Saturday, November 28, 2015

Sex and Death: Life's Anxieties & Christianity

How Sex and Death Anxiety Link to Christianity

How would you feel if you learned a friend or close relative decided to have sex to help with expenses? Earlier today, a headline news story reported on the low rates Greek women get for sex-- some just get enough to buy a meal. 

Christians often show an interest in rescuing people from sex trafficking. But not all sex workers are trafficked. And not all sex work is illegal. But sex work has a long history of condemnation and in many places sex workers are at high risk of harm. Sex work is just one example of the sex-linked issues confronting Christians who want to show compassion but may be put off by some aspects of the lives of the people they wish to help. For many Christians, sex evokes disgust.

The leaders of a group I attend on Sundays decided to study Richard Beck’s book, Unclean. Beck takes readers on a journey through the psychology of disgust and shows how we emotionally respond to disgusting experiences by avoidance and creating protective barriers. Unfortunately, disgust can lead the church away from people who act in ways that seem disgusting. Thus, the church needs to recognize the power of disgust and find ways to fellowship with those in need. In several ways, Jesus touched the lives of those considered unclean in his day. His behavior was a scandal—in fact, Beck sees the incarnation as a scandal.

Since I had written about the new research on moral psychology, I volunteered for a couple of chapters. Last week and this week has to do with sex. Thanks to Beck I have considered more about the disgust factor on church behavior than I might have done otherwise. But I also have my own thoughts dealing with anxiety and that influential Terror Management Theory, which I think expands an understanding of the trouble the church has in dealing with sex and another close source of anxiety, death.

Sex and Disgust

Christians have a long history of difficulty with human sexuality and matters linked to sex like abortion, birth control, divorce and remarriage. People in many cultures find bodily fluids disgusting. And many of these fluids link to sex. It’s no surprise that some people have problems with sexual functioning. How does anyone overcome such disgust to enjoy sex? It appears that sexual arousal is more powerful and overcomes the disgust factor (Borg & de Jong, 2012). But it also appears that some people vary in their disgust sensitivity ( Al-Shawaf, Lewis, & Buss, 2014). And women reveal more disgust than do men (Fleischman news story;   Fleischman et al., 2015). Disgust is a protective factor. Beck doesn’t want us to throw open the doors to sexual predators but he does want us to understand how disgust can be influential in the way Christians view various aspects of sex.

Given the church’s stance on things sexual, it can look like the church is obsessed with sex. The church is against premarital sex, abortion, cohabitation, same-sex marriage, and pornography. It appears to be against birth control and discriminates against women in terms of permissible roles. In fairness, Christians are a diverse lot and many don’t go along with official teachings. Most Christians do use birth control and those who object do so because some forms of birth control appear to end life. Some do not want to support premarital sex so they preach abstinence only, which leaves many unprotected when they do not abstain. And recently, some churches have welcomed women as clergy and into leadership. Regardless of the changes, those who do not live up to the church’s teaching end up looking impure and contaminated. In short they have sinned and need their sins washed away to be clean and holy. But you can’t take back virginity can you? A funny thing about sex is that one incident marks a person for life. It's as if a person is contaminated. The reaction is emotional and not rational.

Sex and Death

Beck writes about disgust and death in the chapter before sex. Indeed, some aspects of corpses are disgusting and scary too—as we find in many a movie. Beck doesn’t offer a lot about the sex-death link. But the link is common in literature, film, religion, and psychoanalysis.

I think the sex-death link is most powerful when we consider the rape-war connection. The rape of women by male warriors has a long history. Only recently have records from World War II revealed the horrors in France as described by historian Mary Louise Roberts.

And there is this sex-death connection made by the FBI in their analysis of serial murder: “The majority of serial killers who are sexually motivated erotized violence during development. For them, violence and sexual gratification are inexplicably intertwined  in their psyche (p.12; Serial Murder).”

And of course there’s abortion, which in the view of many is the killing of an unborn child. Christians who take a strict view of life do not support abortion even in cases where a girl has become pregnant due to incest or other forms of sexual assault. In abortion, sex and death anxiety are co-mingled. And the imagery of an aborted baby and the medical use of aborted fetuses is horrifying and stimulates disgust and righteous anger in many.

Sex, Death, and Christianity

We might wonder how sex and death could gain some spiritually uplifting dimension. The church of course has a long history of declaring sex off limits except within a marriage relationship. The purpose of sex was to have children. And somewhere in the last few decades, Evangelical Christians decided sex could be a good thing—a blessing to enjoy—not just in the proverbial missionary position but in all sorts of ways (e.g., CT article.

But realizing the power of sex still meant keeping some boundaries in place. Virginity is still a prize for many Christians. Despite the inclusion of boys in the purity movement, the big push was to keep girls pure. So Christians created purity rings and purity balls connecting fathers and daughters. I suspect that a lot of folks meant well. But many have commented on how strange the purity movement is. I suppose being a clinician and seeing so many victims of child sexual abuse I prefer to see firm boundaries between parents and children—good friendships, yes; but no dating, please.

