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  • Writer's pictureAnnelisa MacBean

What Are We So Afraid Of? A TMT Perspective on the Politics of Fear

by Tom Pyszczynski Fear and anxiety are two of the most intolerable emotions we humans are capable of experiencing. People will do almost anything to avoid being afraid. When, despite their best efforts, these feelings do break through, people go to incredible lengths to shut them down. Ever since Freud’s seminal theorizing, psychologists have been fascinated with the role that fear and anxiety play in both normal everyday behav- ior and serious individual and social pathologies.

This article will focus on a theory, and the very large body of research that supports it, that suggests that fear and anxiety are inherent aspects of the human condi- tion. But although all animals—including humans — experience fear when they are faced with clear and present dangers to their survival, only humans experience anxiety, a more diffuse form of fear in which it is not always obvious just what it is we are afraid of. It is becoming increasingly clear that this core anxiety inherent in the human condi- tion plays a role in just about everything we do.

I am not suggesting that anxiety is the only psychological process that needs to be understood if we want to understand why people do the things they do. But a complete and well-rounded understanding of the human condition requires that we comprehend the roots of this anxiety and how it affects us in ways that we have no way of becoming aware of through simple introspection. Because the source of this anxiety is usually obscure, kept hidden from our awareness, it is extremely difficult to control its effects. This lack of awareness of the source of our fear and our resulting inability to introspectively observe the way it affects us make it an effective force with which politicians, religious leaders, and just about everyone else can manipulate us.

TERROR MANAGEMENT THEORY About 20 years ago, I, along with my colleagues, Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg, stumbled across a couple of books written by the late cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker: The Birth and Death of Meaning (1971), and the Denial of Death (1973). At that time we had just finished our doctorates in experimental social psychology and were becom- ing jaded with the highly fragmented state of our field; it seemed that social psychologists were so wrapped up in studying the microcompo- nents of very specific aspects of people’s thoughts and behavior that they were missing the forest because they were engrossed in the details of the leaves on the trees. Becker’s goal was to integrate and combine what he saw as the best and most enduring insights that had come out of the human sciences and humanities over the years—ideas from Darwin, Freud, Rank, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, G. H. Mead, and many others.

What fascinated us about these books was that Becker had some ideas about why some of the motives that we social psychologists took for granted exist—what they do for us, what functions they serve. So we took Becker’s ideas and combined them with the ideas that had been coming out of experimental laboratories in social, cognitive, clini- cal, and developmental psychology and brought in a good measure of the newly emerging field of evolutionary psychology. We then came up with what we referred to as Terror Management Theory (TMT) (see Greenberg, Pyszczynski, and Solomon, 1986; Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski, 1991; Pyszczynski, Solomon, and Greenberg, 2003).

The basic goal of TMT was to answer some very basic questions about the human condition:

1) Why do people need self-esteem and go to such great lengths to get it?

2) Why do people need to believe that, out of all the different ways of conceiving reality, their conception is the one that just happens to bear a one-to-one relation with the truth?

3) Why do people have such a hard time getting along with each other, especially those who are different from themselves?

THE BASICS OF TMT TMT starts with a consideration of how human beings are both similar to, and different from, all other animals. We start with the assumption that, like all other animals, humans are born with a very basic evolved proclivity to stay alive and that fear, and all the biological structures of the brain that produce it, evolved, at least initially, to keep the animal alive. This, of course, is highly adaptive, in that it facilitates survival, and an animal that does not stay alive very long has little chances of repro- ducing and passing on its genes. But as our species evolved, it developed a wide range of other adaptations that helped us survive and reproduce, the most important being a set of highly sophisticated intellectual abili- ties that enable us to: a) think and communicate with symbols, which of course is the basis for language, b) project ourselves in time and imagine a future including events that have never happened before, and c) reflect back on ourselves, and take ourselves as an object of our own attention—self-awareness.

These are all very adaptive abilities that play central roles in the system through which humans regulate their behavior—usually referred to as the self (cf. Carver and Scheier, 1998). These abilities made it possible for us to survive and prosper in a far wider range of environments than any other animal has ever done, and accomplish all that we humans have done that no other species ever has been capable of doing. However, these unique intellectual abilities also created a major problem: they made us aware that, although we are biologically programmed to stay alive and avoid things that would cut our life short, the one absolute certainty in life is that we must die. We are also forced to realize that death can come at any time for any number of reasons, none of which are particularly pleasant—a predator, natural disaster, another hostile human, and an incredible range of diseases and natural processes, ranging from heart attacks and cancer to AIDS. If we are “lucky” we realize that our bodies will just wear out and we will slowly fade away as we gradually lose our most basic func- tions. Not a very pretty picture.

TMT posits that this clash of a core desire for life with awareness of the inevitability of death created the potential for paralyzing terror. Although all animals experience fear in the face of clear and present dangers to their survival, only humans know what it is that they are afraid of, and that ultimately there is no escape from this ghastly real- ity. We suspect that this potential for terror would have greatly inter- fered with ongoing goal-directed behavior, and life itself, if it were left unchecked. It may even have made the intellectual abilities that make our species special unviable in the long run as evolutionary adapta- tions—and there are those who think that the fear and anxiety that results from our sophisticated intelligence may still eventually lead to the extinction of our species. So humankind used their newly emerging intellectual abilities to manage the potential for terror that these abili- ties produced by calling the understandings of reality that were emerg- ing as a result of these abilities into service as a way of controlling their anxieties. The potential for terror put a “press” on emerging explana- tions for reality, what we refer to as cultural worldviews, such that any belief system that was to survive and be accepted by the masses needed to manage this potential for anxiety that was inherent in the recently evolved human condition.

Cultural worldviews manage existential terror by providing a meaningful, orderly, and comforting conception of the world that helps us come to grips with the problem of death. Cultural worldviews provide a meaningful explanation of life and our place in the cosmos; a set of standards for what is valuable behavior, good and evil, that give us the potential of acquiring self-esteem, the sense that we are valu- able, important, and significant contributors to this meaningful reality; and the hope of transcending death and attaining immortality in either a literal or symbolic sense. Literal immortality refer to those aspects of the cultural worldview that promise that death is not the end of exis- tence, that some part of us will live on, perhaps in an ethereal heaven, through reincarnation, a merger of our consciousness with God and all others, or the attainment of enlightenment—beliefs in literal immor- tality are nearly universal, with the specifics varying widely from culture to culture. Cultures also provide us with the hope of attaining symbolic immortality, by being part of something larger, more significant, and more enduring than ourselves, such as our families, nations, ethnic groups, professions, and the like. Because these entities will continue to exist long after our deaths, we attain symbolic immortality by being valued parts of them.

Because the beliefs and values that make up our cultural world- views are abstract linguistic constructions, and because there are a virtually infinite number of possible cultural worldviews, our faith in them, and thus their effectiveness in managing anxiety, depends heavily on consensual validation from others. When others view the world or ourselves in the same way that we do, it suggest that our view is right: the world really was created in seven days, and we really are virtuous and valuable when we give money to charity; or as members of a Christian church in Kansas believe, one can increase one’s chance of literal immortality by picketing outside a murdered gay college student’s funeral with signs proclaiming that “God Hates Faggots.” The point is that we need other people to agree with our worldviews and self-concepts in order to maintain faith in them. A long line of research in social psychology supports the important role played by such consensual validation (for example, Festinger, 1954; Swann, 1987). But again there is a rub: when we encounter others who view the world or ourselves in ways that are different from our own views, this threatens our faith in these constructions and undermines their effectiveness as buffers against existential anxiety. As a result, we need to avoid such disagreements at all cost, and when we do encounter them, we need to put these people down to minimize the threat posed by their differing views of reality.

Throughout history, people have put down those with different worldviews by viewing them as ignorant savages, by converting them to their own worldviews (perhaps while incorporating some of the less threatening aspects of aspects of the deviant worldviews into their own), and, if all else fails, by simply annihilating those who have different beliefs about the nature of reality. What better way to show that our God is better than their God? If we simply exterminate those who are different, the threat the deviant others pose neatly evaporates.

To summarize, TMT posits that the juxtaposition of a desire for life with awareness of the inevitability of death gives rise to the potential for paralyzing terror, which is managed by a dual-component cultural anxiety buffer. This consists of a cultural worldview that imposes order, meaning, and permanence on existence, and self-esteem, which enables us to view ourselves as important contributors to this meaning- ful and eternal reality. The effectiveness of both cultural worldviews and self-esteem depends heavily on consensual validation from others, and those with different beliefs, values, and perceptions undermine this effectiveness, thus leaving us vulnerable to the core anxiety that is inherent in the human condition. Cultural worldviews and self-esteem are thus vitally important for relatively anxiety-free living, and people go to incredible lengths to maintain and defend them, because of the protection from existential anxiety that they provide.

