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Terror Management. Theory ( TMT ). How the fear of death fundamentally influences the development of personality Russ Webster Theories of Personality TMT’s Existential Roots. What is existentialism ? Philosophy looking at big, abstract ideas

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Terror Management

Theory (TMT)

How the fear of death fundamentally

influences the development of personality

Russ Webster

Theories of Personality

tmt s existential roots
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
tmt s existential roots1
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
tmt theorists
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
tmt theorists1
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
tmt main tenets
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
you ve got to be kidding me
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)
culture self esteem terror management mechanisms
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
initial reactions
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
1 the anxiety buffer hypothesis
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
2 mortality salience hypothesis
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
first empirical studies
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
rosenblatt et al 1989 cont
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
mortality salience results
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
the psychodynamics of tmt
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

Your worldview sucks!

I’m going to live forever!


Proximal Effects

Distal Effects

skeptics anyone
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…
the scope of tmt
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?

Thank You!

Questions? Comments?