Virginity has an integral place in Christianity. We know about the virgin birth and the special place of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic tradition. But you may not know that nearly one percent of U.S. women claim virgin births. And of that number, one study found 31% had signed chastity pledges (CBS news; Study details at bmj). Somewhere in here I ought to mention celibacy, which may be defined as an abstinence from both sex and marriage. 

Death is often seen as God’s punishment for various sins—including many of those banned in the Ten Commandments. What the church teaches of course is that there is forgiveness for sins and with that forgiveness comes a bonus—eternal life. So in one fell swoop, all the sexual sins are wiped away and the specter of death is defeated. Redemption brings relief from anxiety.

Christian and Existential Roots of Sex and Death Anxiety

Essentially, Christianity undoes the effects of the twin evils found in the first few pages of Genesis. In the famous garden story a scary animal (Brewer, 2001) challenges God’s Rule. The man is tempted to take a woman’s fruit then discovers his nakedness. (Read Genesis 3.)

Next, the humans find they are more like animals than heavenly creatures. They are sexual beings and mate like other animals. Unlike the animals though, they experience a sense of shame. We soon see many rules and rituals designed to hide their nakedness and control sexuality. It looks a lot like controlling sex anxiety to me.

But of course there’s another animal reminder—humans now must die. They become aware that they are finite and must always live with the reminder that death is in their future. God casts them out of the Garden so they do not eat of the tree of life and live forever. So not only must they deal with sexuality like other animals but they must also deal with their mortality, which also makes humans seem more like other animals rather than like gods. Sex and death are linked in Genesis. Both sex and death trigger anxiety but death is more powerful.

Regardless of religious belief, the elements of the Genesis narrative are with humans in sex-linked shame and death awareness. This kind of thinking provoked Søren Kierkegaard and the existential philosophers, Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalysts, Ernest Becker, and the founders of Terror Management Theory.

Here’s where I diverge from Richard Beck. Although I see the role of disgust as a factor separating the church from engaging people in need, I also see a powerful existential anxiety best accounted for by Terror Management Theory (TMT; see notes below). Reminders of mortality motivate action to manage the underlying anxiety. People dealing with death often seek comfort from their faith and hug their family members. And they engage in other anxiety management rituals like prayer designed to increase a sense of control and meaning amidst the chaotic events of life. Who can forget those helpless pleas of many victims: Why? Why? Why?

Things that remind us of death threaten our sense of worth and value in a profound way. Many of us are involved in life-long projects to demonstrate our worth to others now and beyond our lifespan. Low levels of anxiety motivate us to be cautious. Anxiety can be productive when we invest in families, relationships, and things that make lives better and safer for ourselves and others. Excessive anxiety results in avoidance and immobility. Refugees flee destruction. In "safe" societies people avoid people when high anxiety confines them to their homes. Others freeze--overwhelmed with fear when in certain settings. Still others become obsessed with germs and infections and develop compulsive rituals that interfere with life tasks. Excessive anxiety can be a crippling life-long impairment.

Christians Managing Anxiety

The Christian answer to sex is of course to place sex safely within a marriage relationship where sex is sanctified, holy, and controlled. This placement of sex within a life-long marriage appeared reasonable for centuries. After all, raising children—the natural products of sex, is hard work—especially when you could not control how many you had.

The advent of birth control (BC) obviously freed women from the common natural outcome of sex-- pregnancy and childbirth. Since BC, many in western cultures have worked to de-link sex from marriage. As a result, the church is losing its grip on both marriage and sex. Individuals rather than the church are making their own decisions about getting married. And having sex is often not a part of the marriage decision. 

The church has not yet come to grips with the fact that substantial percentages of the people in church are condemned as sinners by traditional church doctrine. If a church makes people aware of their sins then they risk increasing anxiety. People might leave to avoid such negativity. What would happen to church budgets if the church preached old sermons against divorce and remarriage and half the congregation left? It's safer for churches to preach purity to a captive audience of youth. So, some churches focuses on premarital sex and ignore the older audience of singles who have had sex when married or not.

Essentially, most church leaders remain silent about sexuality and in doing so, the church defers judgment about sexual morality to the congregants and their culture. Some rise to condemn easy targets like same-sex marriage, sex-trafficking, abortion, and sex among teens but the other issues are relics of the past. Perhaps church leaders also experience anxiety about sex.

I suspect a psychological factor is at work too. Familiarity reduces anxiety. Christians no longer fear the effects of divorce and remarriage or pregnant single women now that they or many of their friends and relatives have had the experience. Older people were warned about the sins of divorce and remarriage using the language of adultery. Divorcees hid their past. And adultery was often assumed to be the cause of a broken relationship. Pregnant teens were sent away, removed from school, or forced into marriage with the boyfriend. Now people are used to embracing family and friends.