EMPIRICAL SUPPORT To date there have been more than 250 experiments that provide support for various aspects of TMT. These have been conducted in over 13 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Israel, Iran, Japan, and in the Australian outback with multicultural aborigines. In this article I will provide only a very general overview of this evidence, and then turn to research that bears directly on the political uses of fear. For a more thorough review of the empirical evidence regarding TMT, see Greenberg, Solomon, and Pyszczynski (1997) or Pyszczynski, Solomon, and Greenberg (2003). Most of the most important evidence concerning TMT can be summarized as supporting the following four converging hypotheses:

1) Increasing self-esteem or faith in one’s CWV makes people less prone to anxiety, anxiety-related behavior, and less likely to have death-related thoughts come close to consciousness. In one of our earliest studies (Greenberg et al., 1992), college students filled out large packets of personality invento- ries and then came back to our labs a week or two later to take part in a study of “how people react to emotional stimulation.” Upon arriving for the session, they were given a computerized personality profile suppos- edly derived from the surveys they filled out at the previous session. Actually, participants were randomly assigned to receive personality feedback that was either highly favorable (suggesting that they showed great emotional maturity, superior interpersonal skills, and leadership potential) or neutral (suggesting that they were quite typical in having their emotional ups and downs, signs of interpersonal conflict, and a variety of other strengths and liabilities). As expected, participants who received the positive feedback showed significantly higher scores on a well-respected self-esteem inventory. They were then shown a 10- minute video clip consisting of scenes from a video that depicted vari- ous gruesome scenes of death or neutral footage. Whereas participants in the neutral self-esteem condition showed significantly higher reports of anxiety when shown the death-related video than when shown the neutral video, the anxiety of those in the increased self-esteem condi- tion was not affected by the frightening video. Later studies replicated this finding with different manipulations of self-esteem and threat and physiological measures of anxiety (for example, Greenberg et al., 1992, studies 2 and 3). These studies showed that self-esteem can indeed provide a buffer against anxiety.

2) Reminding people of the inevitability of death leads to a broad range of attempts to maintain faith in their worldviews and self-esteem and defend them against threats. These studies test the mortality salience hypothesis: if one’s cultural worldview and self-esteem provide protection against the fear of death, then reminding people of the inevitability of death should increase their need to keep their worldviews and self-esteem strong. In the typical study, participants are reminded of death or another aversive topic that is not related to death (dental pain, failing an exam, giving a speech in front of a large audience, being socially excluded, being uncertain), and then exposed to people or ideas that either support or challenge their cultural worldviews. For example, in the first mortality salience study, Rosenblatt et al. (1989) had half of their sample of municipal court judges in Tucson, Arizona, fill out a questionnaire about death, and then all the judges read a case brief about a woman accused of prostitution and then set bail for her. Whereas control judges who were not reminded of their mortality set an average bond of $50, those who were first reminded of their mortality set an average bond of $455. Later studies have shown that such reminders of mortality can lead to increased prejudice, aggression toward those with different worldviews, estimates of social consensus for one’s attitudes, anxiety when treating culturally valued objects in disrespectful ways, help for those within one’s group, identification with valued aspects of self, affection for those who love us, and many other important psycho- logical consequences (for more details, see Greenberg, Solomon, and Pyszczynski, 1997). What all these effects of mortality salience have in common is that they entail behavior that affirms or bolsters one’s self- esteem or faith in one’s worldview or behavior that diffuses any threats that might be impinging on these two components of one’s shield against existential anxiety.

