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Terror Management Theory

I am most grateful to Patrick Shen and Greg Bennick, who produced Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality. I never knew them before that trip to Sun Coast, and still have not physically met them, though I hope to rectify that soon. Their movie provided both a direction for my Words Matter project, as well as a pointer toward the leaders of the research into the thought of Ernest Becker, much of which is now described, in abbreviated form, as Terror Management Theory (”TMT”).

Professor of Psychology Sheldon Solomon, at Skidmore College, is one of the principal investigators of this research. I interviewed Sheldon, and his colleague, Jeffrey Greenberg, Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona, Tucson, shortly after seeing the documentary for the first time. Here’s how Sheldon defined TMT in our interview:


Terror management theory was originally derived from the ideas of Ernest Becker, who, in the 1970’s, wrote a series of books in which he claimed that the uniquely human awareness of death has a great deal to do with just about everything that human beings do day to day. His argument is that people are the only creatures that are smart enough to recognize that we’re here, and if you know that you’re here, you also realize that you won’t always be around. On top of that, we realize that we will die someday, and that our deaths can occur at any time, for reasons that we could never anticipate or control. We also recognize that we’re animals and that, whether we like it or not, we’re no more significant than lizards or potatoes.

According to Becker, all these realizations would give rise to potentially debilitating terror, but for the fact that human beings, rather cleverly, although not necessarily consciously, solved this existential dilemma by the creation and maintenance of what anthropologists today call “culture.” Becker’s point was that human beings construct cultural Worldviews, beliefs that we share with other people in our groups, that essentially give us a sense that we are individuals of value in a world of meaning. When we have those beliefs, when we confidently subscribe to a belief that we have meaning and value, that in turn gives us a sense that we can live forever, either literally in the context of different religions, that provide the hope for an afterlife, or symbolically, just the idea that tangible representations of our culture will remain nevertheless.


“You’re calling it ‘Terror Management Theory.’ Were you calling it that before 9/11?”


“Yes, absolutely.”

Sheldon went on to say that, because our culture protects our psyches from the fear of death, if someone challenges our worldview or culture, then we often feel the need to defend that worldview in a variety of ways. If we are desperate enough, we may even be willing to kill others, who do not subscribe to our worldview, which explains quite elegantly most of the wars in the history of man. Sheldon asserts that approximately 175 million people were killed in the Twentieth Century alone, because of one group trying to change another group’s worldview by means of violence.

When you think about it, applied to the current tribulations of our fragile planet, we can see that much of what is happening regarding life in the Middle East, and with terrorism, is directly related to these ideas.

While I do not relish being compared to a lizard or potato, I do have to ruefully admit that my death is inevitable, and that, at the most base level, I am a stomach, fitted with teeth, who leaves great quantities of waste in the World, while consuming only other living things, in their herds, flocks, schools, gardens and orchards. I speak only for myself! All of this notwithstanding, I do feel a strong attachment to a supreme being, who we call God and Muslims call Allah, so I found Sheldon’s comment rather troubling, and likely unacceptable and disparaging toward holy figures in many parts of the World.

Sheldon corrected me immediately. He said that Becker, himself, was a very religious man, and that psychology only drops one off at the doorstep of religion.

I infer from Sheldon’s comment that, as all of God’s children know, there are some points that cannot now, nor ever will be, explained by science. It is at this point that religion provides us with faith about the absolutes. But just as religions are modalities for great good, they can also be modalities for great evil. All religions have been on both sides of this equation, from time to time. It seems to me that it is in the making of that distinction, on that holy/unholy teeter totter, where the future of humanity hangs in the balance.

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Psychology of Suicide Bombing

Flight from Death profoundly influenced the direction of the Words Matter project. One of the critical points to be considered is, “What in human nature allows and/or causes a person to become a suicide bomber?” Is it some sort of mind control, by a talented handler, or is there something in religion, that is the driving force? The truth seems to be that the tendency, to kill oneself for one’s beliefs, is hard wired into the human psyche.

Watching the DVD, that September morning, as Debbi had insisted, immediately canalized my thinking, through the elegance and simplicity of its argument. The basic idea is that in psychological terms, each of us wants to make a difference during our lifetime. We all want to be a “hero” in some large or small way. This heroism can be manifested through raising children, leaving works of art or poetry, by philanthropy, or by leaving large piles of money to our heirs. There is no limit to the number of possibilities. Knowing that we will die is terrifying to all of us, but it is hard wired in the human being that, if we know that our lives counted in the “great ledger book” of the species, we can somehow face our death with more equanimity. Though dying is never easy. As W.C. Fields had engraved on his tombstone, “I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

Since Sheldon Solomon is the hero of this chapter, at least, the fact that I have written about him here could be seen as one plus mark on the great ledger book of humanity. His colleagues, Jeffrey Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski were no less important to the research, because this team of researchers has held itself together, through thick and thin, for decades, adding depth to the insights of Ernest Becker (Denial of Death and Escape from Evil) through over 300 field studies in social psychology. Meanwhile, Dr. Neil Elgee has nurtured Becker’s memory and vision through The Ernest Becker Foundation.

