Mortality Salience Definition
Mortality salience refers to a psychological state in which a person is consciously thinking about his or her own death.
Mortality Salience Background
Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon coined the term in 1986 to refer to a way to assess terror management theory. The theory posits that the fear of death motivates individuals to sustain faith in a cultural belief system or worldview that makes life seem meaningful and sustain the belief that they are significant and capable of enduring beyond their own death. Greenberg and colleagues proposed that, if the theory is correct, then having people think about their own death—that is, mortality salience— should increase people’s support of their own cultural worldview.
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Research on Mortality Salience
The most common method to induce mortality salience is to ask participants to respond to the following two prompts: “Please describe the emotions the thought of your own death arouses in you” and “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you physically as you die and once you are physically dead.” The first finding was that mortality salience led municipal court judges to recommend a much higher bond in a hypothetical prostitution case than they otherwise would. This was interpreted as support for terror management theory because it showed that mortality salience encouraged the judges to uphold their worldview by punishing someone who violated the morals of their worldview.
Studies have shown that mortality salience leads people to react positively to those who support their worldview and negatively to those who violate or criticize their worldview. Additional research has found that mortality salience affects a wide range of judgments and behaviors that preserve faith in either one’s worldview or one’s self-esteem.
More than 200 studies have made mortality salient in a variety of ways and in comparison with many control conditions. Mortality salience has been induced by exposure to gory accident footage, death anxiety questionnaires, and proximity to funeral homes and cemeteries. Control conditions have reminded participants of neutral topics and aversive topics such as failure, uncertainty, meaninglessness, pain, and social exclusion. These findings have generally supported the specific role of mortality concerns in mortality salience effects.
Studies investigating the cognitive processes involved in mortality salience effects have shown that mortality salience initially leads people toward distracting themselves from thoughts of death. After a delay, thoughts of death return to the fringes of consciousness, at which time the worldview and self-esteem bolstering effects of mortality salience occur. Indeed, similar effects have been shown in response to exposure to brief subliminal flashes of death-related words on a computer screen; these subliminal primes bring death thoughts to the fringes of consciousness without making mortality salient.
Mortality Salience Implications
In supporting terror management theory, mortality salience research demonstrates that unconscious concerns about one’s own death motivate a wide range of judgments and behaviors to bolster the individual’s faith in his or her worldview and self-worth. This work thereby suggests that mortality concerns contribute to nationalism, prejudice, and intergroup aggression, as well as prosocial behavior and cultural achievements.
- Becker, E. (1974). The denial of death. New York: Free Press.
- Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., & Pyszczynski, T. (1997). Terror management theory and research: Empirical assessments and conceptual refinements. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 29, pp. 61-139). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (1991). A terror management theory of social behavior: On the psychological functions of self-esteem and cultural worldviews. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 24, pp. 93-159). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.