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The Definition of Terror Management

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Terror and Meaning Management

There are many ways to explain human nature, the good parts of it and the bad. One of a very few commonalities in the human experience is death, as the periods between birth and death differ by culture, social status, location, and many other factors. Although there are many theories that attempt to explain how and why humans react to death the way they do, in this paper the focus will be Terror Management Theory, a theory defined by Ernest Becker in an attempt to explain how subliminal reminders of death affect people in ways that cause them to develop unique cultural choices and artifacts, in part to fill the spaces around birth and death that all humans must find their way through. While many psychologists and philosophers subscribe to this theory, there are others that compete with it in an effort to explain the human reaction to mortality and death. One of these competing theories is Meaning Management Theory, a similar school of thought that states that instead of death reminders causing panic and extreme reactions, it encourages people to find or make meaning of their life, and strive to live up to societal expectations in order to be satisfied enough with their life to accept the inevitability of death. It is not difficult to build both these theories into a single ideal applied to day to day life, but in terms of science they are kept separate as they are considered competing theories.

One of the many sources of dispute on Becker’s theories comes from the academic concern of his reputation. Many schools and journals turned Becker down for a long time before he was able to find a permanent school to teach at, and a journal to publish his work. This was mainly because the theory was proposed prior to any testing. Much of the progress made regarding his reputation happened after he and his colleagues ran tests that sought to prove Terror Management theory. Although the methods used in in their testing were mostly sound, much of the theory still functions on assumptions and speculations regarding the function of the human psyche, and could be deeply affected by the narrow demographic they often sampled from. This uncertainty contributed heavily to the fact that journals were hesitant to publish the study, but as more and more tests were run on various groups, by different researchers, returning the same results, the theory gained some staying power within the academic work. Most people in sociology or psychology type fields are at least aware of the theory now, regardless of if they agree with it or not.

Although many researchers used many methods to try and prove or disprove Becker’s work, the most notable instance of this is in the study titled A Hot New Way to Measure Aggression: Hot Sauce Allocation, by Joel D. Lieberman, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Holly A. McGregor, some of whom were colleagues of Becker. In this study, researchers sought to overcome the challenge of allowing individuals to assert aggression without causing long term damage to the individual being harmed. They overcame this by allowing aggressors to express their intent to harm by allocating variable amounts of hot sauce to the victim. In this study it was found that aggressors who received subliminal reminders of their own death gave their victim significantly more hot sauce than the control groups, supporting the idea that death reminders, even subliminal ones, increase aggression in general and towards others. Although it is an effective measure for this theory and for many other theories requiring the measure of aggression between consenting subjects , it can not be applied to Meaning Management, as that theory does not function based on aggression to others.

In the case of Meaning Management Theory, some scholars who looked at Becker’s theory thought that while an effective method of study and initial hypothesis was being used, the interpretation of the results was lacking. This gave way to the alternative interpretation called Meaning Management. This stated that while Becker did discover something in his research, the idea that his findings indicated that there is no escape from the denial of death was incorrect. The people who followed the Meaning Management school of thought proposed that instead of unending denial, one can find peace with death, which is done primarily through the creation of culture and meaning of one’s individual life, which then spreads slowly through society. This accounts for the culture development cited in Terror Management, without forcing the idea of unending denial on those who feel they are comfortable with their own death, or looking the theory as an explanation for aggression in society in general. Instead it focuses on the portion of existence between birth and death, and how humans traverse that portion of their life in all the different ways that are shaped by culture and experience.

The first article discussed is Death Grip, by John B. Judis. This article looks at the application of Terror Management Theory, as defined by Becker, to the 2004 election and reaction to the role of the president immediately following 9/11; it discusses a study that functions on the hypothesis that Terror Management Theory can be used to explain the outcome of the 2004 election, and the approval ratings of the president following 9/11 despite the fact that it seemed to be an unusual outcome compared to the past political climate of the country at the time. The provided article on this study does not state explicitly the methods used to ascertain the results stated below, however a basic understanding can be gained from what is given in the paper, and an understanding of the scientific processes typically used for research in psychological or sociological fields of study. As with the aforementioned hot sauce study, the majority of the studies run were done by or in conjunction with Becker’s colleagues, which provides evidence of a clear understanding of the theory being tested, and a solid history of scientific practise, as well as a base agreement with the theory being tested.

This article looks at the events of 9/11 and terror threats (or perceived threats, such as gay marriage) as real life examples of the mortality exercises used by the psychologists to prove Terror Management, and later were used as cues to remind subjects of their mortality. It also relies in part on a study run at rutgers university looking at liberal and conservative opinion of Bush after the use of 9/11 as mortality cues. This was followed up by looking at the participant’s actual votes. Although the specifics of the study are not given, the paper regards it as scientifically sound. In the tests, those reminded of their own death via subliminal references to 9/11 reported greater satisfaction with Bush than those not reminded of death, likely because it gave them the ability to assign importance and control to a single figure so that they feel less like there is no control. Later on, the researchers looked at the participants voting results, which showed that those who were in the control were less likely to vote for Bush than those in the other group regardless of political preference. The only major issue with this study is the group the subjects were draw from. The subjects were almost exclusively college aged student at the same school, which has the potential to skew political beliefs based on how liberal or conservative the location and school is. It could also be of questionable ethics to have swayed the outcome of several votes, even if the outcome was minor, but there was not an effective way to account for this prior to it happening, so it is more critical for future studies than a criticism of this particular study.