The sexual freedom in relationships offered by many world cultures brings new anxieties. In some cases, there are insufficient services for those who become infected due to unprotected sex. And when sex results in a pregnancy, many suffer from the lack of support systems for single parents. Outside the church there are still safety concerns when it comes to sex. Safety in sex is not just about disease. Safety includes creating a culture of respect free from sexual harassment and counter to rape culture. A new culture of shame is developing around those who harass and those who rape and sexually exploit others. Secular society and not the church sets the new ethos.

Christians also lost control over marriage, which was the safe place for sex. Divorce and remarriage were prohibited by Jesus (Matthew 19) and his church. This was the norm for centuries. Although there was a divorce exception for adultery (sex again), many Christians questioned the validity of remarriage until a person was freed from the marriage vow at the death of a spouse. Somehow the church seems to have given up on preaching against divorce and remarriage. The teaching remains but Christians seem willing to accept divorce and remarriage as a natural part of life. In 2015 Pope Francis encouraged priests to welcome the divorced and remarried (RNS story).

The church has added premarital counseling and provided marriage enrichment seminars—good ideas to be sure yet the level of impact on national divorce rates appears minimal so far. That’s not surprising if you think about changing entire behavior patterns for a couple in 3-6 hours of a premarital counseling experience.

Recently the church has faced new challenges to marriage in the form of same-sex marriages permitted by laws in several countries and supported by some but not most churches. The explicit biblical issues of course deal with same-sex sex—not marriage per se. Although, most conservative churches also make the case that a Christian marriage is between a man and a woman. When it comes to same-sex sex, there is a disgust response (research example). But few speak openly about this factor. Regardless of the role of disgust, there is also a strong undercurrent of anxiety. The church has lost control over marriage. Some even wonder if they should give up on trying to control marriage in cultures that have redefined marriage in a way that is unchristian.

Even worse are those stories revealing sexual assault by clergy and other Christian leaders. Isn’t anywhere safe anymore? If you can’t go to church or a Christian school and be safe where can you go? What parent can ever trust a children’s pastor or youth worker? What woman can ever trust a male pastor in counseling? And what about all those victims living with PTSD symptoms for the rest of their lives? Moreover, what about those victims who can’t take it any more so they seek relief from the pain of life in suicide?

By many counts, managing sex and sex-linked issues (e.g., birth control, abortion, marriage) have not gone well for the church. But there is some evidence that the church provides a buffer against death. The blessed Christian hope is that after death comes the resurrection and a joining together with one’s ancestors and God—there is eternal life after all. And sexuality is gone- there’s no marriage as Jesus pointed out. Life and white-robed purity characterize life-after-life. The sting of death is gone. The terror is resolved and the existential anxiety that hangs over so many heads is removed. If you were close to a Christian who died you have heard the reminders that they are in a better place and they are at peace. They are with Jesus. They are looking down on us now. And for some, no doubt, these sayings bring a measure of comfort. But they don't help everyone.

There is a downside if eternal life becomes a superficial gloss that obviates responsibility in this life. For some, confronting death early in life is a wake-up call—a reminder that this life can be meaningful. Death enhances the importance of life and infuses relationships with joy and a zest for life. So Christians living solely for heaven may miss out on a rich and fulfilled life here and now--as an old saying went, they are "too heavenly minded and no earthly good."

The simple church solution to a meaningful life has long been to convert the lost (i.e., unchristian), clean them up (baptize), and get them on the road to heaven. This revivalist approach crops up from time to time amongst those focused on teachings about the end of the world. And it’s also common for some Pentecostals to think they may miss death altogether by a sudden rising up to meet Jesus in the air (called the rapture).


1. Sex and death are important life boundary experiences. All humans experience a degree of anxiety. It’s necessary for survival. Anxiety about sex and relationships as well as death are natural and probably more protective than disgust in the long run. Placing sex and death within a meaning system is vital to managing human anxiety. 

2. Christianity offers a meaningful place for sex and death. But not all forms of Christianity welcome people with certain sexual histories. And some forms of Christianity exacerbate anxiety related to sexual purity and what happens when someone dies.
3. Churches and other components of a society will always need boundaries when it comes to sexuality and relationships. Sex enhances loving relationships.  The intimacy of sex nourishes the attachment bonds foundational to happy and healthy marriages and families. Sex without boundaries has the power to destroy individuals like a river suddenly rising above its banks and destroying nearby individuals and their families.

4. Forgiveness cheapens grace when forgiveness is interpreted to mean Christians must forgive everyone qua letting other ruin their lives. Interpersonal behavior always has consequences. In a church community, behavior can evoke anxiety by disrupting relationships integral to overcoming life’s anxieties. True forgiveness releases victims from their past but does not remove boundaries critical to safety.