When you watch the DVD, you will recognize Sheldon as that articulate academic in the colorful tie died T-shirt. His voice and demeanor are so mesmerizing that one is immediately drawn into his topic.

Greg Bennick and Patrick Shen were kind enough to put subtitles in the documentary, identifying who the speakers were. From this, I learned that Sheldon was at Skidmore College, only a 2.5 hour drive from my ancestral home, which I visit regularly. Since it was apparent that Terror Management Theory (“TMT”) was such a crucial element of my project, I immediately wanted to speak with one of the highlighted experts in the DVD. Sheldon was the closest, so I decided to begin with him.

Our first interview was a disaster! Sheldon was his naturally gracious and articulate self, giving me a 2-hour private lesson in TMT, which has proven invaluable throughout the project. But, since it was my first major interview, there were some issues. It has come as a surprise to me that major colleges and universities do not seem to have adequate venues for conducting private interviews, which have nothing to do with their mainstream business of educating their students. Skidmore is no exception, so we set up the cameras in Sheldon’s faculty office. Like so many faculty offices, and my office is no exception, Sheldon’s, after decades of producing intellectual literature, can only be described as a “black hole.” Indeed, that is the affectionate and official name Debbi has assigned to my sanctum sanctorum, so I know the genre. (This book is being written on my dining room table). Once we cleared a few square inches of debris, so that we could set up my tripods, we began, with me not realizing that the top of an open cardboard box, at the level of my head, appeared to be sticking in my ear throughout the entire interview. Worse was the sound. My cheap $100 wireless microphones interacted with the fluorescent lighting to produce a steady hum throughout the tapes, which have proven to be unusable. Fortunately, Sheldon gave me the benefit of the doubt, and agreed to do everything all over again a month later. As you can see, the venue we could find for our non-Skidmore activity was still lacking in polished pundit finesse, but, by that point, I was happy to take what I could get. For anyone reading this and considering becoming a maker of documentary films of any type, I recommend you use Sennheiser’s wireless microphones, at about $500 each. They allow you to electronically determine whether you have radio frequency interference before you begin. But I digress!

The big issue to be addressed was, “How can it be that Al Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations, find it so easy to recruit suicide bombers, at least from a TMT point of view?” The answer seems to be that most of the people who become suicide bombers have led hopeless and frustrating lives. In the case of the toxic demographic, which I mentioned in the Introduction, many young men in the Muslim World are extremely repressed. This has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam, per se, but rather with the effectiveness of their leaders in dealing with the modern World, in the context of unholy political truces between fundamentalist Muslim clerics and secular leaders. This is not so different from the unholy alliance between the current Administration, and fundamentalist Christian leaders in the United States, who claim to control the keys to the White House. Margaret Atwood described the consequences of such alliances, in her chilling novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, in which healthy young women become baby factories for privileged older men while young men are sent off to war.

In many parts of the Muslim World, repressive regimes, with little understanding of economics, in the modern sense, have forced their populations into poverty with their regressive policies. Young men, filled with testosterone, have no access of any kind of release for their energy, except the mosque, and what few video games and boring television programs they are allowed. There are few local sports teams, their education is lacking, which means that they do not have the skills to perform the jobs their governments inadvertently give to foreigners, and there are no women, with whom they are allowed to pass some time, regardless of how benign the activity. As a result, these young men are not adapted to reasonable and productive lives in society. Their lives, and the chance to “make a difference,” leaving their contributions on great ledger of mankind, are dead ends.

Given this hopeless scenario for millions of ignorant young men, and given that much of the paltry social life they are permitted is at the mosque, it is little wonder that their psyche’s tell them that, if they cannot make a difference in this life, then at least they can die as a hero, and count on Allah’s ledger book. Furthermore, they have been told with great authority, by their elders (who have never tried it), that heaven is beautiful, and filled with the young virgins they cannot meet in this life. There are stories, too, that some misdirected individuals and governments pay thousands of dollars for a suicide bomber, so it is not surprising that these misguided young people, men and women alike, are attracted to the idea of, at least, being a family hero by leaving a financial legacy behind.

The problem of terrorism and suicide bombings, therefore, boils down to hopelessness. To the extent we stand by and condone the policies of governments, which keep their populations in ignorance and poverty, we too are to blame for the results. In my view, Americans need to understand that it is not alright, as long as poverty and ignorance are far from our shores. Those factors drive terrorism, which is the greatest threat to our way of life. When everyone can live in dignity, and provide for their children in a reasonable manner, the threat of terrorism will subside. Until then, we are destined to live in fear. It does not take much to destroy our prosperity. One hundred dollars worth of box cutters cost our society $1 trillion, according to some estimates. We need to find ways to spread our prosperity around the World, and will include confronting some of our allies about the deficiencies of their domestic policies. In my view, if we are going to “stay the course” until “final victory,” that is what it will take.

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My business trip to the west coast gave me occasion to interview two additional intellectuals on the topics of terror and intercultural relations. These were Dr. Philip R. Harris, who, as co-author of Managing Cultural Differences, now in its 8th edition, has provided the gold standard in facing our differences globally, for over 40 years; and Dr. Jeffrey Greenberg, Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona, Tucson, who co-authored In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, with Sheldon Solomon and Thomas Pyszczynski.

