Along with panicky denunciations from the shocked-horrified-and-appalled Republican establishment, there was much cheering and applause from Donald Trump’s zombie supporters when he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”.
We do, indeed, need to “figure out what is going on,” and the best explanation comes from psychologists in the field of Terror Management Theory (TMT), whose work we often quote on this blog. (Just to be clear, TMT is about existential terror, not specifically terrorism.)
TMT offers a deep understanding as to why we humans behave so destructively toward each other, toward our fellow animals, and toward the planet overall. Basically, it shows why we’re so screwed up as a species.
“We humans have become aware of the fact that we will someday die, and that we can die at any time, and that we’re really no more significant and enduring than lizards or potatoes.”In a segment on the PRI news show The World, this week, Sheldon Solomon, one of the founders of Terror Management Theory, explains the enormous enthusiasm that follows Trump wherever he goes. Solomon, a professor of social psychology at Skidmore College, says that when people are confronted by an act of terrorism, they tend to react in three ways.
The first two ways are fairly obvious: People seek safety, and they to try to help those in need.
The third is what he calls “malignant manifestations of non-conscious death anxiety.” That sounds like a mouthful, but the reaction to the mass killings in San Bernardino last week is a classic example. As Solomon sums it up:
Virulent antipathy to Islam – anyone or anything associated with it – including support for measures like closing down mosques and requiring all Muslims to become part of a registry, increased support for rather draconian military measures such as an immediate ground war in Syria and Iraq.
This is all typical of how we respond when something activates our fear of death. But there’s more to it than simply a reaction to the shootings themselves. Solomon draws on the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, whose book The Denial of Death won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974:
Becker says that human beings are so sophisticated that we can think abstractly and symbolically, and that because of that we’ve become aware of the fact that we will someday die, and that we can die at any time, and that we’re really no more significant and enduring than lizards or potatoes.
Other animals are, of course, afraid of death, too, but it’s something they experience in the immediate, like when a predator is bearing down on them. They don’t live in permanent anxiety over their ultimate mortality. But we humans do, and to the best of our knowledge, we’re the only animals who live with this constant anxiety. The awareness of our mortality is never far from our consciousness. It’s an overwhelming thought, and much of our everyday life is devoted to dealing with it.
Those realizations [of our mortality] would paralyze us with overwhelming existential terror, and what we humans do to manage that terror is to embrace our culturally constructed world views that give us a sense that life has meaning and that we have value.
And we’re so motivated to preserve faith in our culture and in ourselves that we’ll respond defensively whenever existential fears are aroused.
This existential anxiety is quickly aroused in the wake of terrorist attacks. They remind us death can strike at any moment and when we least expect it. And they tell us that the culture and civilization we’ve built around ourselves is not as secure as we like to imagine. So we have to shore it up some more, which includes going into full-blown us-v.-them mode.
An unfortunate byproduct of this need to embrace our own cultural ideas is that there’s a collateral need to designate something or someone else as the all-encompassing repository of evil, the eradication of which would make life on earth as it’s purported to be in heaven.
Back in the old days of the Cold War, we had the Russians as evil incarnate. And now, since September 11th, it’s Muslims and folks we describe as Islamic. And so when existential concerns are aroused, when we’re reminded – quite unconsciously, by the way – that we may someday die, this exaggerates our affection for our own culture and magnifies our hatred and hostility to anyone who’s different.
This isn’t the first time that mortality anxiety has affected a presidential election as it’s doing right now. Solomon and his colleagues have done many studies that show how when we’re reminded (even quite unconsciously) of our mortality, we tend to become more aggressive in our general outlook.
In a typical study, they separate volunteer research subjects into two groups. They give one group something to read or do that will remind them of their own mortality, while the other group gets something that may be painful or negative but is not related to mortality. And then they ask the volunteers which of the two main political candidates they prefer. What they find every time, without fail, is that the people in the group that get the “death prompt” choose the candidate who sounds more bellicose.
In 2004, we showed that Americans in a psychologically benign state of mind preferred Senator Kerry over President Bush in quite a few experiments. But when they were first reminded of their mortality, they preferred President Bush over Senator Kerry.
Similarly, we’ve just completed one study where we found that Americans reminded of their mortality became more supportive of Donald Trump and said they were more likely to vote for him because here’s somebody who has said ‘I will make America great again’ and ‘I will build a giant wall to keep people out’ and ‘I will annihilate our enemies.’
These are larger-than-life figures who generally proclaim that they know where the evil is and that they will take care of it.
Terror management theory is of especial interest to us on this blog because it’s not just “evil people” who remind us of our mortality. Most of all, throughout our lives, it’s our fellow animals. They are a constant reminder that we, too, are animals and that, like them, we’re going to die. Dust to dust and ashes to ashes.
And since we don’t like to think of ourselves as animals, we like to tell ourselves that we are different, exceptional, and a superior creation that’s “spiritual” or otherwise exceptional. And we often label as “animals” the people who threaten the culture we’ve constructed for ourselves. (We also conveniently forget that no other animals behave in the appalling ways that we do.) Our existential anxiety is constantly being brought closer to the surface, and we’re not going to get relief by simply getting into more fights with more enemies.
Terror management theory is as close to a “theory of everything” as you’re likely to find when it comes to explaining our nature and behavior – from the most overall level to the day-to-day life at home, in the office, in politics and religion and just about every other aspect of human civilization. Discussions of whether or not Donald Trump is going to burn out and how outrageous he is will always be superficial. More basic is the fact that in today’s world, our existential anxiety is constantly being brought closer and closer to the surface, and we’re not going to get relief by simply getting into more and more fights with more and more enemies.
Listen to the full interview.
In today’s world, the stakes are higher than ever. Anxiety – and the aggression it generates – is no longer being driven simply by fear of our personal mortality. We’re now being reminded, on a daily basis, that we’ve set in motion a mass extinction that may even include ourselves. And as this escalates, you can expect increasingly “malignant manifestations of non-conscious death anxiety” as people try to shore up their cultural constructs in the face of the growing threats to their way of life.
There’s more about this topic in our series of posts entitled “I Am Not an Animal“. And Sheldon Solomon has co-authored a very readable, and often quite humorous, book called The Worm at the Core – On the Role of Death in Life. Highly recommended.