolog-
ical evidence touched on at the outset of this article suggests that
the problem may indeed be greater among men; certainly women
are disproportionately the targets of derogatory attitudes. Perhaps
women harbor less ambivalence about their own desire and more
about being the object of desire (“A sex symbol becomes a thing
. . . I just hate to be a thing”—Marilyn Monroe).
We also want to clarify that we are not claiming that existential
concerns associated with men’s lust constitute a complete expla-
nation for misogyny. There are certainly biological, social, and
political factors that contribute to the nature and expression of
attitudes toward women, and derogatory attitudes toward women
clearly help men to maintain their status and power. For such a
context, in which men tend to harbor more societal influence, it
becomes difficult to disentangle psychological causes from socio-
logical and political influences on men’s attitudes toward women.
However, in these experiments, we were able to demonstrate that
mortality concerns do play a causal role in men’s responses to
women and that, furthermore, these effects are moderated by lust
salience and target seductiveness. These findings strongly suggest
that an understanding of misogyny can be enhanced by considering
its deeply rooted motivational underpinnings. Gilmore (2001) re-
cently came to a similar conclusion:
Antiwoman feelings are usually driven by an irrational emotionality
that is not the same as the simple expediency that characterizes
political oppression or economic exploitation. Oppressing someone
does not necessarily lead the oppressor to create a justifying ideology
attributing pollution and magical danger to the oppressed. There must
be some other, more visceral, more emotional element involved. (p.
Our analysis provides evidence that mortality concern is one
source of this more visceral element.
Implications for Relationships and Misogynistic Violence
In this section we briefly consider some of the detrimental
consequences of men’s ambivalence toward sexual attraction and
women. In line with similar perspectives, we maintain that men are
often of two minds with regard to women: intensely attracted to
them but also prone to view them with suspicion and even con-
tempt. We add, however, that it is partly because of intense
attraction that such hostility exists. Glick and Fiske (2001) argued
that because men need women, they tend to pacify them by
blending hostile sexism with benevolent attitudes. There may be
something to that, but the present study suggests that such benev-
olent attitudes also serve men’s intrapsychic terror management
needs; men don’t just need women, they are wildly attracted to
them and are therefore motivated to hold particular women in high
esteem to protect themselves from the threatening existential im-
plications of their own sexual desire.
As Glick and Fiske (2001) note, these ambivalent attitudes are
often expressed by subtyping women as, for example, Madonnas
and whores. In reality, however, people rarely fit into such sim-
plistic categories, and we suspect that men’s efforts to maintain
perceptions of their romantic partner as the Madonna rather than
the whore may contribute to relationship difficulties. For one,
because the expectations for appropriate female sexuality are usu-
ally quite stringent, many women may be prone to disappoint. In
addition, the appeal of extrapair affairs may stem in part from the
opportunity to fulfill the desire for both types of women. Further-
more, men may respond with hostility to a “good” woman who
falls short of idealized expectations. Indeed, when men aggress
against women, it is often to punish them for (often imagined)
sexual transgressions (Dutton, 1995). Consigning some women to
the “whore” category may allow men to perceive them as objects,
which might heighten their willingness to aggress. The ambiva-
lence highlighted in the present article may also play a role in rape.
The dichotomization of women may contribute to the rape myth,
whereby women are perceived to have provoked or even deserved
a rape assault (Burt, 1998). Indeed, compared with women, men
are more likely to believe that rape victims in some way provoked
the attack, and rapists tend to have attitudes toward women con-
sistent with the view of them as evil temptresses (Burt, 1980). In
the act of rape, the man can satisfy his animalistic desires while at
the same time punish the source of his temptation. Similar attitudes
in response to the existential threat of sexual attraction may con-
tribute to sexual harassment and other forms of gender bias.