I am fortunate to have known Phil Harris for over 4 decades, even before he began writing Managing Cultural Differences. When I first met him in Kamakura, Japan, in 1962, he was already a respected author and academic, but he was like a deer in the headlights when it came to intercultural issues. For almost 25 years, he had been encapsulated in the Franciscan Order as an educator. But it was my mother, Jeanne, who introduced him to the concept of culture, by giving him the book by anthropologist Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. It was a turning point in his life and lead to his many writings on the concept of culture and its impact on human behavior. While a Fulbright professor in India, he traveled around the world, suffering in the process both “culture and re-entry shock.”

After lecturing at Sophia University in Japan, Phil spent three weeks with my family, and was introduced to our pseudo Japanese lifestyle of sleeping on the floor, with only a single space heater to warm an entire house, entirely devoid of weather stripping, in the middle of December. My mother was teaching English to Japanese businessmen in Tokyo, while my father served with the U.S. Navy, in Yokosuka. Phil was fascinated with the kaleidoscope texture of our lives, which included dealing with Japanese citizens in their own communities, only 17 years after World War II. All of us loved Japan, and my mother, who relished the entire experience, can be credited with insisting that we lived in a totally Japanese community.

When I boil it down now, in the fullness of time, I can say that what we all learned, in 1962, is that different cultures must first learn to respect one another. Only then can we ever hope to understand one another, and find peaceful and reasonable ways to live together. The differences among us are truly inconsequential, when compared to the similarities.

Subsequently, this cosmopolitan author and educator would marry my aunt, Dr. Dorothy Lipp, and together they managed dual careers in universities and international consulting. I interviewed him in October 2005 for my Words Matter™ television project. By the time of our interview, Phil had come a long way in his thinking. He left the Franciscans, in 1963, and had long since given up the fiction of the infallibility of the Catholic Church. His message was one of tolerance for all religions. He urged that Muslim Americans stand up for their rights as Americans, and help the rest of us understand the differences between their faith and the politics of their former countries, which all of them have left behind to find a better life, just as their predecessors of other faiths and nationalities have always done. Here are some of the key observations he made in that interview:

“Our problem is that a lot of Americans, who haven’t had the advantages of international education and travel, are rather myopic in their views of other people, who are different from them.”
“It amazes me how our own political leadership, at times, is so blind to the historical and cultural implications of some of the things we do in the Middle East, and especially in Iraq.”
“Once you begin to shift the mindset, then you get the changes in attitude and behavior.”

When I boil it down now, in the fullness of time, I can say that what we all learned, in 1962, is that different cultures must first learn to respect one another. Only then can we ever hope to understand one another, and find peaceful and reasonable ways to live together. The differences among us are truly inconsequential, when compared to the similarities.

Jeff Greenberg is the gentleman in the “Mad” hat, in Flight from Death. He has been instrumental in much of the field research, which has led to Terror Management Theory. Much of this research has been done with a concept called “reminders of death.” Normally, the subjects are divided into two groups. One group is subtly “reminded of death,” in some manner, while the other group is not. Then the subjects are asked to perform a task. Most often, the subjects with the “reminders of death” respond more aggressively, with a strong tendency to withdraw into the teachings of their cultural groups, however they may be described (religion, nationality, ethnicity, tribe, etc.).

Two examples, described in Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality, are as follows:

1. Municipal Court Judges in Tucson were asked to complete a questionnaire. Half of the group received questions with “reminders of death,” while half did not. They were then given a “charge sheet” for a defendant accused of solicitation, and asked to set the bail. The average bail set by the judges, who did not receive the “reminders of death,” was $50. The average bail of those reminded of their death was $450.

2. Tabasco sauce is sometimes used by parents to punish their children. This is a form of child abuse. Participants were given a shot glass and a bottle of Tabasco sauce, and asked to put sufficient sauce into the glass to provide a sufficient punishment for someone (not a child, in this case, and the punishment was not actually inflicted on anyone). The participants, who did not receive “reminders of death,” put one or two drops into the glass, while those with the “reminders of death” put in much more, with some of them filling the glass. Seeing this tendency, in the experiment, which appears on the DVD, is sobering.

The researchers have pointed out that at the time of 9/11, a monumental “reminder of death” for all of us, American flags flew off the shelves of every merchant. Everyone wanted to own more symbols of our culture. I recall that, a few days after the event, an airline cabin attendant sat down beside me and literally grabbed my arm, as if for comfort, because I was wearing an American flag tie.

Our President’s re-election team probably used this research, to their advantage, during the 2004 election. All of us remember that many of the President’s campaign advertisements contained images of 9/11, “reminders of death” for this purpose. The objective was to manipulate voter psyches back toward this “defend the culture” point of view. Unfortunately, getting everyone whipped up in that way, does not serve our long term interests, though it got the Administration elected again, which was their objective.

Now we are faced with the task of getting all of our citizens, and everyone else in the World, to recall that the key to the survival of the human species is, very simply, respect.

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