Terror Management Theory

Terror management theory is based heavily on the writings of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, and in particular his book The Denial of Death, for which he won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize.  According to TMT, humans, having evolved a unique capacity for complex thought, can think in terms of time, in terms of symbols, and can hold themselves as the object of their attention and most importantly, meaningfully, contemplate our own life and mortality.  We know that we exist and that, one day, we will not exist.

According to the theory (TMT), this knowledge is highly problematic to the extent that humans also possess a basic animal-based desire for self-preservation.  To resolve this conflict and manage the intense fear associated with knowledge of death, individuals participate in and defend  complex belief systems that define socially valued behaviors.

Terror Management Theory (TMT) was proposed in 1986 by social psychologists Jeff GreenbergTom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon.  It was initiated by two relatively simple questions:

1. Why do people have such a great need to feel good about themselves?

2. Why do people have so much trouble getting along with those different from themselves?

The theory proposes that humans are motivated to quell the potential for terror inherent in the human awareness of vulnerability and mortality by investing in cultural belief systems (or world views) that imbue life with meaning, and the individuals who subscribe to them with significance (or self-esteem).

Given the cultural relativity of our beliefs and values and the fact that we live in multicultural societies, it is inevitable that we encounter others with different belief systems and values.  According to TMT, individuals with different belief systems pose serious threats to the validity of our own worldview.   The mere existence of people who believe differently than we do undermines the importance of our own belief structure and increases our anxiety,  while it simultaneously decreases our own self-esteem. People are prone to respond to such threats with some form of psychological defense, often by ridiculing, derogating, attacking, or minimizing the worldview threat. By engaging in worldview defense in this manner, one can re-exert the superiority of his or her worldview.  To date, over 300 studies conducted in over a dozen countries have explored the ramifications of this phenomena.    http://www.tmt.missouri.edu/publications.html

Do you have that so far?  OK, here is where it really starts to get interesting.  The basic meat of TMT, known as the “mortality salience hypothesis,” states that reminders of mortality will cause an individual to invest in and defend their cultural belief system, leading that person to respond favorably to others who support his or her worldview and negatively to those who threaten it.  TMT posits that humans ingeniously, but quite unconsciously, solved this existential dilemma of death by developing cultural world views: humanly constructed beliefs about reality shared by individuals in a group that serve to “manage” the potentially paralyzing terror.

…”A large body of evidence shows that momentarily making death salient, typically by asking people to think about themselves dying, intensifies people’s strivings to protect and bolster aspects of their world views, and to bolster their self-esteem. The most common finding is that MS increases positive reactions to those who share cherished aspects of one’s cultural worldview, and negative reactions toward those who violate cherished cultural values or are merely different.”…

Now for Rodney King’s question:  “Can’t we just get along?”  The answer is essentially yes, BUT, not in a multicultural society and definitely not if we are continually exposed to media reminding us of death.  The constant anxiety increasing 24/7 cavalcade of human disaster and death served up by media must, according to TMT, serve to both strengthen “our” view of reality and, as a psychological means of defense, cause us to ridicule and attack competing world views with an intensity and ferocity directly proportional to the level of mortality salience we are exposed to.  In point of fact, the level of mortality salience we are exposed to is unprecedented.

Now, you may never have heard of TMT and you may be asking yourself, “OK Mrs. N, so what, what’s the big deal?” Well, Mrs. N is going to tell you.  Politicians and others seeking power and control over populations of humans have employed TMT since it was first discovered.  A case can certainly be made that the handlers of George Bush the Younger managed his re-election (much to the shock of the rest of the world) by scientifically clever, subconscious, anxiety enhancement through the use of concepts and phrases like “The War on Terror”, “mushroom clouds” and daily reminders of the color our levels of alert (anxiety) were declared to be.  Divide and conquer is both an old and highly effective concept.

Understanding TMT and the fact that it doesn’t deal in logic, facts or truths, but subconscious anxiety reduction or enhancement, the American political scene today comes into clearer focus.  Quite simply, when it comes to motivating humans, truth takes a back seat to anxiety manipulation.  A bold faced and blatant lie that is generally recognized to be a lie will, according to TMT, be more effective than the truth if it increases mortality salience.

Muslims are terrorists… terrorists kill people…  Barrack Obama is a Muslim.

Foreigners are dangerous…  Barrack Obama isn’t an American

I assume you can see where I am going and it is my hope that a better understanding of TMT will enhance your enjoyment of the avalanche of bull-shit and balderdash that the upcoming political season will offer us all.  When you hear an obvious untruth, understand how subconsciously it succeeds.  When you are tempted to defend your “reality view” and ridicule and attack people who do not share it…. Understand your subconscious need to do so.

Understand that NO ONE really “knows” reality, but, being sentient creatures adrift in an incomprehensible universe and incapable of contemplating a universe without “us” in it… we are condemned to at least attempt to reduce our existential anxiety.  Unfortunately, hate of the “other” does that and we are subconsciously HIGHLY prone to manipulation.

All we can do is….. Be aware of it.



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3 responses to “Terror Management Theory

  1. Dear Mrs. Neutron,
    I read your latest on Terror Management Theory with great interest. The theory tends to support what I am currently reading in “Report From Iron Mountain on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace” (NY: Dial Press, 1967).

    Here is a quote from page 44: “In general, the war system provides the basic motivation for primary and social organization. In so doing, it reflects on the societal level the incentives of individual human behavior. The most important of these, for social purposes, is the individual psychological rationale for allegiance to a society and its values. Allegiance requires a cause; a cause requires an enemy. This much is obvious; the critical point is that the enemy that defines the cause must seem genuinely formidable. Roughly speaking, the presumed power of the ‘enemy’ sufficient to warrant an individual sense of allegiance to a society must be proportionate to the size and complexity of the society. Today, of course, that power must be one of unprecedented magnitude and frightfulness.”

  2. Anita my love, marvelous to hear from you.
    TMT exploits, at an even deeper level, exactly what your quote states.

    What “if” you were not after “social organization”? What if your goal was social “disorganization” rendering it perpetually off balance, anxiety ridden and thereby controllable?
    Hypothetically speaking, how would you loot an advanced, highly educated and powerful multicultural empire? What one technique could be employed to keep everyone off balance?
    1. Use the media to constantly (consciously and subconsciously) remind people of death.
    2. Point out to people that they are surrounded by “others” who scoff at their anxiety reducing “world view”.
    3. Spend decades artificially inflating everyone’s self esteem knowing… “The bigger they are, the harder they fall”.

    The population will soon find itself obsessed with nit-picking. Essentially meaningless details will assume paramount importance as one group turns on another and all who violate cherished cultural values will be condemned. With astute management…. That’s EVERYBODY.

    On the one hand it’s Orwellian. On the other hand it’s reminiscent of Bokonon, the religious leader, in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cats Cradle”.

    Tiger got to hunt,
    Bird got to fly;
    Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?”
    Tiger got to sleep,
    Bird got to land;
    Man got to tell himself he understand.

  3. Markoff Chaney

    New paper on Mortality Salience here:

    Subtle Priming of Shared Human Experiences Eliminates Threat-Induced Negativity Toward Arabs, Immigrants, and Peace-Making” on SSRN (forthcoming (April 20, 2011). Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.


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