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)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.