3) Increasing people’s self-esteem reduces or eliminates the effects of mortality salience on their self-esteem striving and clinging to their cultural worldviews. This is essentially a combination of the two previous hypoth- esis: increasing the strength of one aspect of the anxiety-buffer reduces the effect of reminders of death on clinging to another aspect of the anxiety-buffer. To test this hypothesis, Harmon-Jones et al. (1997) gave participants either positive or neutral feedback on a personality test to increase half of their self-esteem, exposed them to mortality salience, and assessed worldview defense in the form of negative reactions to a person who criticized the United States. Whereas neutral self-esteem participants showed the usual increase in negativity toward a person who criticized their country, those whose self-esteem had just been boosted were relatively immune to the effects of death reminders. A follow-up study showed that people with high levels of dispositional self-esteem are similarly less affected by reminders of their mortality. Again, self-esteem defuses the defensive effects that occur when people are reminded of their mortality, thus providing further evidence that self-esteem is part of the system we use to protect ourselves from death- related fear.

4) Convincing evidence of the existence of some form of an afterlife reduces the effects of mortality salience on self-esteem striving and worldview defense. If the defensive reactions to thoughts of death demonstrated in many previous TMT studies reflects an attempt to deny one’s mortal- ity, then convincing people that death is not really the end of life, as many religious belief systems would tell us, should decrease the effect of reminders of mortality on the pursuit of self-esteem and faith in one’s worldview. To convince a group of nonreligious college students that death “really is not the end,” we had them read a summary of the proceedings from a supposed scientific conference on the “Near Death Experience,” the widely publicized reports of various experi- ences that occur after one has been declared clinically dead that people sometimes report after being revived and surviving such experiences (Dechesne et al., 2003). For some participants, this summary contained a variety of arguments concluding that the near death experience must mean that some aspect of ourselves continues to exist and experience thoughts, images, and emotions after physical death; others read a summary concluding that these near death experiences most certainly reflect biological artifacts that accompany the process of the brain shutting down and thus provide no reason to believe in an afterlife; control participants read a neutral article unrelated to the near death experi- ence. Participants then filled out questionnaires that reminded them of either death or aversive experiences unrelated to death, and then rated the validity of some extremely positive feedback they had just received about their personality. As in previous studies, the death reminder led control participants to rate the positive personality feedback as especially valid and perceptive, a good way of maximizing its posi- tive impact on self-esteem, and a sign of increased self-esteem striving brought on by mortality salience.

Participants who read the article that concluded that the near death experience was simply a biological side effect of brain death showed the same pattern of increased self-esteem striving in response to mortality salience. However, participants who read the article claiming that the near death experience was compel- ling evidence of some form of afterlife were not affected by the mortal- ity salience induction—they did not increase their self-esteem striving or other forms of defensiveness. These findings provide yet another line of evidence that self-esteem and cultural worldviews combine to provide protection against death-related fears, and show that the hope of literal immortality is particularly effective in protecting us from this most basic of all human fears.

DISTINCT PROCESS FOR COPING WITH CONSCIOUS AND UNCONSCIOUS DEATH CONCERNS One thing that has become very clear from our studies of the effects of thinking about death is that the problem of death affects us in very different ways, depending on whether we are consciously thinking of it or whether it is on the fringes of consciousness—what cognitive psychologists would refer to as highly accessible but outside of current focal attention (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, and Solomon, 1999). The clinging to the worldview and pursuit of self-esteem that the studies described earlier document occur when thoughts of death are on the fringes of consciousness—shortly after being reminded of the problem of death and after a distraction; or when death-related words or symbols are presented subliminally, so that people are not aware of them. What is interesting and important to realize about the pursuit of self-esteem and faith in our worldviews is that these defenses bear no logical or semantic

relation to the problem of death—what does being a good American have to do with the fact that I am going to die someday? In a logical sense, absolutely nothing, but we are socialized early in life to use meaning and self-esteem as ways of protecting ourselves from our fears and anxieties.

On the other hand, when people are consciously thinking about death, they cope in very different ways that do have a logical connection to death. These defenses seem to make sense. We either distract ourselves from the problem of death, by switching the topic or turning up the radio as we drive by an accident scene, or try to convince ourselves that death is a problem for the distant future. We remind ourselves that our grandmother lived to be 99, that we do not smoke, or we promise to get more exercise, start taking that medicine our doctor has been pushing, or get on the latest fad diet. The point here is that because it is highly accessible but unconscious thoughts of death that promote clinging to our worldviews or self-esteem, it is difficult if not impossible to observe this in ourselves. But the empirical evidence is really very clear now. So let us turn to a consideration of how this core human fear of death affects us in ways that politicians and other leaders can manipulate.

