Death Anxiety Fuels Conservative Ideas
Increased prejudice toward worldview violators has been measured in a number of experiments assessing TMT. Following death reminders, anti-gay discrimination and affective prejudice toward gay men increased significantly. This is, according to the study, because being homosexual is not perceived as part of the standard world view. Deviation is a threat to the system that helps repress the knowledge of our certain death.
In studies where men were exposed to a mortality salient event, they preferred a more earthy, domestic and ordinary looking woman over a sexy and seductive one.
Terror management research has shown that after reminders of mortality, people show greater investment in and support for groups to which they belong.
In one study, subjects were presented two images of persons talking about their own race with pride. One was black and one was white. The White person expressing pride in his race was viewed by White participants as particularly racist relative to a Black person who gave a similar presentation. However, after White participants were reminded of their own mortality, they viewed the White presentation as less racist. Even though the subjects were of different ancestral nationality, their identification with their own race was amplified by their reminder of their own inevitable death.
Skulls and Bones in the Whiskey
In my college years when the Vietnam war was raging, we used to all read and collect Playboy magazine. We were young and so mostly we didn’t pay much attention to the ads — that is until someone pointed out that all the liquor ads seemed to have subliminal messages in them. Our favorite hobby, well maybe not our favorite, was looking for hidden images in the ice cubes.
Normally, ice cubes have a montage of shadows, reflections and odd shapes. While we found occasional nude women in some of them, most seemed to portray images more suitable for Halloween. Skulls, skeletons and faces screaming in agony were the most common motifs.
For years I wondered why advertisers would put such horrific images in liquor ads. How could this possibly sell whiskey or bourbon?
TMT was obviously known to these ad men. Most addictions are diversions from the real horror — the reality of our eventual demise. It seems plausible that by causing readers to experience mortality salience their death anxiety would increase to the point where… where… where did I put that drink?
It’s all about self-esteem
As I hinted earlier, our appreciation of beauty has two tiers. First, we are hard-wired to be attracted to sexual partners by evolution. We can accurately determine good genes and fertility by our concept of what makes a beautiful person (i.e. symmetry of facial features, good proportions, etc.). But our appreciation of other forms of beauty seems to have origin in our preference for pattern, repetition, organization and symbolism. These are phenomenon in our environment associated with replication and growth — signs of life. This appreciation of beauty — esthetics — results from our avoidance of entropy — the breakdown of order which is characteristic of our own death.
Julian Jaynes, in his acclaimed work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, showed that much of what we think and do is devoid of consciousness. He gives strong examples of how we can drive a car while thinking about another time and place; talk and write without awareness of the complex process going on to produce the vocabulary. Even learning does not require consciousness — the phenomenon of self-awareness. Or, “Being conscious of the fact that you are conscious.” In fact, our recognition and reaction to mortality salience is without our conscious involvement.
But something feels the “touch!” when we get a subconscious reminder that we are mortal.
In Jaynes’ book, he credits the development of language as the prerequisite for the “inner dialog” that creates our awareness of the “I” and “Me”. Language is made from metaphores. Each new concept or word is “sort of like” some other word. That’s how dictionaries function. So in order to have a concept for selfhood, a previously understood “it’s sort of like…” had to be available. We needed language before we could develop consciousness and selfhood. The concept of “self” is therefore not that old. Jaynes suggests it has its origins about 3000 BCE.
While it is true that there are earlier texts showing language in cuneiform, these are mere ledgers, records of land boundaries and crop tallies. There is no hint of self awareness until The Epic of Gilgamesh.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is among the earliest known works of literature. Scholars believe that it originated as a series of Sumerian legends and poems and was written just about five hundred years shy of Jaynes’ assertions. Even more telling is what the epic is all about.
The protagonist of the story, Gilgamesh king of Uruk, has a close friend who shares adventures with him and unexpectedly dies. Gilgamesh becomes depressed and embarks on a journey to find “eternal life” — the solution to death.
Ultimately the poignant words addressed to Gilgamesh in the midst of his quest foreshadow the end result: “The life that you are seeking you will never find. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.”
Death anxiety targets our self-esteem. It motivates us to keep busy and attempt to seek “eternal life” symbolically through our actions. An experiment which confirmed this was conducted as follows: