a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

9/11, the salience of mortality, and the future of American democracy

Posted by Thomas Nephew on September 10th, 2007


These two questions are part of one kind of psychological experiment* designed to measure the difference in subsequent behavior between people confronted with thinking about their own death, and those not so confronted. Using methods like these, psychology researchers are zeroing in on a truth that is still not well enough, or widely enough, understood about events like 9/11: they really do change everything — that is, they really do change the way people, in the aggregate, think about everything.

Mortality salience
In “Death Grip: How political psychology explains Bush’s ghastly success,” John Judis of The New Republic provides an overview of this research, called variously “mortality salience theory” or “terror management theory.” Judis recalls going door to door in West Virginia in the June and then just before the 2004 election, and being struck by how skeptical voter attitudes towards Bush had reversed and solidified into Bush support. In contrast to “rational choice theory” which presupposes, well, rational choice, Judis explains that

[t]here is, however, one group of scholars — members of the relatively new field of political psychology — who are trying to explain voter preferences that can’t be easily quantified … the research that is perhaps most relevant to the 2004 election has been conducted by psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski. In the the early 1980s, they developed what they clumsily called “terror management theory.” Their idea was not about how to clear the subways in the event of an attack, but about how people cope with the terrifying and potentially paralyzing realization that, as human beings, we are destined to die. Their experiments showed that the mere thought of one’s mortality can trigger a range of emotions — from disdain for other races, religions, and nations, to a preference for charismatic over pragmatic leaders, to a heightened attraction to traditional mores.

(Links added.) Judis goes on to explain how the three researchers were influenced by the work of Ernest Becker, whose final book, “The Denial of Death,” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Based on Judis’ explanation — but without having read Becker’s book — I’d venture to say the fear of death is a subsurface foundation of Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.”

Judis describes remarkable and apparently widely reproduced results indicating that people recently confronted with thoughts of their own death or death in general are more likely to

  • take a negative view of essays critical of the United States (American respondents),
  • take a negative view of essays by “outsiders” (such as Jews, in a survey of Christians, or Turks, in a survey of Germans)
  • favor a “charismatic” leader telling them they were not ordinary, but part of a special nation

Moreover, the effects remained when the respondents were unconscious of what was going on — and they were readily extended to the effects of reminders of 9/11. Similar to how subliminal exposure to the word “death” caused respondents to complete “coff-” as “coffin” rather than “coffee”, subliminal exposure to the phrases “9/11” and “WTC” did so as well.

How to hack a presidential election
In a key 2004 experiment, Rutgers students were subjected to mortality reminders, and then compared to a control group for their likelihood to vote for Bush. The control group favored Kerry by four to one — while those reminded of death favored Bush by two to one. Judis:

This strongly suggested that Bush’s popularity was sustained by mortality reminders. The psychologists concluded in a paper published after the election that the government terror warnings, the release of Osama bin Laden’s video on October 29, and the Bush campaign’s reiteration of the terror threat… were integral to Bush’s victory.

It certainly didn’t hurt.

What remains unclear from Judis’ article is why not everyone responded the same way to 9/11, or to reminders about it. Of course, not everyone in the classic “mortality salience” experiments reacted the same way either; maybe it’s some uncharted psychological predisposition, maybe it’s a difference in what happened to them the morning of the experiment.

Likewise, maybe Americans with an actively hostile stance towards Bush at the time of 9/11, or thereafter, were “immunized” from the “mortality salience” effect Pyszczynski et al describe. Or maybe the “mortality salience” effect was enhanced for people with deeper empathies for the victims, higher exposure to TV broadcasts about the attacks, or being part of a crowd or a group co-experiencing the attacks or their aftermath. Looking overseas, maybe repeat exposure to mortality reminders dulls the effect — after all, the IRA or the Red Army Fraction terror campaigns in the U.K. and Germany didn’t result in the same kind of “ghastly successes” that Bush, Rove, and Cheney celebrated.

But maybe that’s also because the peoples involved still remember far worse than a band of criminals on a terror spree — and because their political systems made it harder for a ‘commander in chief’ to exploit fear the way our current rulers have.

Falling man, 9/11. Richard Drew, AP.

“Nobody jumped.”
Similarly, American reactions to the deaths of 9/11 hint at a particular vulnerability. The national allergic reaction to the “Falling Man” photo is Exhibit A. Under guise of outrage, concern for privacy, and the welfare of children reading newspapers, to name a few, that photo — arguably the Tomb of the Unknown 9/11 Victim — was “airbrushed from history,” as the Falling Man documentary film by Henry Singer and Richard Numeroff put it.**

The need to deny that people in extremis had to choose one nightmarish death over another was widespread, as writer Tom Junod found when he set out to investigate who the iconic falling man was:

I talked to the coroner’s office in New York; I asked them for a count of how many people jumped that day. And what the woman from the coroner’s office said was ‘Nobody jumped that day. They were blown out, they were forced out… we don’t say that they jumped. Nobody jumped.’

That just made me feel that there was just something going on that was not familiar American territory about dealing with tragedy. There were just things about that day you weren’t supposed to say, you weren’t supposed to see, you weren’t supposed to talk about.”

Fear itself
We are frequently reminded that the next terror attack is a matter of “when, not if.” We should see such reminders for what they are: the self-serving comments of those who need American citizens to remain in a defensive crouch, dreading the next blow, applauding whatever is done to ward it off.