DEATH AND NATIONALISM One of our earliest and most widely replicated findings is that reminders of death increase nationalism and other forms of group identification, making people more accepting of those who are similar to themselves and more hostile toward those who are different. For example, in a very early study we found that reminding people of death led them to react more positively toward a person who praised America and more negatively toward a person who criticized America (Greenberg et al., 1990). Similar patterns have been found all over the world. When subtly reminded of death, Germans sit closer to fellow Germans and farther away from Turks (Ochsman and Mathay, 1994) and, more recently, show an increased preference for the deutsche mark over the euro (Jonas and Greenberg, in press); Dutch citizens exaggerate how badly the Dutch national soccer team will beat the rival German team (Dechesne et al., 2000); Israelis are more accepting of fellow Israelis and rejecting of Russian Jews who have immigrated to Israel (Florian and Mikulincer, 1998); Italians view Italian identity as more “real,” reflecting bigger differences between Italians and people from other countries (Castano et al., 2002); and Scots are more discriminating in judging pictures as either Scottish or English, viewing fewer faces of Englishmen as Scottish (Castano, Yzerbet, and Palladino, 2004). These findings all come from highly controlled laboratory experiments.

Recently a group of researchers from the Dutch Royal Military Academy collaborated with Mark Dechesne of the University of Groningen to apply these ideas to understand some problems they were having with multinational troops serving on a peace-keeping mission in Kabul, Afghanistan. The problem was that although Dutch and German troops have been working well together for over 10 years on various joint missions, when they got to Kabul, positive relations seemed to be breaking down and old national rivalries seemed to be coming to the surface. The members of the Dutch group reasoned that the ongoing threat of death that the soldiers faced in Kabul might lie at the root of this conflict. In their view, although the vast majority of citi- zens of Kabul appreciate their work in building hospital and schools, every now and then members of a small minority will throw a hand grenade at the soldiers or shoot at them. They found that the higher the soldiers scored on a fear of death scale, the more negative their attitudes toward working with soldiers from other European countries. This is very exciting work, in that it shows us that the findings from our labs studies do generalize to real life situations where life is on the line. This seems likely to be a major factor for the soldiers from all the countries deployed in Iraq, and we think TMT could shed some useful light on their stress and how they cope with it.

THE AFTERMATH OF 9/11 The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Word Trade Center and Pentagon were without doubt one of the most fear-inducing events to ever occur on American soil. In the days and weeks after the attack, it became increasing clear that TMT might have a lot to tell us, both about why Americans reacted the way they did to the attacks and what might be motivating those responsible. We addressed these issues in the book In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror (Pyszczynski, Solomon, and Greenberg, 2003). This section provides a brief overview of our analysis of the motivational forces that 9/11 set in motion among Americans and describes some recent research that supports the validity of this analysis.

The central thesis of our analysis is that the 9/11 terrorist attacks also were an attack on Americans’ psychological equanimity. The bombings themselves were a dramatic reminder of our vulnerabil- ity and mortality, and the repeated televised depictions of the planes crashing into the trade center towers, imagining what the thousands of victims trapped inside the building must have experienced, the video footage of people leaping from the building to their deaths, the plume of smoke and the horrified survivors, and the heart-wrenching testi- mony from the victims’ loved ones all forced us to confront the reality of death and the fact that this could happen to any of us, at any time, almost anywhere. In addition, the attacks on the World Trade Center, a major symbol of American economic power, and on the Pentagon, a major symbol of American military might, and the aborted attack on the White, the seat of American government, struck to the heart of American culture and shattered the myth that such events simply “can’t happen here.” They also served us with a powerful reminder that there are many people in the world who hate Americans and the American way of life. That the perpetrators of the attack committed these acts of violence as retribution for a myriad of complaints against American foreign policy and the American way of life, and that they did this in the name of their god, made the threat to our cultural anxiety- buffer all the more devastating.