5. Churches ought to reach out to people who are different or who do not live according to the teaching of the church. Churches do well to affirm marriage and they do even better to provide programs supporting commitment within a marriage. Committed relationships are built on a bond of love (attachment theory for psychologists). People in committed relationships are in a better position to cope with the anxieties of life.

6. Churches need to get a grip on death and suicide. Thoughts of eternity don’t help so much when a loved one is dying or a mentally ill relative is in and out of a hospital due to suicide threats and attempts. If a church is a community then it must provide a network of support for all members.

7. It's easy to see why many social scientists see all religions as systems created by people to provide life with meaning. Others see religion as a way of coping with life's anxieties. It is natural for Christians to reject such views thinking only one perspective has to be true and all other views counted as false. But I suggest Christians may still hold to the tenets of faith and find that certain doctrines do indeed offer meaning and a way of coping with life's anxieties. And through the example of Jesus, Christian can find ways to connect with people considered unclean, marginalized, and unworthy.

8. I suspect the church has lost a great deal of credibility over the behavior of that minority of church leaders whose sexual behavior is either contrary to what they taught or destructive of young lives as in sexual abuse. The sins of sexual abuse went on for decades and were covered up by the church. In addition to apologies and restitution, churches must ensure they have protective policies in place to protect all persons from sexual harassment of any kind. 


Ernest Becker may be less familiar than the other names. Becker was a cultural anthropologist who drew on the works of the existentialists and psychoanalysts to explain the role of death anxiety in human existence. For Becker, culture is a life project that enables people to deal with anxiety. Many aspects of our lives are designed to help us extend our mortality beyond the grave- like writing this blog for example. More on Becker.

Divorce and remarriage. Pope Francis made news on the topic when he called for the church to embrace Catholics who divorced and remarried. (RNS story).

Existentialism. Several aspects of existentialism are relevant to this discussion. Regardless of religion, existentialists confront issues of anxiety, morality and death and the whole meaning of life. A helpful summary can be found at Stanford's Plato site.

Purity culture is a Christian movement focused on sexual purity meaning that young men and women will be virgins until they marry. The movement includes a strong push for abstinence and a silver ring representing a commitment. Peter Enns reviews a recent book on the topic. Earlier this year, The Independent published a story on Purity Balls.

Snakes. Geoffrey Brewer reported the results of a Gallup Poll showing snakes as the top fear. The garden animal in Genesis is usually represented as a snake.

TMT. In TMT, reminders of death motivate people to find meaning in life including a sense of order and a set of cohesive explanations of existence. TMT also motivates people to find a sense of worth and value and find a source of hope that overcomes death (Hirschberger & Pyszczynski, 2012).

Virgin Mary. Catholic teaching about the Virgin Mary does show a focus on sexuality and death. She is the "New Eve" in some thinking, which of course emphasizes the importance of Genesis to so many issues of sex and relationships. Did she escape death? I don't know. But Catholic teaching includes the assumption of Mary into heaven at the end of her life. Read more at ewtn 

The Virgin Mary Consoles Eve


Beck, R. (2011). Unclean: Meditations on purity, hospitality, and mortality. Eugene, OR: Cascade.

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press.

Hirschberger, G., & Pyszczynski, T. (2012). Killing with a clean conscience: Existential angst and the paradox of morality. In M. Mikulincer, P. R. Shaver, M. Mikulincer, P. R. Shaver (Eds.) , The social psychology of morality: Exploring the causes of good and evil (pp. 331-347). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/13091-018

Read more about sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures in A House Divided available from the publisher PICKWICK and other stores e.g., AMAZON

Related Links

Monday, November 23, 2015

Rejecting or Accepting Refugees

Recently Resettled Refugees

The Psychology of Rejection

And How to Help

It’s pretty obvious that people are afraid of killers and potential killers. Given the recent violence in Paris and the horrific killings in Syria and Iraq, it’s natural to be suspicious of anyone who looks like they come from that part of the world.

Appeals to reason are wasted. When threatened wise people seek safety and arm themselves against danger. Conservatives in the U.S. and elsewhere are vociferous in their stance against taking in Syrian Refugees. Muslims are under suspicion in Western countries.

Why is Refugee Rejection So Strong?

1. A Threat Became Reality
A video threatening the U.S. and other countries fighting in Syria has made the rounds. The people in the video are from the same part of the world as are the refugees. And one of the Paris murderers had a Syrian passport. There’s some evidence that a killer came to France as a Refugee. The killers are obviously out to get innocent civilians. You can’t tell the difference between a person in need and a murderer by looking at them. That’s important. We pay attention to obvious features. Who has time for rationale analysis when under threat? We are designed to survive by avoiding death and the risk of death.

2. Experience Supports Risk

Humans rely on available experience when making decisions (availability heuristic). A few human beings with automatic weapons killed more than a hundred people in Paris. Other bombings and shootings have happened and more are on the way. More than 2 million Syrians have fled their country! Hundreds of thousands of refugees are seeking a place to live and work. All it takes is 1-2 percent to destroy hundreds of innocent lives. How can you tell the hardworking honest folk from those intent on harm?

