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

More recent studies have found that terror management plays a role in important political preferences. From a TMT perspective, politicians who confidently advocate the greatness of one’s own group should be most appealing in the wake of reminders of death. In research in the U.S. conducted prior to the 2004 Presidential Election, participants showed more approval of an essay supporting George W. Bush’s Iraq policy, and were more willing to vote for Bush than opposing candidate John Kerry (regardless of their political orientation), after being reminded of either their own death or the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 (Landau et al., 2004). These results suggest that an important reason why Bush eventually won the favor of the American public a second time was his campaign’s emphasis on protecting the nation from threats of terrorism that might prove deadly if not quelled. The Bush Administration likely initiated widespread worldview defense processes in the public – removing any hope of immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq – by constantly reminding Americans of 9/11 and their vulnerability through rhetorical emphasis on the deadly threat posed by terrorists and "Axis of Evil" states.

Broaching the subject of terrorism brings us to what is perhaps the most alarming – and potentially revealing – piece of TMT evidence yet uncovered. In a recent study (Pyszczynski, Abdollahi et al., 2006), Iranian college students who had thought about their own death subsequently showed greater favor for a fellow student’s advocacy of suicidal attacks against Americans, and even a tendency to consider such actions themselves. There is perhaps no purer example of terror management than sacrificing oneself for Allah to attain eternal life in heaven. In parallel fashion, American conservatives reminded of death were especially supportive of the use of extreme military violence, even nuclear weapons, to eradicate "evil-doers" in the Middle East.

Such haunting findings speak directly to the riddle of death we first noted. We attach ourselves to cultural constructs that quell our fears with a promise of some form of immortality; but having psychologically invested our very lives in these entities, we defend them fiercely, too often with ignoble results, killing and being killed for our ideals, our country, our deities. Indeed, further supporting the idea of this circle of death, Routledge and Arndt (in press) recently found that MS increased British subjects reported willingness to die for their country unless they were first reminded of another path to symbolic immortality.

Of course, the willingness to engage in self-sacrifice is not the most common form of combating death anxiety. There are many ways of endorsing and living up to the values of most cultural worldviews without hastening our own demise, or that of others. Still, history suggests that, all too often, non-suicidal aggression has served to defend cherished worldviews; to paraphrase the film Patton, wars are won not by dying for your country, but by making someone else die for theirs. Such a mindset was displayed by the Christian participants in a study conducted by Hayes, Schimel and Williams (2008), who displayed worldview defense in response to a threat to Christianity, but not after reading an article describing the deaths of several Muslims in a plane crash. In a bitter twist of irony, the deaths of different others can sometimes make us feel better about our own.

"A way to the better…"?

Predicted effects of MS have been demonstrated using a variety of forms of death reminder and a wide range of measures. Additionally, aversive control topics including contemplation of isolation, uncertainties, failure, and intense physical pain have been used across studies and they consistently fail to produce the same effects as reminders of one’s own death. Taken as a whole, the TMT literature shows that the awareness of death holds more power over our lives than we realize, and that it can fuel ideologies that bring more death into the world in a chilling circle.

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