Support for the point that the terrorist attacks brought thoughts of death closer to consciousness was provided by a study in which participants were subliminally presented with the letters WTC (for World Trade Center), the numbers 911, or a neutral string of three digits. The subliminal WTC and 911 primes led to a significant increase in the accessibility of death-related thoughts on a wordstem completion task (Landau et al., 2004a). Another study demonstrated that self-esteem moderated how the attacks influenced the accessibility of death-related thoughts in the month after the attack (Landau et al., 2004b). Whereas high self-esteem individuals showed high levels of death thought acces- sibility in the week after the attack, this dropped and remained low two, three, and four weeks after the attack. Low self-esteem individuals, however, who would be expected to be less well-protected against exis- tential fear, showed high levels of death thought accessibility one week after the attack that dropped the second week but then dramatically increased both the third and fourth week after the attack. TMT posits that a lack of self-esteem makes one vulnerable to existential fear, and although low self-esteem individuals seemed to actively suppress death- related thoughts shortly after the attack, this suppression seems to have been lifted so that very high levels of death access were observed for up to a month after the attack.

This dramatic reminder of our vulnerability and mortality, coupled with the hateful attack on American culture, left us reeling. The parallels between what we have found in our laboratory studies among people reminded of death whose cultural anxiety buffer is threat- ened and what was observed on a mass scale throughout the United States and much of the world were startling. Very briefly, Americans responded with greatly heightened anxiety and efforts to protect them- selves (as found in studies of reactions to conscious thoughts of death). But more dramatically, Americans also behaved in ways reflective of the more symbolic terror management defenses of clinging to one’s worldview and shoring up one’s self-esteem.

Increased nationalism. Patriotic sentiment and support for the current government was at an all time high; shortly after the attack, approval ratings for President George W. Bush hovered between 90 and 95 percent. Flags, t-shirts with patriotic slogans, and American symbols of all kinds virtually flew out of the stores. Patriotic songs were sung by major pop stars between innings of the world series, and massive reli- gious commemorations, political rallies, and rock concerts were hastily organized to celebrate America. This of course is highly reminiscent of research showing that mortality salience (MS) increases nationalistic tendencies.

Intolerance for dissent. Another commonly observed result was the anger and hostility with which those who questioned our government’s response to the attacks were greeted. Bill Maher’s firing from his popular TV show, Politically Incorrect, for making a joke about the attack, was one of several high-profile hostile reactions to those who disagreed with government policy. The oft-parodied question, “Why do you hate America?” was directed at many who raised questions or were reserved in their displays of patriotism. This of course is similar to the many lab studies showing that MS leads to especially hostile reactions to those who question one’s beliefs.

Hostility toward those who are different. Another unfortunate reaction to the attacks was violence and hate crimes directed toward Arabs and others with darker than average skin. In Arizona, a Sikh Indian wearing a turban was shot the day after the terrorist attacks, and throughout the country acts of violence against Mexican-Americans, Native-Americans, and those of Middle Eastern descent increased, as did attacks on mosques and other symbols of Islamic culture. Thankfully this increase in anti-Arab violence was not as great as many predicted, but many people from that part of the world felt the hostility and suspicion from their fellow Americans and, to a somewhat lesser extent, continue to do so to this day. Desire for vengeance. One of the most prominent reactions was a desire for vengeance. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Americans support the idea that those responsible should be brought to justice. A majority also supported military action against those less directly involved, like the Taliban, and even against those without any clear tie to the terrorist attacks but who represent an Islamic worldview that has come to be closely associated with the attack, such as Saddam Hussein and the people of Iraq. Of course it should be pointed out that only a small proportion of Muslims actively support terrorist violence.

Perhaps not surprisingly, our studies suggest that the desire for vengeance depends on one’s level of identification with mainstream American culture. A series of studies exposed individuals who scored high or low on a measure of estrangement from American culture to reminders of the terrorist attack, a typical MS prime, or another aversive topic. They were then asked to read two essays, one arguing for a force- ful military response to the Middle East in general, and one arguing for a more restrained response (Landau et al., 2004). Interestingly, thoughts of one’s own death led to increased desire for vengeance among those both identified with and estranged from American culture. However, reminders of the terrorist attacks themselves led those highly identi- fied with American culture to favor harsher retaliation, but led those estranged from American culture to prefer an even more restrained response. Apparently, whereas thoughts of one’s own death activated a need to defend one’s culture among all participants, thoughts of the attacks probably reminded culturally estranged individuals of their political views and led to a more controlled response, in line with their own cultural worldviews.


In the days after the attacks, Americans went to great lengths to show their appreciation and respect for police officers, firefighters, military personnel, and others who serve and protect us. This is similar to the finding that MS increases attraction toward those who exemplify cultural values, act benevolently, or risk their own well- being to help others.

