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Theory ( TMT )

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  1. Terror Management Theory (TMT) How the fear of death fundamentally influences the development of personality Russ Webster Theories of Personality rjwebster@bsu.edu

  2. TMT’s Existential Roots • What is existentialism? • Philosophy looking at big, abstract ideas • What does it mean to be “human”? • Why are we here? • How did we come to be? • Basically, the search for meaning • Old philosophy • Dates back to western classical era • Continued through Renaissance and today • Find it in paintings, music, literature

  3. TMT’s Existential Roots • Existential psychology began in reaction to Freud’s theories • Both Freudian and existential psych explore the motivational consequences of human (unconscious) conflicts • However, they differ in which conflicts fundamentally influence human behavior • For Freud we manage sexual conflict; • For existential psychs our search for meaning, freedom, coherence ultimately stemmed from the fear of death

  4. TMT Theorists • Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon were all grad students at University of Kansas in the 1970s • They felt… • dismayed by “the massive popularity of purely cognitive explanations for human behavior” and • that something “big” was being left out of psychological research • Yet, for decades psychodynamic theories were snubbed because they were not falsifiable – unable to be confirmed or refuted

  5. TMT Theorists • Yet the cognitive revolution did give us innovative tools to study inner workings of the mind • Greenberg et al. saw the potential to apply these new tools to support a broad and progressive theory • Penned theoretical papers explaining TMT’s principles (1986) • Ernest Becker’s (1976) The Denial of Death cornerstone of theory

  6. TMT: Main Tenets • Fear of death is innate & universal • Self-awareness leads to the recognition that death is unstoppable and unpredictable • Fear of death fundamental source of human conflict and anxiety • Death naturally conflicts with our powerful self-preservation and freedom instincts • Ultimate motive: to manage this terror • Thus, TMT holds that human behavior fundamentally demonstrates how we cope or manage this anxiety – this terror – of death; • From intergroup conflict to self-esteem needs, TMT has an explanation

  7. You’ve got to be kidding me? • How often do you really think about death daily? • How can death be responsible for intergroup conflict? • We learn to automatically – that is, unconsciously – repress and manage the fear of death using a “dual-component buffer”: • A) Self-esteem • B) Culture (individualized worldview)

  8. Culture & Self-esteem: Terror management mechanisms • It all goes back to childhood, right? • Awareness of death • Before full awareness: “The monster under the bed” • Full awareness not until around 10 – 12 y/o • But from infancy… • Develop relationship between “being good” and having our needs met, anxiety alleviated • Develop a sense of the self (i.e., self-esteem) through these caregiver-child transactions • Explains our obsession with high self-esteem • From childhood… • Adults edify children in cultural standards and beliefs • Culture provides meaning, permanence, stability • Link between fulfilling cultural standards (“being good”) and alleviation of anxiety then developed • Culture may serve as a proxy caregiver

  9. Initial Reactions • Reaction to first theoretical papers was scornful • American Psychologist editors: • “I have no doubt that these ideas are of absolutely no interest to any psychologist, alive or dead.” • TMT theorists reply: • “We had been hoping that at least the dead might have shown some interest” • Must empirically test TMT before others took serious consideration

  10. 1. The Anxiety Buffer hypothesis • …states that high self-esteem, derived from upholding parental and cultural standards, shields individuals from experiencing (death) anxiety • Empirical research says… • Greenberg et al. (1992): High self-esteem lessened self-reported anxiety… • in anticipation of electric shocks • in response to graphic video • in response to receiving information detailing a short life expectancy • Self-esteem also moderated P’s physiological response in anticipation of electric shocks

  11. 2. Mortality Salience hypothesis… • …states that when people are reminded of death (mortality salience), they will use various terror management (defense) mechanisms to rid death thoughts from the mind to return to a composed psychological state • Seeing that culture is vital to ward off death anxiety, people should defend their worldviews after mortality salience (i.e., elicit worldview defense) • Worldview defense can either involve • a) criticizing others’ disparate worldviews or • b) praising others who uphold your worldview

  12. First empirical studies… • Rosenblatt et al. (1989): • Completed mortality questionnaire or not • Judges read case brief and then allotted bail to the alleged prostitute • $ amount ranged from $100 - $999 • Results: • After mortality salience: $455 vs. • Control condition: $50

  13. Rosenblatt et al. (1989) cont. • Also added “heroine condition” in which P’s allotted reward amount to female who apprehended thief ($1,000 - $4,000) • After mortality salience: $3,476 vs. • Control condition: $1,112

  14. Mortality Salience: Results • MS not only affects attitudes… • e.g., increased derogation of various outgroup members (e.g., Christians vs. Jews) • But also overt behavioral responses… • Increased aggression against worldview transgressors (e.g., allotted more hot sauce to targets who criticized one’s political views) • Decreased affiliation with dissimilar others (e.g., where one chooses, if at all, to sit with worldview threats) • A powerful experimental manipulation documented in hundreds of experiments

  15. The Psychodynamics of TMT • What actually happens, cognitively, during these experiments? • Participants are unaware of worldview defense after mortality salience • How do we investigate unconscious processes – processes of which participants have no awareness and on which cannot report? • Refer now to the diagram I passed out

  16. Your worldview sucks! I’m going to live forever! DELAY Proximal Effects Distal Effects

  17. Skeptics? Anyone? • Our unconscious – yeah, right! • Conclusive evidence demonstrates how big a role our unconscious plays • Our conscious mind only has limited capacities, thus our unconscious must “pick up the slack” • Such evidence explains how terror management mechanisms occur without our awareness • Experiments not generalizable..? • However, results transcend: • Gender, cultures (East and West), and age • Mortality salience questionnaire not only manipulation used to present death reminders…

  18. Prague, Czech Republic

  19. The Scope of TMT • The scope of TMT is huge! • Keep in mind… • Death reminders are everywhere… • Media! Newspapers, TV, movies… • The fear of death is universal and transcends the usual boundaries (e.g., age, region) • The fear of death is (at least partly) influences a variety of seemingly unrelated, but consequential, human behavior • Political, forensic, social, developmental, etc. applications abound • Is there such a thing as rational behavior, then?

  20. Thank You! Questions? Comments?