3. People Lie
It’s important to question people claiming they are seeking refuge from persecution or seeking safety from war to discover the truth. While some people are better at discerning an honest report from a lie, questioning is not foolproof (Mendenhall & Schmidhofer). And so called “lie detectors” are not highly reliable methods (APA). Nevertheless, identification and screening methods are important even though they slow the process of resettlement. Keep in mind that not every false statement is a lie. Human memory is notoriously faulty (Sutton, 2015)

4. They’re Not Like Us
All humans are more likely to help family and friends. People of faith support others of similar faith. Christian metaphors refer to other Christians as part of the same body. Helping people of other faith or no faith at all is a barrier to overcome. A large body of research has focused on understanding group loyalty (e.g., Druckman, 1994) and the problem of ingroup and outgroup identification (Whitbourne, 2010). Reason won’t help much. But appeals to duty, common values, respect for others, caring for vulnerable persons, and acting according to the virtues of faith (e.g., love of neighbor, hospitality) are more likely to overcome hostility toward people from some perceived other group than our own group.

How Can We Safely Help Trustworthy Refugees?

Seven Ways to Help

1. Work to Overcome Resistance
Overcoming emotional resistance caused by fear takes work. Getting to know real refugees in person or by reading and forwarding their stories provided by trustworthy news sources and charitable organizations can connect us with people in need. We can work to humanize and counteract those who dehumanize people in need. We can also share stories with others who are focused on fear rather than caring for others. Stories that emphasize common values we share with refugees will help seem them as like us. For example, many humans value being close to family, a place to work, a safe neighborhood, and quality education for their children.
Refugee Camp, Kenya
2. Donate
We can support governments and organizations attempting to provide basic care to existing refugees. We can provide funds, personnel, and other resources so all existing refugees receive basic care. Here’s a link to a list from CNN. There is no need to wait for specific government leaders to welcome refugees because some governments and organizations are doing something now.

3. Tax Ourselves
We citizens can let our representatives know we are committed to paying higher taxes to fund personnel needed to screen all refugees. It’s costly and the screening methods are not perfect. But we can reasonably insist on identification and screening processes for all if we are willing to pay the cost.

4. Communicate
We can encourage our representatives to communicate reasonable expectations to the refugees. When word gets out that a country will take thousands of refugees that can create false hope if they think all they have to do is find a way in. The heartwarming images of Germans greeting refugees at railway stations are beautiful. But that welcome doesn’t happen for everyone. Our government leaders need to be reminded to proclaim a clear message to refugees and provide status updates to citizens. If you ever waited for a government office to make a decision, you can empathize with the importance of accurate and timely communication.

5. Work
Those with skills can meet care needs. Doctors Without Borders is one example of people meeting the medical needs of refugees. Psychologists are also involved in trauma work (APA story). Most agencies need reliable volunteers with a variety of professional and general skills.

6. Learn More
Updates on the needs of refugees can be found at the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Staying current and sharing the knowledge can help others who may not be aware. Also check out the Humanitarian Disaster Institute for tips and suggestions.

7. Vote
Vote for wise and compassionate leaders. Look for those offering reasonable plans to welcome refugees that have passed sensible screening requirements. I say reasonable because some requirements are not clearly linked to safety.

How Can Christian Leaders Help?

1. Persuade

Christian leaders have the power of persuasion with their followers. Therefore, they can encourage people to follow the ethic of hospitality as revealed in the works and teachings of Jesus.

2. Link followers to agencies

Many Christian organizations are doing what they can. Those organizations that have strong accountability standards should be identified along with the type of help needed. The CNN list includes Christian organizations. Convoy of Hope is actively working to help refugees.

3. Educate

Many Christian groups have affiliated colleges, universities, and other schools. Coursework and experiences can focus attention on helping students learn how to help. Summers are obvious times for programs connecting students with refugees or organizations helping refugees.

4. Counteract Fear with Love

Stories of loving responses showing Christians helping refugees will do more than cogent arguments to counteract disproportionate fears. Love is a powerful emotion. We can learn more by seeing people helping people succeed than reading about why we ought to help. And we need to see images and videos of caring to counteract those showing heavily armed killers and dead bodies.

5. Create Opportunities for Cross-Cultural Contact
The best way to break down barriers between people from different cultures is to create opportunities for contact. Christians need to mix with people of other beliefs in their own religion as well as people from other faiths in their own country and around the world. Being a missionary won't necessarily help if one lives in a secluded enclave and maintains a superior stance. Many Christian colleges and organizations support service trips abroad. These trips can be helpful when humility is engendered.

Help Refugees: Get The Word Out

4 reasons people reject refugees

7 ways Christians can help refugees.

5 things Christian leaders can do to help with the refugee crisis.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Paris: Why We Care So Much

Why Do We Seem to Care More for the French than Others?