A desire to help. Another more hopeful set of responses to the attacks was a widespread desire to do whatever could be done to help. Many stood in line for hours to give blood; sadly, the dearth of survivors made this less useful than most of us had hoped it would be. Donations to police, fire, and other 9/11-related charities went up dramatically. Lou Penner (2003) and associates found that charitable contributions of all types, whether or not the charity was related to the bombings, increased in the months immediately after the attacks, but gradually tapered off to normal levels by the end of the year. This is similar to studies that have shown that reminders of one’s mortality increase the tendency to help, especially those charities that benefit one’s own group (Jonas et al., 2003). Interestingly, a recent study in Iran showed that MS increased the tendency of children to donate money to a beggar (Abdolhossan, 2004). These and other findings provide our first evidence that similar processes operate within the Islamic world.

In sum, many dramatic parallels exist between how Americans reacted to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and what research has shown to happen when people are reminded of their mortality and faced with a threat to their cultural worldview. Space limitations prevents a more thorough consideration of the role of the terror management process in reactions to the 9/11 tragedy.

TMT AND POLITICAL PREFERENCES Many studies have shown that reminders of mortality increase one’s tendency to like and support those who share one’s political orienta- tion and to dislike and even act violently toward those with different political views. We recently conducted a series of studies of the role of terror management processes in the way people respond to politicians. In the first study (Cohen et al., in press), participants were induced to think about their own death or another aversive control topic. They were then given brief essays to read by three different political candi- dates and asked to evaluate each candidate and indicate who they would vote for. The results revealed that reminders of death increased support for the charismatic candidate but had no effect on support for candidates with task-oriented leadership styles and decreased support for leaders with relationship-oriented leadership styles. These findings show that existential fear increases the preference for candidates with a clear vision and a patriotic message. Although I doubt that many involved in politics are aware of these findings I suspect that we will see some dramatic re-enactments of these findings in the year to come as we approach the next presidential election. It is probably no co- incidence that the Republican National Convention is scheduled to by held in New York City, and no doubt both sides will make copious references to the threats from terrorists that face our nation over the course of the election.

A more recent pair of studies looked directly at the effect of exis- tential anxiety on attitudes toward President Bush’s military policy in Iraq. These studies (Landau et al., 2004b) showed that reminders of one’s own mortality or of the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to increased support for President Bush. What is especially dramatic about this finding is that, in the control conditions, support for Bush’s Iraq policy was below the midpoint of the scale—in other words, the majority opposed the war. However, after being reminded of their own mortality or the events of 9/11, support for Bush’s Iraq policy increased above the midpoint, suggesting that the majority supported his policies. This provides rather clear evidence that existential concerns can have direct effect on politi- cal attitudes and preferences and suggests that these forces are influ- encing attitudes toward our president and his policies today. It seems clear that fear and anxiety can and do play a major role in politics and are there to be exploited to influence political outcomes.

FEAR VERSUS FREEDOM In an address to the nation shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush characterized the current conflict as an epic battle of fear versus freedom. This was particularly striking to us because we were just in the process of finishing a paper arguing that one of the major effects of existential fear is that it interferes with our ability to change, grow, and develop (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, and Goldenberg, 2003). A long tradition of research, on TMT and in other areas, shows that fear can interfere with learning, complex thinking, and change. Our recent studies show that reminders of mortality make people long for structure and order, and pushes them to accept quick and easy answers to problems and forego carefully considering all options (Landau et al., in press). For people to change and grow and engage in the kind of open-minded thought and problem-solving that is necessary for growth to occur, anxiety must be controlled. The irony here is that people typically control their anxiety by clinging to their old ways of thinking and prefer simple answers to difficult questions. Sadly, this sort of defensive clinging is antithetical to the kind of thinking necessary for growth, change, and improvement. So ultimately, people are caught between the potential for growth and open-mindedness, but held back by the fears that lead them to cling to old, simple-minded answers that maintain the status quo. Fear truly is the enemy of freedom.

NOTES 1. For a more thorough discussion of this and an analysis of how TMT might help us understand the roots of what inclines individuals to terrorist violence, see Pyszczynski, Greenberg, and Goldenberg (2003).

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