COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. - In both American and Iranian students, thoughts of death increase support for extreme actions ranging from suicide bombings to military raids where civilians are likely victims, according to the first study of the role fear plays in attitudes toward the conflict in the Middle East.
"Mortality Salience, Martyrdom, and Military Might: The Axis of Evil versus the Great Satan" appears this month in the academic journal, "Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin." The article was written by Tom Pyszczynski, professor, Psychology, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Abdolhossein Abdollahi, professor, Psychology, Islamic Azad University, Zarand, Iran, Sheldon Solomon, professor, Psychology, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Jeff Greenberg, professor, Psychology, University of Arizona, Tucson. The publication citation is "Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin" 2006 32: 525-537.
The work is believed to be the first analysis of Iranian student attitudes regarding suicide bombings and similar martyrdom attacks on Americans. The researchers also analyzed the attitudes of young Americans regarding extreme military interventions in the Middle East. The researchers found that although both groups showed little support for such extreme tactics under neutral control conditions, support for such tactics increased among students in both countries who were first asked a pair of simple questions that reminded them of the inevitability of death.
In Iran, 40 undergraduate students at two universities heard statements they were told were written by fellow students. One statement supported and one opposed martyrdom attacks on U.S. targets. Students who were asked questions such as "jot down what you think will happen to you as you physically die" showed a significant increase in favorable views toward the pro-martyrdom essay and increased willingness to consider joining such a cause.
"Thoughts of death led young people in the Middle East who ordinarily preferred a person who took a pacifist stance to switch their allegiance to a person who advocated suicide bombings," the authors said. "These findings provide the first experimental evidence documenting the psychological determinants of the appeal of martyrdom."
To gauge the attitudes of American college students, 127 students at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., were given a booklet that included questions designed to get them to think about their own death, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks or dental pain (an unpleasant anxiety-producing topic unrelated to death). The students were then asked to respond to questions gauging their support for extreme military actions ranging from the use of nuclear and chemical weapons to pre-emptive strikes against countries that may pose a threat to the United States.
Support for extreme measures increased when thoughts of either death or 9/11 were introduced prior to the survey, and this increase was most prominent among political conservatives. The fact that thoughts of 9/11 and death produced identical results suggests that at least part of the reason that reminders of this tragic event increase support for aggressive military policies is that they remind people of their own mortality. Consistent with this idea, previous studies by this group have shown that presenting the numbers "911" or letters "WTC" so rapidly that people are not aware that they have seen them brings death related thoughts closer to consciousness.
The scientific findings demonstrate that thoughts of death increase people's readiness to support extreme violent solutions to global conflicts. These findings are consistent with the authors' Terror Management Theory, which proposes one reason people cling to cultural beliefs and values, and react negatively toward those who are different, is rooted in the protection from core human fears of death and vulnerability from which our cultural worldviews protect us. The same factors that increased Iranians' support for martyrdom attacks against Americans increased Americans' support for extreme military interventions in the Middle East, both of which could cause the loss of thousands of innocent lives, the authors concluded.
"Despite their differences, Americans and Iranians have something in common - thoughts of death increase the willingness of people from both nations to inflict harm on citizens of the other nation," the authors wrote. "The same psychological inclinations that make them want to kill us make us want to kill them - regardless of which specific group is referred to by the words 'us' and 'them.'"
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