Several stories have pointed to mass killings around the world in recent years. Why does the world seems so much more concerned about the Paris attacks?

Seven likely reasons why so many care about the people of Paris.

1. Identity.
It’s seems personal. Many people identify with the people of Paris. Many people have been to Paris or wish to go there. Regardless of reality, Paris- and therefore its people- represents love, romance, and culture. Not a lot of world cities have the same attraction as does Paris. When Identification is active, threats seem more personal.

2. Family.
Under threat conditions people look for allies and enemies. The French look like many other Europeans who have settled large parts of the  world occupied by Western powers (e.g., British, Spanish, Dutch, German, Portuguese). Humans don’t spend a lot of time analyzing situations when they are under attack. Perception is not governed by critical thinking. We affiliate with people who look like ourselves--this is evident even in preschoolers.

3. Loyalty.
People care more about family and close friends than others. The U.S. has a special relationship with the French. The French helped the colonial rebellion against Britain. Many U.S. soldiers were intimate with French women during the two World Wars—they literally have French kin. Loyalty is emotional not rationale.

4. Our Religion.
It can hardly be said that the French are very religious but the history of Europe and the Americas is more closely tied to Christianity than to Islam or any other world religion. The pictures of religious buildings and symbols in news stories about the Paris attacks reveal a familiar landscape unlike those linked to other religions. It’s an emotional connection and not a rationale argument.

5. Common enemy.
Many of the western powers are fighting the same enemy that attacked Paris. In a fight, humans naturally embrace those “for us” and identify others as “against us” even if close inspection were to reveal otherwise. Having a common enemy helps us make sense of things. Read more on the common enemy effect.

6. Investment.
The U.S., UK and many allies of the French invested heavily in France during the two World Wars. So many allied soldiers died, many more family members grieved, and substantial sacrifices were made to support the war effort. People care more when they or their family have made substantial investments in people and causes. Investments are not often evaluated on a rationale analysis. Instead, emotions play a role in weighing the value of many investments.

7. Familiarity.
The response of the U.S. is understandable given the familiarity with public shootings. A study indicates that the U.S. has more public mass shootings than most countries (31%) despite only having 5% of the world’s population. Americans are used to hearing such horrific news and responding generously to the victims.

Caring Beyond Paris

There may be other reasons so many care more about what happened in Paris than the killings in other places. People respond to tragedy in various ways but the responses are driven by emotion and various degrees of empathy.

Feeling empathy for people who suffer a similar fate as did those in Paris but appear different in salient ways requires considerable effort. Rational arguments indicating why we ought to care about all humans deserve a hearing but they won't work near as well as stories that evoke empathy.

Monday, November 16, 2015

How can we overcome terror?

Managing Terror

As a psychologist it was natural for me to think of Terror Management Theory in the wake of the horrific killings of people in Paris on Friday 13th, November 2015. The raw reactions of the survivors were vivid descriptions of people whose world had been suddenly and mercilessly upended and threatened in a show of force. The graphic descriptions confronted viewers with reminders of the fragility of life and our shared vulnerability with those who enjoy an evening out at a game (Stade de France), a concert (Bataclan), or a favorite restaurant.

The psychology of disgust was also evident as people spoke of blood, other bodily fluids, pieces of flesh, and efforts to survive by hiding beneath dead bodies. Many in Western democracies added symbols of the French Tricolour in sympathetic identity. Key aspects of our identity as freedom loving people were also under attack. The ability to enjoy an evening out with friends is tagged with fear. The presence of armed guards though for our safety, also reminds us of our vulnerability. The nonwestern foreign names on guns— Kalashnikov— and of the killers add to our defensive posture to close our personal boundaries to all foreigners.

Indeed, even before video threatening to attack the U.S. and other democracies fighting in the Middle East, experts warned that England and the U.S. can expect increased attacks. The French closed their borders. And consistent with TMT, the retaliation was swift and powerful. Special forces in many world cities increased their presence.

What is Terror Management Theory?

Here’s a brief statement by one of the founders and his colleague:

“The theory posits that to manage the potential for terror engendered by the awareness of mortality, humans sustain faith in worldviews which provide a sense that they are significant beings in an enduring, meaningful world rather than mere material animals fated only to obliteration upon death.” 

Greenberg and Arndt, p. 398, “Terror Management Theory” in Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology (see reference below).

Hundreds of studies support the findings that we humans defend against terror in four main ways.

Four Main Defenses (Greenberg & Arndt)

1. Derogation

We label attackers as ignorant and evil and try to dismiss or minimize their attacks. Words like Barbarian, Medieval, and animal-linked language come from civilized lips. U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry labeled the Paris attackers, "psychopathic monsters." F*bombs and other anger-sex words run freely from those hit the hardest. In short, expect victims and their friends to dehumanize anyone who attacks them or their way of life.

