About Mortality Salience
The following is an excerpt from an article on mortality salience, which was published in the Journal of 9/11 Studies (June 14, 2007) by Laurie Manwell, a behavioral neuroscientist:
“Studies evaluating psychological reactions to death and traumatic experiences, and in particular 9/11, in the context of terror management theory ((internal citations omitted), report that a number of outwardly-aimed psychological defenses are used when people are reminded of their mortality (internal citations omitted). When people are prompted by thoughts of death, known as mortality salience, most often they react by inflating their faith in their personal worldview. For example, they may display greater bias towards their country or religion (internal citations omitted). The effect of 9/11 then, on Americans in particular is well summarized by Kosloff et al. (2006):
Consistent with this research, the years since 9/11 – an event that made mortality quite salient to most Americans – have been replete with surges in patriotic fever and persistent efforts to fortify faith in the American worldview and its value (internal citations omitted).
Research on terror management theory also shows that when people are reminded of their mortality, they exaggerate the number of people who hold similar worldviews; a phenomenon called consensus bias (internal citations omitted).. Similarly, information appearing to represent the majority opinion tends to induce immediate persuasion, in comparison to minority opinions, which often induce immediate resistance (internal citations omitted). Recent research by Tormala et al. (2007) confirms this:
The traditional explanation has been that people seek to publicly agree with majority messages and reject minority messages to avoid aligning themselves with deviant groups or positions (internal citations omitted). Thus, whether it stems from simple, low-effort rejection or more thoughtful but negatively biased processing, people often show immediate, direct, and public resistance to messages associated with minority sources (internal citations omitted). Of interest, though, initially resisted minority sources have been known to exert a hidden or delayed impact. For example, when people resist minority sources, they often show evidence of persuasion when their attitudes are measured at a later point in time (internal citations omitted).
Thus, one of the most common responses to being asked to consider alterative [sic] accounts of 9/11 is that one does not need to because very few people believe them, when in fact, there are substantial numbers of people who do question the official account, and their questions are not trivial ones.
In addition to engaging in consensus bias when their self or worldviews are threatened, people also display an escalation in behaviors that confirm their worldviews, such as defending national and religious icons and derogating those with dissimilar views, some even to the point of aggression (internal citations omitted). Such reliance on bolstering personal worldviews in the face of threat may resolve feelings of uncertainty and distress in the short-term, but may have serious consequences for oneself and society at large in the long-term (internal citations omitted). McGregor (2006) highlights these consequences:
Indeed, mortality salience threats (self-threats) have not only caused zeal about in-group preferences and other forms of worldview defense (internal citations omitted), but they have also increased Americans’ support for terrorism strikes (internal citations omitted). Other kinds of self-threats similarly have caused increased extremism and zeal about suicide bombing, the American invasion of Iraq, and capital punishment (internal citations omitted). In social conflicts in which opposing groups feel threatened by one another, indulging in awesome displays of pride and militant conviction may insulate the self but, unfortunately, may also shock one’s opponent with additional threats. In response, opponents may likely mount reciprocal zeal and further fuel the cycle of zealous extremism. Research on defensive zeal, the present findings, and lessons gleamed from history’s zealots and crusaders, indicate that although zealous responses to threats may be alluring, they can also be self-defeating. Even though zealous responses to threats may feel right because they relieve concern, strategically they may be woefully wrong. [italics added]
As we can see then, when discussing the events of 9/11, any information that contradicts or threatens a person’s worldview or self-regard, can automatically trigger defensiveness, which itself then becomes a significant barrier to objective evaluation of the subject. Asking someone to consider evidence that contradicts the official story, and more importantly, to begin to think about how these alternative accounts could change their worldviews, is a request that needs itself to be carefully considered. Specifically, we need to consider how reminders of death, and more drastically, threats to one’s perceived fundamental freedoms, can trigger non-conscious defensiveness that blocks a person from engaging in such discussions.”