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Terror Management in Response to Contemporary Political Issues


The present dissertation empirically examines the impact of death thoughts on intergroup relations; the findings are explained using Terror Management Theory (TMT). TMT proposes that when mortality is made salient (Mortality Salience Hypothesis, MSH) people are more likely to exhibit greater positive evaluations of their in-group; greater adherence to the values of their in-group. People have a tendency to do this because culture tends to confer self-esteem (i.e., immortality), which allegedly mitigates death anxiety. Therefore, while there is a general tendency for people to exhibit greater positive evaluations of their in-group in the face of death, people who are high in tolerance are hypothesized to show out-group favoritism or, at least, no bias; while people who are intolerant should show in-group favoritism. Three studies investigated these hypotheses. In Study 1, participants were asked to evaluate presidential candidates Obama and McCain after answering questions regarding their own death (i.e., mortality condition) or answering question about a university exam (i.e., control condition). Although the expected main effect of mortality salience on in-group favoritism was not significant, participants high in openness exhibited out-group favoritism. Study 2 examined these processes by having participants evaluate a pro and an anti-gay marriage author following a reminder of their own mortality or an exam. Beyond a significant main effect for in-group favoritism, participants low in openness exhibited the Terror Management effect. The third study examined the MSH after participants watched a movie entitled The Final Destination (i.e., "mortality condition") or another movie (i.e., "control condition"). They then evaluated a pro and an anti-gay marriage author. Beyond an expected significant relationship between the type of movie watched and positive evaluations, participants high in similarity to the author who supported their view exhibited what the MSH would predict - greater positive in-group evaluations. Those low in similarity exhibited the reverse of this effect. Assuming that one's similarity rating for a culture is based on the extent the culture either upholds or challenges one's identity, it would make sense - according to the MSH - for these effects to manifest. Limitations of these studies and their relevance to Terror Management Theory are discussed.

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