2. Assimilation

Some people work as literal or symbolic missionaries—people on a mission to help foreigners (any outsider) see the light and change their ways to join their worldview. This type of response can happen when people who share the same religion or culture as the victims reach out to some people who are from the same religion or culture as the attackers. For example, conservative Christian leaders will be quick to take a missional approach toward Muslims. (Example from a refugee camp.) 

3. Accommodation

Just the presence of someone from a different worldview (religious or other) feels like a threat. Low level threats can be overcome to some extent by finding common ground. Some work to find aspects of a foreign culture that we can admire and respect and add to our own. For example, fundamentalist strains of evangelical Christians share some common concerns for covering up women’s bodies and avoiding alcohol. Christians that once railed against rock bands now have their own “devilish” rhythms with sanctified lyrics.

4. Annihilation

Pushed to an extreme, only one worldview will prevail-- that's the attitude of extreme reactions to threats. It is the attitude that sets aside restraints on conducting war. It is an attitude that disregards who is a civilian and who is a warrior-- all outsiders are enemies. This is part of the attitude that erects literal and procedural boundaries to keep people at a distance even if they die while waiting for a place of refuge. Examples can be found in conflicts between Muslims and Christians, Hindus and Muslims, Buddhists and Muslims, Jews and Muslims, Christians and Atheists and so on.

Three Journeys to Survival

Terror Management Theory offers predictions about ways that promote peace and reduce conflict and even violence. Some journeys require a considerable investment. We see evidence of movements toward these ends. Ironically, some of the efforts also reflect a threat to the worldview of some fundamentalists keen on protecting a narrow and rigid worldview.

1. Expanding a view of kinship.

Worldviews that focus on all of humanity and the respect of all persons minimize us versus them thinking and rejection of outgroups. I’m mostly familiar with Christianity so I think of Jesus’ lessons challenging people to think broadly about who is a neighbor (Luke 10: 25–37). There’s another example in the book of Acts where St. Peter (Acts 10: 9–16) learns that non-Jews ought not to be considered unclean.

Recent examples of inclusiveness can be seen in the Progressive Christian Movement and the welcoming statements and embrace of Pope Francis. Christians who view all people as children of God reduce the impact of terror.

2. Strengthen the worth and value of minorities.

In any host culture, there are subgroups of people who are minorities based on one or more features such as sex, gender, religion, skin color and so forth. For people to have value, their contributions to the host culture must be recognized. Recognition takes many forms including, what is taught in a nation’s schools, the selection of public art works (painting in government buildings, sculptures in public parks), presentations of mass entertainment e.g., television shows in prime time and movies, creation of memorial exhibits and museums, and the removal of reminders of oppression and discrimination (e.g., banners, symbols, flags, statues).

Recent examples in the U.S. include the removal of the Confederate Flag in South Carolina, the building of a National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington D.C., and symbolic support of same-sex couples via rainbow flags and banners at various venues where there are efforts to change laws or policies. A special phrase, “Black Lives Matter” became a national call to show respect to African Americans—especially by those creating and enforcing laws and policies.

Christians who worship and partner with people from multiple ethnic groups reduce the impact of terror. Developing an attitude of affirming rather than demeaning the contributions of others reduces terror. From the Apostle Paul, Christians see all people as having different gifts and making unique and valuable contributions to the entire "body" of Christians.

3. Strengthen relationships and attachments.

In many cultures, religious celebrations brought people together for a common purpose. Religion has lost its place in many societies in the past few decades. The causes for the loss are many. Those are not my focus here. My point is that people who are connected to others are less defensive and less prone to violence. Connections can still happen for people in religious groups that promote love and peace. And it can happen in other venues too such as professional and leisure associations, hobby and craft guilds, and via online social media. Of course, churches can re-invigorate their programs and services by connecting with other groups in their community.

Concluding quote

Greenberg and Arndt included a 1963 poem by James Baldwin in their chapter I referenced above. I'll include it here as it still seems apt today.

“Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death--ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.” 
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time


Van Lange, P. A.M., Kruglanski, A. W., & Higgins, E. T.(2011). Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology Volume I. Washington, D.C.: Sage.

Read More about Terror Management Theory and the roots in the works of cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker. Link to Oxford Bibliographies.

Related Posts

Saturday, November 7, 2015

How accurate is human memory?

Creative Memories

I recall the time our house was bombed by the Germans. Actually, I don’t. But I do recall my mother telling the captivating story. We love stories—especially stories that inspire us by overcoming great odds or keep us in suspense as to the death-defying outcome.

From time to time a famous person tells a tale that stretches credulity and seems fit for a party or a pub rather than a place of leadership. We want people we can trust. If they lie about their past, won’t they lie to us about important matters?

For decades, psychologists have published studies that plumb the limitations of human memory. Since Bartlett published his famous work in 1932, we have been suspicious about the accuracy in human memory. To paraphrase, Bartlett explained that the processes of relying on memory to help us adapt to life events also lead to errors.

