Life after death can reduce prejudice…in this life
- Published on 03 October 2011
- Written by Connor Wood
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The story starts with fear of death. Terror of it, in fact. Terror Management Theory, a creation of University of Arizona psychologist Jeff Greenberg, argues that one of people’s most important social motivators is the fear of death. Death is so threatening to people’s egos, Greenberg argues, that many of our social and cultural activities are actually symbolic ways of dealing with it. For example, taking part in national holidays helps us to feel linked to something greater than ourselves, thus providing a form of “symbolic immortality.”
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that when prompted to imagine their own deaths, people typically become subtly more prejudiced against outsiders, such as immigrants and foreigners. Terror Management Theory (TMT) claims that this is because outgroup members threaten one’s own worldview by offering other, often conflicting views, thus making one’s own beliefs and practices seem less credible. The solution, known as “worldview defense,” seems to be to eliminate competing worldviews, or at the very least to dismiss them – and the people who hold them.
In today’s modern Western countries, of course, perhaps no outgroup is as threatening as Islamic terrorists. Following the attacks in New York on September 11th, 2001, and further attacks in London, Barcelona, and elsewhere, Muslims have often been characterized in the Western media as dangerous, Godless, and enemies of all that is good. Many psychologists have suspected that the often highly negative reactions of everyday Europeans and Americans to Muslims stems from the fact that Westerners associate Muslims, perhaps understandably (if unfortunately), with death.
However, some researchers think there may be a solution to this cycle of prejudice, fear, and worldview defense. Past research has suggested that belief in the literal immortality of human consciousness – life after death – may reduce people’s tendencies to defensively protect their worldviews. Psychologists have hypothesized that belief in human immortality reduces the extent to which people find thoughts of death threatening. Thus, there’s less need to protect one’s worldview against the ideas and behaviors of outsiders.
Andreas Kastenmüller (Liverpool John Moores University) and an international set of colleagues from Germany, Austria, and the United States recently tested this hypothesis. In a potential challenge to the "good without God" concept, they found that, indeed, higher belief in literal immortality predicted less prejudice against outgroup members. In a paper published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the investigators describe how a group of German volunteers was prompted to think about death by looking at pictures of terrorist attacks. The researchers then measured whether the subjects expressed more or less hostility against Muslims, depending on whether they had read a paper leading them to believe there was scientific evidence of immortality. As Kastenmüller and colleagues expected, respondents who were led to believe that human consciousness survived death expressed less prejudice against Muslims. In contrast, their counterparts who read a paper arguing that death is final demonstrated relatively higher levels of prejudice.
The respondents in this sample were mostly college students and social scientists, though, so to see whether the effects would repeat themselves in the population at large, the researchers recruited a second sample consisting of Munich police officers, taxi drivers, artists, and representatives from other walks of life. They also switched the target of prejudice from Muslims (often an especially loaded construct for many people in the contemporary West) to immigrants. Again, the results held: subjects who had been primed both to think about death, and to believe that life after death was possible, were less prejudiced against immigrants than those who were primed with images of death but were led to believe that death is simply the end.
These results suggest that there may be some practical utility in one of the most common beliefs associated with religion worldwide – namely, that the human spirit or soul survives death. Believe in literal immortality may reduce the psychological pressure people feel when they contemplate death, thus prompting them to require less reassurance from their cultural worldview or group identity. The net effect is that people who believe in life after death may not need to psychologically protect themselves against outsiders, reducing prejudice and bias.
However, one important element in the two studies conducted by Kastenmüller and colleagues may complicate this picture. Subjects in these studies were led to believe that there was scientific evidence for immortality, rather than being asked to evoke their own religious or traditional beliefs. It’s possible that people who have a high overall belief in immortality (that is, people who believe in immortality because of lifelong religious views, rather than because they've just read a paper claiming immortality exists) may be just as prejudiced as anyone else, since belief in an immortal soul is often bound up in religious traditions and doctrines that can be exclusionary and even hostile to outsiders.
The age-old dilemma, then, still stands: can positive spiritual attitudes be extracted from potentially dangerous ingroup loyalties? It seems that at least some form of belief in an immortal soul has a positive effect on prejudice and bigotry. It remains to be seen how such a belief plays out in the real world, beyond the laboratory’s walls.