Sunday, April 28, 2013

Terror Management

Terror Management

Determining what drives people to terrorism is no easy task. For one thing, terrorists aren't likely to volunteer as experimental subjects, and examining their activities from afar can lead to erroneous conclusions. What's more, one group's terrorist is another group's freedom fighter, as the millions of Arabs who support Palestinian suicide bombers will attest and also the massive Tamil Diaspora living in Canada, USA, & Europe will claim.

Given these complexities, the psychology of terrorism is marked more by theory and opinion than by good science, researchers admit. But a number of psychologists are starting to put together reliable data. They're finding it is generally more useful to view terrorism in terms of political and group dynamics and processes than individual ones, and that universal psychological principles—such as our subconscious fear of death and our desire for meaning and personal significance—may help to explain some aspects of terrorist actions and our reactions to them.
Eventually, such information could help in the complex quest to prevent terrorism. Psychologists' findings suggest that assuaging people's fear of cultural annihilation, highlighting our common humanity or demonstrating the discrepancy between the dream and reality of terrorist involvement could keep would-be terrorists from turning to violence, for instance.
In fact, the notion that terrorists could be talked out of committing violence using peaceful dialogue and a helping hand is no longer an idealist's pipe dream, but actually the aim of a growing number of "de-radicalization" programs worldwide.
For years, psychologists examined terrorists' individual characteristics, mining for clues that could explain their willingness to engage in violence. While researchers now agree that most terrorists are not "pathological" in any traditional sense, several important insights have been gleaned though interviews with some former terrorists.
It has been found that people who are more open to terrorist recruitment and radicalization tend to:
  • Feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised.
  • Believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change.
  • Identify with perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting.
  • Feel the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem.
  • Believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral.
  • Have friends or family sympathetic to the cause.
  • Believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie and a heightened sense of identity

Terror Management starts with the basic psychological conflict between wanting to live and having the self-awareness to know that death is inevitable. This conflict is believed to be unique to humans, and is solved with a uniquely human solution: cultures. By creating, and in turn investing in, these symbolic systems of meaning and value, humans gain a sense of literal immortality (afterlife belief), eternal pleasure (72 Virgins waiting in Paradise), and/or symbolic immortality (the sense that they will live on through eternal happiness). 

Cultural values also provide the blueprint for what matters, and as such, are the basis by which self-esteem is derived. From a TMT perspective, self-esteem and worldviews are the primary defenses against the potential terror elicited by mortality awareness,though research has found that relationships and a more general need for psychological structure also protect people from mortality concerns.
The terror management theory explains that when people are reminded of their own deaths, they more readily defend these cultural beliefs and act to enhance, or at least protect, their self-esteem. Experiments conducted by researchers lend evidence to the concept that the awareness of one's own death, affects the eventual decision making of groups and individuals.
The theory purports to help explain human activity both at the individual and societal level. There is an argument that espouses the theory that most human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death. The terror of absolute annihilation creates such a profound—albeit subconscious—anxiety in people that they spend their lives attempting to make sense of it. On large scales, societies build symbols: laws, religious edicts, cultures, and belief systems to explain the significance of life, define what makes certain characteristics, skills, and talents extraordinary, reward others whom they find exemplify certain attributes, and punish or kill others who do not adhere to their cultural view. On an individual level, self esteem based common sense provides a buffer against death-related anxiety.
Many people are more motivated by social pressures, rather than health risks. Specifically for younger people, mortality salience is stronger in eliciting changes of one's behavior when it brings awareness to the immediate loss of social status or position, rather than a loss, such as death that one cannot imagine and feels distant. However, there are many different factors to take into consideration, such as how strongly an individual feels toward a decision, their level of self-esteem, and the situation around them. 

The mortality salience hypothesis (MS) states that if indeed one’s cultural worldview, or their self-esteem serves a death-denying function, then threatening these constructs should produce defenses aimed at restoring psychological equanimity (i.e., returning the individual to a state of feeling invulnerable). In the MS paradigm, these "threats" are simply experimental reminders of one’s own death.

Another paradigm that TMT researchers use to get at unconscious concerns about death is what is known as the death thought accessibility (DTA) hypothesis. Essentially, the DTA hypothesis states that if individuals are motivated to avoid cognitions about death, and they avoid these cognitions by espousing a worldview or by buffering their self-esteem, then when threatened, an individual should possess more death-related cognitions (e.g., thoughts about death, and death-related stimuli) than they would when not threatened.

It has been suggested that culture provides meaning, organization, and a coherent world view that diminishes the psychological terror caused by the knowledge of eventual death. The terror management theory can help to explain why a leader's popularity can grow substantially during times of crisis. When a follower's mortality is made prominent they will tend to show a strong preference for iconic leaders. An example of this occurred when GWB's approval rating jumped almost 50 percent following 911. As Forsyth (2009) explains, this tragedy made U.S. citizens aware of their mortality, and Bush provided an antidote to these existential concerns by promising to bring justice to the terrorist group responsible for the attacks.

TMT states that religion was created as a means for humans to cope with their own mortality. Supporting this, arguments in favor of life after death, and simply being religious, reduce the effects of mortality salience on worldview defense and thoughts of death have been found to increase religious beliefs. At an implicit, subconscious level, this is the case even for atheists.

Some theorists have argued that it is not the idea of death and nonexistence that is unsettling to people, but the fact that uncertainty is involved. For example, these researchers posited that people defend themselves by altering their fear responses from uncertainty to an enthusiasm approach. TMT theorists agree that uncertainty can be disconcerting in some cases and it may even result in defense responses, but note that they believe the inescapability of death and the possibility of its finality regarding one’s existence is most unsettling. They ask, "‘Would death be any less frightening if you knew for certain that it would come next Tuesday at 5:15 p.m., and that your hopes for an afterlife were illusory?’....Would you rather be certain that death is the end, or live with the uncertainty that it might not be?" They also note that people actually seek out some types of uncertainty, and that being uncertain is not always very unpleasant.


[compiled by extracts from Wiki]

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