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The factor fear

Contemplating death may alter our capacity to accurately assess threats, writes John Elder.
Anthropologist Rohan Bastin regularly visits a public sauna in Corio “where locals are free with their opinions”. At a recent steaming, he found a group of men and women talking about the absurdity of gun control – what with all these jihadists turning up to cut our heads off.

Bastin told them that, when it came to threats to society, he was more concerned about an ice addict he had seen earlier that day. “They immediately agreed how dangerous the jihadists will be when they’re addicted to ice,” he says. Bastin noted that one of the men was a long-distance truck driver, who faced regular signposted reminders that fatigue and speed were killers – and yet “he felt he could make his life safer by carrying a machinegun”.

To call this a case of drongo hysteria isn’t far off the mark. DrBastin, associate professor of anthropology at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute, has a more polite way of putting it: the people in the sauna are feeling a bona fide existential threat in the form of the so-called Islamic State.

“When a person is made to encounter these primordial fears of death in what feels like an immediate sense, it changes their capacity to think through the situation and genuinely assess the reality of the threat,” he says.

In fact, what happens to our thoughts and emotions when we are forced to contemplate our own death, may explain our prejudices and hatreds, the purpose of a shared culture and even the role of self-esteem. It also may explain why an unpopular leader – such as US president George W. Bush in 2001, or Prime Minister Tony Abbott in June this year – enjoy a dramatic rise in opinion polls at a time when the nation is felt to be under threat. This is the basis of Terror Management Theory (TMT), a school of thought founded in the United States that is controversial among social psychologists, and yet well supported by hundreds of experiments conducted over nearly 30 years in more than a dozen countries. Bastin was one of several Australian social scientists asked for their opinion of the theory. He says: “The trouble with psychologists is they’re forever trying to reduce meaning to causes … but they seem to be on to something.” In a paper colourfully titled “Mortality Salience, Martyrdom, and Military Might: The Great Satan Versus the Axis of Evil”, TMT’s founders – Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski and Sheldon Solomon – explain their theory this way:

1. Humans have a unique awareness of their own death that allows them to value life, but also leaves them vulnerable to existential terror.

2. We control this terror by maintaining faith in an internalised cultural world view, and by the self-esteem we gain by living up to the standards of our world view. “Oi! Oi! Oi!”

3. The more people who share our world view, the more effective it is as a buffer against existential anxiety. “I’m true blue, how about you?”

4. However, there are all those mysteriously dressed people overseas and in certain suburbs who believe in something different entirely. (“Geez, what are those buggers up to?”)

5. The mere existence of people with different world views threatens our faith in the absolute validity of one’s own world view and reduces its anxiety-buffering effectiveness.

6. People attempt to defuse the threat of people with alternative world views by disparaging them, and attempting to convert them to one’s own world view. (“Assimilate or get out!”)

7. For true peace of mind, the alternative is simply killing off everybody with beliefs different to your own, thus eliminating the threat to consensus and asserting the superiority of one’s own world view. (For real-world examples, one might point to the IS death cult – or to the alarmed sincerity of those people in the sauna with Bastin, and their desire to tool up.)

Says Dr John Thrasher, from the department of philosophy at Monash University: “Terrorism and exotic and deadly diseases like Ebola are apt to trigger anxiety, according to [TMT] analysis, because they are novel, unexpected, and seemingly random dangers. Such threats are real and in some parts of the world they are tragically devastating, but our reaction to them tends to be extremely exaggerated given the likely threat they pose to any one of us.” Professor Nick Haslam is the head of the University of Melbourne’s School of Psychological Sciences. His research interests include prejudice and classism. He confesses to “being a fan” of TMT because it recognises humans are passionate beings: “We hate one another, we love one another, we are in conflict, we have motives and we aren’t always aware of why we act the way we do.” With death thoughts in particular, “once they leave immediate consciousness, they have all sorts of impacts on how we relate to one another, and they make us more likely to bolster our world view”.

Haslam notes that while TMT’s critics “are always trying to snipe it down”, the hundreds of experiments carried out by Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon and others, no matter the setting, have turned out freakily the same way.

The basic experiment goes like this: Subjects are divided into two groups. One group is forced to think about what will happen when they die and the worms come to eat them. The control group is forced to think about something unpleasant, such as dental work. Both groups are then given what is called a filler exercise – such as doing a crossword puzzle or filling in a survey.

Finally, they are presented with a decision-making task. In one experiment, a group of judges – a class of people on whom society relies for rational decision-making – were asked to put a hypothetical prostitute on a bond. Most of the control group put the prostitute on a $50 bond; most of the judges who had been made to think about their own death put the prostitute on a bond in excess of $400. In doing so, they were bolstering defence of their world view. In the ground-breaking 2006 “Mortality Salience, Martyrdom, and Military Might: The Great Satan Versus the Axis of Evil”, Greenberg and company conducted two separate studies: one with a group of Iranian students, another with young Americans. The Iranians were asked to assess material from radical students; most of those who had been exposed to death thoughts supported the idea of terrorist attacks against the US, while most of those who had been asked to think about painful dental work, did not.

Likewise, in the American experiment, most subjects who had been asked to think about their own death were in favour of aggressive military intervention in the Middle East – while, again, those who had contemplated dental work were far less inclined to drop bombs. Politically, this has implications that are as fascinating as they are worrying. Nick Haslam says: “News coverage of terrorism is like a collective death thought, and it should lead to a preference for charismatic leaders [who can protect us from threat] or make existing leaders more charismatic. After 9/11, George W. Bush went from being a lacklustre leader to the most popular president in US history (from the time opinion polls were first invented).

“Tony Abbott enjoyed a boost in the polls from shirt-fronting Putin and otherwise playing the tough guy who looks out for our interests and outs evil-doers. At other times, we’d see his behaviour as simplistic buffoonery.” Philosopher John Thrasher notes “politicians respond to hysteria, and it is difficult to tell whether they are responding to the potentially misguided fears of their constituents or stoking those fears”.

Very likely, he says, there is a complex feedback loop that goes from the media to citizens to politicians and ultimately to policy. “That being said, any interpretation of politics or culture that relies on trying to read the underlying and often hidden motivations of people is a tricky business. We risk attributing rational or emotional pathologies to our fellows erroneously.” Even so, Thrasher reckons that recognising that something such as terror management could be operating on us is useful, because it makes us “mindful of potential motivations that we may not be aware of and might not endorse”.








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