Researchers study terror management

Tuesday, February 8, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:08 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

MU psychology professors and colleagues from around the country have gained national attention for their research on Terror Management Theory, which proposes that people cling closer to their cultural beliefs and leaders when reminded of their own mortality.

Jamie Arndt of MU is part of a group of professors who had an article printed in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin about their research on TMT. The group has been working on this research since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“We wanted to try and understand the impact of such activities (Sept. 11) to daily lives,” Arndt said.

The project has received publicity from major news outlets. Arndt was interviewed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among other news organizations.

The group was also contacted by the Discovery Channel in Canada. Jennifer Scott, a Discovery Channel producer, called Arndt to ask if he was interested in filming a short clip about his research. Their interview appeared online Oct. 26.

“I was drawn to the story for two reasons: it was topical and timely with the U.S. election coming up,” Scott said. “And it was a psychology-based story, which I’m always drawn to.”

The psychologists did four different studies over the course of several years at different universities.

The second study was held at MU about one month after Sept. 11. Most of the participants in the studies were psychology students who received extra credit for participating.

The psychologists came up with several different conclusions. One was that vulnerabilities often undermine the decisions people make.

“If we are aware of our vulnerabilities, we may be better able to overcome them,” Arndt said.

The psychologists also found that when test subjects were reminded of their own mortality they were more likely to favor Bush than Kerry in the past election.

“I think this research subject is important because throughout history people have contributed to evil by voting for, following and giving control of their lives over to leaders promoting destructive ideologies,” said Jeff Greenberg, a psychologist at the University of Arizona who worked on the research.

The last section of the article gives the psychologists’ hopes for future elections. They think that if people know how their own mortality affects their behaviors, then people may vote based on political issues and candidate qualifications.

Scott said it is important that people understand the forces that affect the brain and decision making.

“People are constantly being manipulated — by marketing gurus, politicians, faith-healers — and the more information they have about how the mind is vulnerable to such forces, the better equipped they are to resist them,” she said.

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