A few years ago (2012), psychological scientist, Daniel Schacter provided a helpful summary of three factors involved in the way memories are distorted as a part of “Adaptive Constructive Processes.”

Three Factors Influencing Accurate Memories

1. The misinformation effect.

This is the effect demonstrated by the research of Elizabeth Loftus and her colleagues. When information is presented to us after an event, that recent information can distort the original event memory. Simple questions of eye-witnesses are enough to introduce information into their memories of things that were never present. 

Deliberately providing misinformation also distorts memories. Numerous studies have confirmed the misinformation effect in both lab work and in live-action events. Unfortunately, false memories can be planted that contain elaborate details about personal experiences that never happened. 

Loftus commented on the problems inherent in autobiographies and memoirs when she wrote about attacks on Edward Teller’s story and suggested we could “appreciate it not as a deliberately self-serving untruthful chronicle but for its possible insights into normal memory-distortion processes. Untruths are not necessarily lies (2012, p. 872).” As Loftus notes, it can be hard to tell the difference between an “honest” and “deliberate lie.”

2. Gist-based memory effect.

We tend to remember the gist of what happened. But we can be stubbornly sure that we learned something that never happened when something new is similar to what we did in fact learn. Psychology students learn this from examples of word lists (DRM; Deese-Roediger-McDermott memory illusion) that contain thematically similar words (e.g., words linked to sleep) and then are presented with a new word they never saw but because it is linked to the theme they are sure of the accuracy of their memory. False recognitions are a part of human memory. Researchers find this “gist” aspect of memory adaptive and commonly found in creative people who can employ the gist of what they have learned to solve novel problems.

3. Imagination inflation.

 Schacter and his colleagues as well as Loftus and her colleagues have shown that imagining something can actually create a false memory that an event really happened. This can be quite alarming if one is focused on the accuracy of the past. But the capacity of our brains to simulate experiences is an adaptive process if we are trying to play out various future options before committing to a course of action. Schacter writes of the “striking similarities between remembering the past and imagining the future (2012, p. 605).”

Our Memories and Our Identities

Intelligent people who write autobiographies and memoirs or write about history based on the memories of others ought to understand human memory and other factors such as the heuristics we rely on when thinking (see Kahneman, 2011). Exercise caution.

Leaders ought to demonstrate a modicum of humility when it comes to recalling their personal history—especially when a self-serving story has the potential for leaving their character open to attack.

Journalists, investigative reporters, and critics also ought to be aware of human memory when attempting to “discover” the truth about one situation or another. When it comes to details, human memory is not perfectly reliable. Care is needed in separating those natural distortions from the deliberate self-serving efforts to deceive others, which can lead to public disasters if not challenged. Aggressive investigators may have the spotlight shone on them if they major in common minor memory errors.

Psychotherapists and counselors ought to know better when it comes to commenting in reports on the memories of their clients. Reporting a client's history as if it were factually accurate is common but accuracy is not consistent with memory research. Similarly, expecting clients to provide accurate details about their life is not reasonable.

Parents and teachers ought to be careful when they are focused on accusing a child of lying. All brains distort events. Memory processes and capacity increase as brains mature. And of course, memory declines in older adults. Children, parents, and teachers along with all humanity do not provide accurate information about their past behavior. Lying is something else.

All of us ought to take care to document important information and store it in more than one place. Relying on our memory for vital information is not reasonable.

Regardless of how well our memory functions, our memories are so important to who we are. Loftus (2003) observations on memory and identity are insightful.

“People’s memories are not only the sum of all that they have done, but there is more to them: The memories are also the sum of what they have thought, what they have been told, what they believe. Who we are may be shaped by our memories, but our memories are shaped by who we are and what we have been led to believe (2003, p. 872).”


We seem to reinvent our memories, and in doing so, we become the person of our own imagination (2003, 872).”

Personal Note

That bomb story my mother told– my guess is a bomb really did explode near our house in England. The other day I saw a published map of bombs that fell in London during the blitz and there were a couple close to our house in West Finchley. My mother recalled being forcibly trapped in the closet under our stairs when the floor buckled upward. Later, another blast caused the floor to settle and she was able to open the door but couldn’t walk for awhile.


Following are my sources. If you are interested in the subject, I recommend reading Kahneman, Loftus, and Schacter.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Loftus, E. F. (2003). Make-Believe Memories. American Psychologist58(11), 867-873. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.58.11.867

Loftus, E. F. (2005). Planting misinformation in the human mind: A 30-year
investigation of the malleability of memory. Learning & Memory, 12,
361–366. doi:10.1101/lm.94705

Schacter, D. L. (1999). The seven sins of memory: Insights from psychology
and cognitive neuroscience. American Psychologist, 54, 182–203.

Schacter, D. L. (2012). Adaptive constructive processes and the future of memory. American Psychologist, 67, 603–613. doi: 10.1037/a0029869