The New Republic has a fascinating article on the work of Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski, three psychologists who study what they call “worldview defense”. The basic gist is that recognition of our own mortality can subconsciously trigger responses and decisions that adhere to a more intolerant and rigid code than decisions not influenced by our fear of death. To illustrate:
Their first experiment was published in 1989. To test the hypothesis that recognition of mortality evokes “worldview defense”–their term for the range of emotions, from intolerance to religi- osity to a preference for law and order, that they believe thoughts of death can trigger–they assembled 22 Tucson municipal court judges. They told the judges they wanted to test the relationship between personality traits and bail decisions, but, for one group, they inserted in the middle of the personality questionnaire two exercises meant to evoke awareness of their mortality. One asked the judges to “briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you”; the other required them to “jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you physically as you die and once you are physically dead.” They then asked the judges to set bail in the hypothetical case of a prostitute whom the prosecutor claimed was a flight risk. The judges who did the mortality exercises set an average bail of $455. The control group that did not do the exercises set it at an average of $50. The psychologists knew they were onto something.
The article lays this work firmly within the context of the Bush presidency, but the study’s results are interesting regardless of your political bent.