TMT and Why You Should Care About It


Cristopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, has been on every major news outlets front page this week. Mr. Wylie revealed to the world that the company he worked for was harvesting data from Facebook to build social media mechanisms to influence the political perspectives of American voters.  It is to date, the largest scandal in big data, showing us how information can be weaponized to sway entire countries political perspectives. As Cristopher Wylie said in his interview with Guardian: The company used a combination of “micro-targetting and new psychological constructs so that they weren’t just targeting you as a voter but you as a personality.”
Our information is already out there. And we know it is being used in insidious ways to exploit us and undermine our values. How do we protect against this? We can’t abolish targeted advertising or collectively abandon social media. Those solutions are unrealistic. However, we can develop an understanding of the psychological constructs that these companies used to influence our behaviors and decisions. And by doing so, better understand the responses these companies want to evoke and why. It will help us see their nefarious political agendas. In this article, one of these psychological constructs will be explored.
In 1973 Ernest Baker published the Pulitzer prize winning book The Denial of Death, in which he argued that “all human action is taken to ignore or avoid the anxiety generated by the inevitability of death”. This book lead to the creation of Terror Management Theory. Which, according to Sydney University’s very own Dr IIan-Nimrod is “quite possibly the coolest sounding theory in Psychology.

What is TMT?

Terror Management Theory (TMT) was first conceived in 1986 by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski. TMT posits that humans experience anxiety and fear engendered by the thought of our own inevitable death.  To mitigate this fear humans subconsciously adapt, creating mediums by which they could create an immortal meaning to their existence. Namely cultural world views, through which we can symbolically exist forever. This is the great promise of art, literature, science, family lineage, religion etc. Cultural world view operates as an immortality formula, reducing our anxieties and fears.  
According to Terror Management Theory cultural world views are coping mechanism to deal with Brad Pitt’s brutally honest observations in Fight Club. Pitt observed that “you are not special. You are not a beautiful or a unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” His sentiment is, at its core, morbid. And also confrontationally true. But who would want to live with such a reality? It is only logical that we would employ devices to protect ourselves from this reality. Hence culture. Culture is our symbolic sense of immortality, it gives us meaning, and it reduces our salience with our own mortality. And by doing so, culture reduces our fear and anxiety of the inevitable.


So why should we care about TMT? 

Now this is the cool part. TMT goes on to theorize that if you prime (Psychology lingo for getting people to think about a certain topic) people with their own mortality it evokes a shift in behavior. This priming is called increasing someone’s Mortality Salience (MS).
Increasing peoples’ mortality salience invigorates their fears and anxieties of death. Being reminded of their own mortality gives them the urge to revalidate the psychological underpinnings of their existence, that normally shelter them from such fears. People’s beliefs and cultural world views are the mediums that reassure them that their existence holds value and safe guards them from their fear of their own death. Because of this, contradictory beliefs and cultural world views undermine that comfort mechanism. Conflicting belief systems become a threat to someone’s sense of value in the world. People, without necessarily knowing why, become threatened by other cultures. So therefore, when someone is primed with their own mortality, there is a significant increase in prejudice and a tectonic shift in behavior and decision making.

Studies in TMT

There have been over 300 studies conducted in social psychology on mortality salience (MS) priming and TMT. To give a better idea of the implications of this theory, read the experiment below:
In 1989, in one of the first TMT based experiments, Sheldon Solomon and crew looked at the effects of priming mortality salience (MS) in judges before they set a bond (amount of money for you to stay out of jail before trial). They had two groups, a control group that did not think about their own death before making this decision and an experiment group whose members were asked to write down what they thought their death would be like and how it made them feel. The results were astounding. If judges were asked to think about their own death before setting the bond amount, the average bond was $455. For the control group it was a mere $50. The judges were 900% more punitive after thinking about their own mortality.  If a highly trained state employee of the law was so severely affected by thoughts of his own death, if those thoughts so drastically changed his nature, how can we guarantee consistency in the court room? What further implications does this hold for our human behavior? For our decision making?
A meta-analysis of TMT theory carried out in 2010 looked at 277 independent research studies on Mortality Salience priming. It concluded that TMT across the board was statistically significant. It was proven through this analysis that different modes of priming all had significant effects. Writing about death, watching media regarding death, thinking about death, even subliminal messaging about death had an effect. Mortality Salience has been shown to have a distinct effect on patterns of prejudice, voting, sexual practices, having children, donating to charities, and driving.

Why is this a big deal?

For an example, let’s look at the era of George Bush Jr. Before 9/11 Bush’s presidency was seen as uneventful and ineffectual, even within his own Republican party. The horrific September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre were about as large a reminder of one’s mortality as you could have. Across the country media outlets relentlessly covered the events, the damage and the governments plot to respond. Bush’s aggression toward the middle east intensified drastically. The American agenda shifted wholly to the “war on terror”. Bush put forward punitive policies toward Iraq and promised to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Bush’s presidential ratings hit a historic high. Subsequently, the theorists behind Terror Management Theory designed a study to look into the paradigm. It was proven that peoples support for Bush’s policies increased significantly if they were primed with death. Even subliminal reminders of 9/11, flashed too quickly to be consciously registered by the participant, increased support. Furthermore, participants in a follow up study supported John Kennedy at a four-to-one margin in a control group prior to the 2004 presidential election. But they favored Bush two-to-one in an experimental group primed with Mortality Salience. Sheldon Solomon postulates that the Bush administration won a second term through running an aggressive campaign characterized by issues such as addressing domestic safety and the war on terror.  


Terror Management Theory has myriad of ways it can be applied to the world of economics, government, policy and more. Its implications, proven true through a plethora of studies, should have a far larger impact on our understanding of a variety of sectors, and on how we think and make decisions within a democratic framework. TMT has the power to influence the way we operate as a society. And knowing that, is the first step to protecting against it. 


Pulp Editors