How can we apply the present research and theory to help offset
negative attitudes and behaviors toward women? As with other
problems in which self-threat leads to negativity toward others
(e.g., Bushman & Baumeister, 1998, on narcissism and aggression;
Fein & Spencer, 1997, on self-esteem threat and prejudice; Kernis,
Cornell, Chirn-Ru, Berry, & Harlow, 1993, on unstable self-
esteem and hostility; Martens et al., 2004, on ageism; Schimel,
Greenberg, & Martens, 2003, on projection), one strategy is to try
to minimize the self-threat underlying that negativity. At the
broadest level, the current work implies that if men were more able
to accept their mortality, they could better accept their corporeality
and better embrace and even celebrate it without the backdrop of
fear and loathing. Education in existential perspectives and death-
awareness courses could facilitate such a process. Terror manage-
ment research also suggests that psychological resources such as
high self-esteem and low neuroticism can help people face their
mortality and corporeality with less defensiveness (e.g., Golden-
berg et al., 1999). Future research could examine the worldviews
and bases of self-worth of men who seem to have particularly
healthy attitudes regarding women and physical sex to see whether
such resources are what allow them to experience sexual attraction
with less ambivalence. We can also develop ways to encourage
men to accept and assume responsibility for their own lust, rather
than view the sexually provocative woman as the source. We have
focused in the present article on the threat of sexual attraction, but
we must also note that sexual excitement can serve as a potent
reminder that one is indeed alive. Knowing this, perhaps we can
TMT AND SEXUAL ATTRACTION
encourage men to focus on the affirmation of life, rather than the
specter of death, inherent in attraction.
Do you not know that each of you is Eve? You are the Devil’s
Gateway. You are the unsealer of the forbidden tree. You are the first
deserter of the divine Law. You are she who persuaded him whom the
Devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s
image, man. On account of your desert[ion], that is death, even the
Son of God had to die.
—Tertullian, De Cultu Feminarum
Despite the pervasiveness of men’s concerns over their suscep-
tibility to the awesome force of sexual lust across times and
cultures and the role of these concerns in various forms of misog-
yny, their core psychological underpinnings have received little
attention. From our perspective, men’s awareness of their mortal-
ity engenders negative reactions toward sexual attraction and pro-
vocative women because they confront men with their own animal,
mortal nature. Being reminded of their susceptibility to sexual
arousal can force men to confront the fact that they are appetite-
driven mammals; when death-related thought is also close to
consciousness, this confrontation is unsettling enough to evoke a
denial of sexual interest and negativity toward women. Although
this may be only one strand in the fabric of men’s sexuality, the
dire consequences of male sexual ambivalence for both men and
women’s well-being suggest that it is an important one.
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Lust and Sports Arousal Primes
A common experience among men is to be sexually aroused by a
female whom they don’t know personally. This can happen when a male
views a sexually provocative female or females on TV or movies, but
also happens when males see anonymous girls at dance clubs, parties,
the beach, etc. Please think about a recent time in your life when seeing
a female or females aroused intense feelings of sexual lust and excite-
ment. This should not be a time when you felt romantic interest, but
rather a time when an anonymous woman in a magazine, on film, or
simply walking around campus made you want to simply have sex with
her, caused you to feel strong sexual urges, and physiologically aroused
you. In the space below, please write about this experience. Please use
the entire space provided to write about what you saw and describe how
it felt to have the anonymous female or females cause you to feel
intense sexual lust.
A common experience among men is to be excited by a sports event (e.g.,
football game) in which they’re not participating. This can happen when a
male views a sports event on TV, but also happens when males attend sporting
events. Please think about a recent time in your life when witnessing a sports
event aroused intense feelings of excitement. This should not be a time when
you were simply interested in the score, but rather a time when a sports event
on TV or that you attended made you want to jump up in excitement, caused
you to feel strong team-pride, and physiologically aroused you. In the space
below, please write about this experience. Please use the entire space provided
to write about what you saw and describe how it felt to have this sports event
cause you to feel intense game excitement.
Received December 16, 2003
Revision received May 30, 2005
Accepted June 6, 2005 ?
LANDAU ET AL.