Terror Management Theory can be applied to real life events affecting one or many people, from many different sources of distress in life. In this case, it was effective to apply its study to the 2004 election and 9/11 as it deeply affected many people across the nation and was a widely politicized event directly tied to the current presidential administration. In using Terror Management to explain this outcome, the study may ignore critical factors outside the US, and ignores the war that followed 9/11 as portions of the explanation of the election outcome. Overall, this paper agrees with and supports terror management theory, and believes it is highly applicable to the aforementioned situations as well as any comparable ones focused on subliminal reminders of death which may come up in day to day life. It does not look at Terror Management applied to less wide spread phenomena, so it is not realistic to apply this study to minor or individual events that are no universal to all people. Death, however, is universal to all humans, so within the scope of death, the theory holds.

The second article discussed is titled Beyond Terror And Denial: The Positive Psychology of Death Acceptance, by Paul Wong and Adrian Tomer. This article looks at the difference between Terror Management Theory and Meaning Management Theory in the context of american culture in the post 9/11 era. This article looks at terror management in a more negative or critical light. The proposition that Terror Management may not be the best explanation for why humans are the way they are regarding death. The article looks at how Terror Management Theory can be used to explain some cultural phenomena such as widespread death denial, but is limited as a personal philosophy due to the fact that people should be working towards accepting death via philosophies such as meaning management theory. This paper does not reference any one specific study, and focuses more on challenging Terror Management as it has been defined and supported by other papers.

Similarly to the last study, the method of presentation here leaves out much of the scientific methods used, so it is not possible to say what the scientific limitations of the study might be with any certainty. Despite this, it appears that the main point is that while Terror Management is highly applicable to post 9/11 sociologic phenomena, it is not the be all end all of explanations, and it does not encompass all variables in play at that time. This paper proposed that it is most effective to augment Terror Management Theory with other philosophies so that the aspects of Terror Management that keep people safe (avoidance of death, culture created to distract from its inevitability) can be kept alongside the more productive ideas of other philosophies that focus more on life than death, like the creation of culture and meaning in individual life. This mesh of multiple ideologies allows individuals to relate to death and dying and how it affects living in day to day life as well as over the course of a lifetime.

While this paper does not define “results” persey, it does summarize in a comparison of Terror Management and Meaning Management. This comparison acts as a summary of the idea that while it may be effective in abstract, Terror Management cannot effectively be a person’s only philosophy or conscious reaction, because it does not provide any sense of stability or order, which is needed in day to day life. The paper gives alternatives philosophies, but alludes to the fact that it is hard to function based on just one of them. The primary proposed alternative is Meaning Management, which is the theory that each individual works to create meaning for themselves and meaning from their life in order to feel as though they have contributed to society. The paper alludes to the idea of combining philosophies, such as Terror and Meaning Management, in a way that works for any given individual and applies to their life. That said, there are many comparable philosophies, and many researchers dispute Terror Management and all its derivatives, regardless of their differences from the original theory.

There have been many papers written comparing the two aforementioned theories, but most make the mistake of identifying the two theories as totally separate. This is inaccurate as they were intended, to an extent, to derive of one another. While Terror Management is a more aggressive and total theory, it holds value in extreme circumstances, such as 9/11. Meaning Management can be applied to these circumstances as well, but is more often used in the context of an individual rather than society, as its focus is on the self, rather than the society in which it is used. This makes sense due to the fact that it is often a more social subconscious phenomenon that death is denied, than one in the forefront of any one individual’s mind, and the majority of people do try and find some meaning in the chaos of life regardless of whether they actually believe that those efforts will be productive in the end. That said, most people do not consciously live by any one philosophy. It is more common that each person lives their life by their personal beliefs established through their experiences, which occasionally happen to fall within the parameters of a studies and established belief system.

In all mentioned studies here, the same basic procedure was used to test the theory of Terror Management. This procedure was essentially a researcher providing controlled subliminal death reminders, and measuring the outcome in a quantifiable way, such as hot sauce allocation. This method is sound by the terms of experimental design, as it works via a hypothesis, testing, and analysis, but it is limited by the outside forces of day to day life which the researcher had no control over, as well as the roadblock of how to safely allow a subject to express aggression without causing major harm to the recipient. While hot sauce proves to be a relatively effective method of overcoming that roadblock, the fact that each person has a different sensitivity to spicy foods can not effectively be accounted for, and could skew results slightly, as well as the variables of different individuals reactions to death based on their life. Although there is no effective way to account for this, it should be noted in the study as it can affect the outcome. All the tests of the theories here were considered to be ethical at the time, and would likely qualify as ethical today, although the impact on the voting outcome encroaches on some grey area in ethicality.

Humans, by their nature, are unique creatures. Stuck in a liminal experience of being aware of death and all it entails, but having no way to prevent or truly understanding it. As a stand in for understanding death itself, many choose to explain how society reacts to it. This is how theories such as Terror and Meaning Management come to be. They satiate human’s intrinsic need to explain and understand all aspects of our existence. Although there is no formal agreement on what theory does the best job of explaining human reaction to death, it is more important to chose one that speaks to an individual, rather than looking for any one final explanation of something we do not truly have the capacity to explain.

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