Mortality Salience

Mortality salience [sey-lee-uhns] is a term which describes awareness of one’s eventual death. Mortality salience has the potential to cause worldview defense, a psychological mechanism which strengthens people’s connection with their in-group as a defense mechanism. This can lead to feelings of nationalism and racial bigotry being intensified.

Studies also show that mortality salience can also lead people to feel more inclined to punish minor moral transgressions. One such study divided a group of judges into two groups — one which was asked to reflect upon their own mortality, and one group which was not. The judges were then asked to set a bond for an alleged prostitute. The group who had reflected on mortality set an average bond of $455, while the control group’s average bond was $50.

Another study found that mortality salience could cause an increase in support for martyrdom and military intervention. Tom Pyszczynski et al. found that students who had reflected on their mortality showed preference towards people who supported martyrdom, and indicated they might consider martyrdom themselves. They also found that especially among students who were politically conservative, mortality salience increased support for military intervention but not among students who were politically liberal.

A research study found that self-esteem can reduce the worldview defense produced by mortality salience. Within the frameworks of this study terror management theory is assessed as well. The article states that ‘according to terror management theory, increased self-esteem should enhance the functioning of the cultural anxiety buffer and thereby provide protection against death concerns.’ Therefore self-esteem should reduce mortality salience effects.

According to the Terror Management Theory, when human beings begin to contemplate their own mortality and vulnerability to death, feelings of terror emerge because of the simple fact that humans want to avoid the inevitable death. Most research done on terror management theory revolves around the mortality salience paradigm. It has been found that religious individuals as well as religious fundamentalists are less vulnerable to mortality salience manipulations. Therefore engaging in cultural worldview defense to a lesser extent than nonreligious individuals.

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