Penetrating the Circle of Death: Why People are Dying (and Killing) Not to Die

A large set of studies have clarified the psychological processes that occur when some external event, whether a laboratory MS induction or something a person encounters in their day-to-day life, reminds that person of their own death (Arndt et al., 2004;Pyszczynski et al., 1999). When such death-related thoughts enter consciousness, people initially try to convince themselves that death is a distant threat (e.g., "I am young and healthy", or "I am very careful to behave safely"), and actively try to suppress thoughts of death, pushing them out of consciousness. Such conscious suppression efforts are generally successful for the average, non-paranoid person; nevertheless, after these active efforts are relaxed, thoughts of death remain on the fringes of consciousness. These lingering thoughts – no longer directly accessible to the person – signal the possibility that the idea of death may return to consciousness and engender intense anxiety. This motivates the individual to bolster their faith in their worldview and their own self-worth. These defenses then free the mind from the threat of intruding thoughts of death and the anxiety they could arouse, at least until some external event reminds the individual of death again, or threatens the structures (faith in their worldview and self-worth) that protect people from such thoughts (Schimel, Hayes, & Williams, 2007).

The effect of death reminders on the proclivity to strive after self-esteem or engage in worldview defense has been established in over 300 studies conducted in countries as diverse as the Netherlands, Israel, Iran, and China. In some of the earliest TMT experiments (Greenberg et al., 1990), American college students who were reminded of their own death subsequently demonstrated significantly more positive reactions toward the author of an essay praising the U.S., and more negative reactions toward the writer of a U.S.-critical essay (compared to control participants who, rather than receiving MS, contemplated a neutral topic). A similar process was observed when Christians for whom mortality had been made salient provided more positive evaluations of a Christian and more negative evaluations of a Jewish target (Greenberg et al., 1990). More recently, Jonas, Fritsche, and Greenberg(2005) found that although Germans interviewed in front of retail stores showed no pro-German bias, Germans interviewed at a cemetery greatly preferred German products and locations over foreign ones. These and many other studies have shown that MS leads people to cling to and defend important aspects of their cultural worldview and derogate those with alternative worldviews.

Unfortunately, MS effects have been shown to go beyond the realm of mere cognition into defensive behaviors that could prove dangerous for both the actor and those around him. For instance, one classic study showed that after contemplating death, Israeli soldiers who based their self-esteem partly believed their driving skills took more risks to show off on a driving simulator after contemplating death (Taubman, Florian, & Mikulincer, 1999). Another showed that for people who derive self-worth from a nice tan, MS leads to a preference for less cancer-protective sunscreen (Routledge, Arndt, & Goldenberg, 2004). Even more disturbingly, research has linked MS to actual aggressive behavior taken towards members of an outgroup (McGregor et al.,1998). Only after a death reminder did participants believing they were taking part in product testing research dole out greater quantities of painfully intense hot sauce to be consumed by a target, simply because they believed her to belong to a different political party from their own!

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