Aug 31, 2006

Managing All Our Terrors

I remember learning the following wayback and somewhere, all on the tax payer's dime. It was taught to us so we could put it to good use in opinion management operations. "People can be positioned to fool themselves into believing their biased views follow logically from available facts. We are going to teach you just how to exploit this'.

Now, on to this post's cut 'n paste exercise.

Terror management theory (TMT) is a developing area of study within the academic study of psychology. It looks at what researchers claim to be the implicit emotional reactions of people when confronted with the psychological terror of knowing we will eventually die (it is widely believed that our awareness of mortality is a trait that is unique to humans). The theory was first developed in the late 1980s by Skidmore College psychology professor Sheldon Solomon and others. Solomon was inspired by the theories of Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death, 1973) and Freud, on how potent reminders of one's own ultimate death often provoke a belief in some form of mystical transcendence (heaven, reincarnation, spiritualism, etc.).

The theory builds from the assumption that the capability of self-reflection and the consciousness of one’s own mortality, can be regarded as a continuous source for existential anguish. Culture diminishes this psychological terror by providing meaning, organization and continuity to men's and women's lives. Compliance with cultural values enhances one's feeling of security and self-esteem, provided that the individual is capable of living in accordance with whatever particular cultural standards apply to him or her. The belief in the rightness of the cultural values and standards creates the conviction necessary to live a reasonable and meaningful life. Because of this men and women strive to have their cultural worldview confirmed by others, thereby receiving the community’s esteem. However, when one’s worldview is threatened by the weltanschauungen of another, it often results in one’s self-respect being endangered as well. In such a situation people not only endeavour to deny or devalue the importance third party weltanschauung, but try to controvert the ideas and opinions of others which may, as a consequence, escalate into a conflict.

Research has shown that people, when reminded of their own inevitable death, will cling more strongly to their cultural worldviews. The data appears to show that nations or persons who have experienced traumas (e.g. 9/11) are more attracted to strong leaders who express traditional, pro-establishment, authoritarian viewpoints. They will also be hyper-aware of the possibility of external threats, and may be more hostile to those who threaten them.

The theory gained media attention in the aftermath of 9/11, and after the re-election of President George Bush in the USA, Prime Minister Tony Blair in the UK, and John Howard in Australia.

Terror management researchers have shown that making research participants think about death will lead to such changes in behaviors and beliefs that seemingly protect worldview and self-esteem. Nevertheless, these researchers have not yet demonstrated that this happens for the reason they propose, namely to alleviate unconscious fears of death. Direct tests of this hypothesis are likely to soon emerge in the scholarly literature.

Links to additional resources on Terror Management Theory
1 Dept. of Alberta, University of Alberta
2 Interview With Dr. Sheldon Solomon And Dr. Tom Pyszczynski
3 Trailer For The Movie: Flight From Death


DrewL said...

That certainly seems to be a logical explanation for the use of terror and the resulting fear to control a population and to manipulate it into supporting and approving certain actions. It also explains why many people react to their fear by supporting aggression exhibited by their leaders.

Good stuff, M1. After all, when it comes right down to it, we're all just a bunch of guinea pigs - albeit with the knowledge that we're all gonna die someday.

Meatball One said...

Seems so, ie it would seem that our ability to know that we are gonna die makes us vulnerable to exploitation. Oh well, at least awareness of our vulnerabilities can help us ward off the most crude of exploitive attackers.

One feels almost insane to say so, but I think this whole war on terror is total BS. I thought it was BS the day it was announced and I marvelled at how the media sucked up the phrase and ran with it. I still marvel at how easily the War On Terror turned into a fact of life.

steve said...

I likewise thought it was all a sham, but we shouldn't be too surprised that it worked it's magic on the public. After all, a similar scam worked with the War on Drugs, didn't it? I'm surprised it took so long for those who make money and gather power from such things to find another mythical enemy to fight.

I seem to recall Reagan trying mightily to rev up the War on Terror, only my feeling is that no one took him or his war very seriously. Were the Contras really protecting Miami from the Commies?

It took 9/11 to shake the common sense out of our collective brains.

DrewL said...

Steve said: "It took 9/11 to shake the common sense out of our collective brains."

Precisely. And, oh, what a production it was. Almost worthy of Hollywood's special FX tools and toys. It was designed to sell, and sell it did. Hook, line and sinker. We bought it. And they knew it.

Just who were "they"? Now that's the $64 billion question, isn't it? Osama and his 19 Arabs boys? That certainly would make it all seem quite simple and sweet. Makes for a good enemy for all the good Christians in America.

One day we'll know the truth. Perhaps.