Using Terror Management Theories to Demonstrate How Enhancing Awareness Can Serve as a Means to Conflict Resolution

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Terror Management Theory Paper
Allon Khakshouri
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April, 2012

Using Terror Management Theories to demonstrate how enhancing Awareness can serve as a means to Conflict Resolution

“Fear and Pain should be treated as signals not to close our eyes but to open them wider”

It is a known fact that psychological factors play a key role in conflicts. While solutions seem so obvious, warring parties so often seem unable to end the cycle of violence, especially when the conflict is perceived as an existential threat. Drawing on existential and anthropological theories ( Becker, 1969), it can be argued that in order to overcome the fear of death, parties fall back to their ideological conflict supporting beliefs and general world views, which they will defend vigorously. It is such rigid structures of their belief systems that make conflict resolution so difficult, and which are triggered whenever the threat of death seems to linger within the minds of warring parties. The Terror Management Theory is based on the idea that in order to overcome fear of death, people need to validate their cultural world views and enhance their self esteem by living according to known and proclaimed righteous values. Thereby, the sudden awareness of death triggers conditioned and static defense mechanisms that makes conflict resolution so difficult. It is my argument here that cultural world views and a higher sense of self esteem could in fact promote peaceful resolutions, provided they would encourage proactive and responsive thinking, rather than instinctive reactions. This is why it is so important for us to foster a culture of greater awareness amongst future generations, so they will be able to tackle conflicts and challenges consciously, rather than as a result of conditioned coping mechanisms.

Terror Management Theory

Terror management theory argues that the tension between animalistic desire to live forever and the human awareness of the inevitability of death creates stress and anxiety, which needs to be managed (Greenberg et al., 1997). According to this theory, humans regulate their existential fears by two defensive mechanisms: Firstly, through cognitive and behavioral efforts that aims at validating one’s own cultural world view, giving life with meaning and offering some form of symbolic immortality by being part of a structure that is greater than their individual life (Greenberg et al., 1997). Secondly, through cognitive and behavioral efforts aimed at enhancing a sense of self-esteem by living up to the values and expectations prescribed by this culture.

Consequently, according to TMT, embracing a cultural world view promotes higher self-esteem, and is connected with lower levels of defensive reactions resulting from death-thought. However, challenges to these culturally constructed belief systems will be perceived as existential threats and thus justify biases against out-groups and disbelievers. Studies with this regard have shown that brief reminders of death lead people to view their group more favorably in contrast to other groups. For example, mortality salience resulted in Christian participants to derogate a Jewish person (Greenberg et al. 1990), white Americans to sympathize with a white racist (Greenberg et al., 2001), and even 11 year old Israeli children to react negatively towards a Russian immigrant and more positively towards a native Israeli (Florian and Mikilincer, 1998). The logic of TMT is that thoughts of death lead people to gravitate towards the kind of behavior that is most associated to the subjective feelings of security and safety (Pyszczynski, 2006).

Thoughts of death also increase people’s readiness to support extreme violence in conflicts and cause harm on the citizens of an enemy (Pyszezynski, 2006). For example, studies showed that the same psychological force fuelled hostilities with both Iranians and Americans. Death primes...
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