It’s prudent to identify threats and reduce or eliminate them; it’s prudent to calmly and quietly prepare for what may come, so attacks are thwarted and those that aren’t are survived by as many as possible. But it’s also prudent to steel ourselves for what happens after an attack: anger, grief, and fear — and the exploitation of that anger, grief and fear, then or later, by whatever unlikely figures (Dubya, Rudy, etc.) happened to be on hand to simulate leadership in our hours of need.

Because if Pyszczynski et al are right, it’s not just the Roves, the Bushs and the Cheneys I’ll need to be on my guard against — I’ll need to keep a close eye on myself as well. It’s not that there’s nothing to fear but fear itself — it’s that fear, particularly the fear of death, preys on us in ways that predictably distort and damage the way we live.

* From the “Research Materials” section of the Terror Management Theory site maintained by TMT researcher Jamie Arndt (University of Missouri).
** Tellingly, the US debut of the film is only today, on the Discovery Channel; it’s already been seen in Britain and Britain, in March and September of last year.

NOTES: I first wrote about Pyszczynski, Greenberg, and Solomon in August, 2004: “Fear works. What works better?” A documentary — “Flight From Death: A Quest for Immortality” — has been made about the issues raised by their work and that of Ernest Becker; judging by the trailer on YouTube, it looks extraordinary. A more recent post of mine — “The Illuminated Crowd” — is also an attempt at discussing the political psychology of 9/11, in reaction to a remarkable sculpture of the same name in Montreal, and the famous work “Crowds and Power” by Elias Canetti.

EDITS, 9/10: final sentence, “applauding” line, 2d footnote added; “American citizens” for “country.”
UPDATE, 9/10: Surprisingly, there’ve been only a few other reactions to Judis’s article so far. Among them, Kim Sbarcea (“Thinking Shift”) notes that Giuliani is ringing the changes on death reminders; Alan Bock sees something perverse in seemingly celebrating events like 9/11 or Katrina, rather than simply commemorating them. After having written a five part series in 2006 on fear and environmentalism, David Roberts (“Gristmill”) uses Judis’ article to argue that “fear of death leads to authoritarianism, not sustainability”; many comments followed. (Via Ken Stokes of “SusHI”). Via her blog, Rachel Maddow discussed it on her Air America radio show on 8/31.
2D UPDATE, 9/10: OK, a lot more reactions to the accessible online version of “Death Grip,” including Avedon Carol and (via her) Kevin Maroney.

4 Responses to “9/11, the salience of mortality, and the future of American democracy”

  1. Toast Says:

    Likewise, maybe Americans with an actively hostile stance towards Bush at the time of 9/11, or thereafter, were “immunized” from the “mortality salience” effect Pyszczynski et al describe.
    That’s the explanation I find most plausible, and it goes to a case of one form of “mortality salience” trupming another. I can’t recall if I felt this particular way about Bush prior to 9-11 — I was already deeply opposed to his domestic policy agenda and believed the man had been fraudulently assigned to the White House — but in the years since I’ve come to associate Bush himself with death. The beady eyes, the angry, contemptuous smirk – there’s something palpably hostile to life in the man’s character, like a death’s head hovering just behind his pinched little face. It’s possible that for those of us who see the real Bush – like the protagonists of They Live who had the special sunglasses that let them see the evil aliens among them – he’s a far more potent reminder of our own mortality than 9-11 could ever be.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Interesting. I wonder if the TMT researchers have looked into that; it seems similar to the “adverse reactions to ‘out group’ statements” finding they made. That is, if Bush/neocons/etc are already your “out group” (my term, not theirs, btw), do mortality reminders tend to make you dismiss them even more — outweighing whatever charismatic “man on a white horse” effect accrues to them as they shake firemen’s hands, stand on rubble, what not.

  3. Nell Says:

    do mortality reminders tend to make you dismiss them even more
    Yes. Their shaking fireman’s hands, standing on rubble, what not, were moments for even more bitter dismissal. Truly an ‘X-ray specs’ effect, and deeply alienating — not least because of the way it got in the way of human empathy for the families and firefighters and people most directly affected.

  4. Thomas Nephew Says:

    To clarify: I assume you mean that’s how you felt at the time?
    Just asking; Bush hadn’t yet got us into Iraq; the looting in Baghdad, the ’04 Shia uprising, Abu Ghraib all hadn’t happened yet. Of course, the 2000 selection *had* happened, but even Gore said something to the effect that Bush was his president after 9/11. I remember saying similar things myself — and the links back from that post to prior ones do bear out, in my case, some of what Pyszczynski et al say. Which was, roughly, to welcome a “charismatic” (=”emphasizes a simple message of the greatness of the nation and of a heroic triumph of good over evil”) leader dedicated — or so he implied — to the straightforward proposition of putting OBLs head on a stick, to use my own mental refrain from those days.
    As you know and as that shows, I have a checkered past re Bush. (I can’t be the only one.) I guess the bottom line for me after 9/11 was that I was willing to suspend distrust and willing to join the crowd. And even if I didn’t completely discard that distrust or completely join the crowd, I eventually made the mistake of trusting he really knew something about Iraqi WMD (and letting that matter more than it should have.)
    I do think I really wallowed too much in 9/11 and in the warblogosphere in the months after it happened. But/and I guess I didn’t hold the posing at WTC against him then; I kind of expected and I suppose even welcomed it. I’d try to be more careful now, but some kind of visit and fireman-hand-shaking was inevitable. Now Bush looks phony and shifty there to me too, in retrospect, the same way he did after Katrina — the way he does practically all the time.

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