Terror management theory (TMT) assumes humans have protective defence mechanisms for existential anxiety experienced when they contemplate their mortality. Unlike animals, the ability to conceive our own death internalises an immense fear. What makes us overcome this and distinguishes us from animals is ‘culture’. Culture provides a lens through which to view and interpret the world; a source of meaning and value; dependant on conforming. (Greenberg et al, 1986).
Terror is managed by a cultural worldview, containing an anxiety buffer including two components: a personalised version providing meaning, standards of value and promising either literal or symbolic immortality (Greenberg et al, 1997). Secondly, self-esteem is built on the belief that standards of value have been adopted by one’s worldview and upheld, which ultimately decreases anxiety associated with mortality (Solomon et al, 1991b). Literal immortality is the belief of life after death supported by spiritual concepts such as an everlasting soul. Conversely, symbolic immortality, refers to what remains from our lives after death such as culturally valued achievements; a sense of self-importance (Greenberg and Kosloff, 2008). Empirical research assessing TMT has focused on two general hypotheses. The anxiety-buffer hypothesis; increasing self-esteem reduces anxiety in response to awareness of death and physiological arousal in response to the threat of pain (Greenberg et al, 1992) Conversely, the mortality salience hypothesis (MS), (Harmon-Jones et al, 1997) states that reminders of mortality increase the need for faith in the worldview, increasing positive responses that support it and violence to anything that threatens it (Arndt et al, 1997).
Various studies have demonstrated that MS increases negativity toward alternate worldviews; individuals defend their cultural worldview showing they possess socially valuable attributes (Greenberg and Kosloff, 2008). MS has demonstrated an increase in violence against conflicting worldviews (McGregor et al, 1998) and amplifies inter-individual intergroup discontinuity effect, inclining aggressive attributes (McPherson and Joireman, 2009). TMT proposes that withdrawing death-related thoughts, leads to stronger worldview defence and support for extremist violence. Studies have examined the effect of MS on behavioural aggression. Solomon et al (1991a) suggested that reactions to the threat posed by an alternative conception of reality include both derogation and aggression. Additionally, behavioural violence and conflict toward outgroups is a primary coping mechanism of cultural worldview defence (McGregor et al, 1998). Moreover, Greenberg et al, 2001 found increased support for white racism following a MS manipulation experiment suggesting increases in conflict.
According to McGregor et al, 1998, individuals need confidence in their worldviews and are likely to be displeased with those who threaten this sometimes resulting in aggression. Attempts to neutralize threats, has resulted in asserting conflict to destroy or intentionally hurt those who are different (Solomon et al, 1991a). Violence is defined as behaviour with intent to harm however evidence suggests there are other modes of defence in response to MS. Berger and Luckmann, 1967 found worldview threat can be diffused through accommodation. Grouping certain compelling elements about threatening alternative worldview while discarding the threatening components. This is used alongside, the threat of force to terminate conflict using verbal aggression for example in the fear of being overpowered by a conflicting threat (Greenberg et al, 1998).
Undoubtedly situational and dispositional factors affect the worldview defence mechanism of violence and conflict. According to the theory’s main hypothesis of self-esteem, this trait differs between individuals and how they act when faced with threat. High self-esteem protects individuals from mortality concerns; it serves as a gauge of leading a meaningful, valued life in the context of one’s cultural worldview (Wisman and Heflick, 2016). Additionally, Harmon-Jones et al, 1997 demonstrated high self-esteem is associated with less death thought accessibility. However, low self-esteem, reduces life satisfaction and feelings of vitality while increasing negative effects; anxiety which could ultimately lead to conflict, and violence (Bushman et al, 2009). Koc and Kafa, 2019 concluded low self-esteem increases negative thoughts, resulting in difficulties coping with threat, which sequentially results in acts of conflict. Nevertheless, high self-esteem individuals learn to rationalise and face pressures optimistically.
Research reveals both genetic and environmental factors have a profound effect on the development of self-esteem and security. According to Bowlby 1969, inner working models help cope with regulating emotions during child development. The influence of parental relationships coping with anxiety during childhood have similarities with coping with death anxiety. Mortality becomes more apparent with age, parental protectiveness decreases, however death anxiety is eased by attaching their worldview (Harmon-Jones et al, 1977). Examining TMT and the influence of attachment, indicate, attachment style impacts terror of death and coping mechanisms. Koc and Kafa, 2019 identified, securely-attached individuals have lower death anxiety and a higher sense of symbolic immortality resulting in less fear of death. Conversely, anxious-ambivalent attachment types, experience overwhelming fear and fail to develop efficient coping mechanisms. Struggles to avoid sources of threat and repressing negative emotions, alongside the inability to attain a sense of symbolic immortality, increases violence as a means of coping (Mikulincer and Florian, 2000). Consequently, attachment type is an important factor in understanding how violence and conflict relate to TMT.
It is evident violence and conflict is often a response to worldview threat but not always applicable. Underlying reasons could be traced to individual interactions, genetics, attachment type, mental-health and personality. Furthermore, from a TMT perspective religion plays a pivotal role. Religious beliefs are well suited to mitigate death anxiety as it promises literal immortality. MS produces increased faith in afterlife and spiritual beliefs. Rothschild et al, 2009 describes how relating to religious systems in a fundamentalist way tend to justify hostility against out-groups. Despite the need to engage in secular worldview defence when mortality is salient, this tends to result negatively, often in violent postures towards out-group members (Vail et al, 2010). Norenzayan et al 2009, demonstrated that those who are religious, respond contrarily to existential threats with believers responding in a more defensive way. Future empirical research may benefit from differing worldviews on the topic of violence, conflict and how it relates to terror management; those who hold secular or religious views (or agnostic) have