Friday, 3 April 2009

Threat of terrorism boosts people's self-esteem

Terrorists seek to subdue and coerce their targets, but ironically they may end up doing just the opposite. That's the implication of new research by Inbal Gurari and colleagues, who've shown that thinking about terrorism enhances people's self-esteem, as measured by an implicit test.

Fifty-two Jewish Irsaelis were told about recent terrorist attacks that had taken place in their country, and they were asked to indicate how many times over the last six months they'd been near to where those attacks occurred. The idea was that this would make them think about how close to danger they'd been. Participants who did this before their self-esteem was measured subsequently showed enhanced self-esteem compared with participants who had their self-esteem measured first, before thinking about the attacks.

The implicit measure of self-esteem was rather ingenious. Participants had to rate their preference for numbers and letters. Those participants displaying an abnormally high preference for letters that corresponded to their initials and to numbers corresponding to their birthday, were judged to have enhanced self-esteem.

The findings are consistent with "terror-management theory", which is the idea that reminders of our mortality leads us to seek comfort by boosting our self-esteem and seeking meaning in the world. The findings also match the way populations have been seen to respond after real-life terrorist attacks. For example, after 9/11 the American flag was flown, religious attendance rocketed and government approval ratings soared.

"The current research suggests that the goals of terrorism - to demoralise a population - may be thwarted in part by our automatic tendency to protect ourselves under mortality salience conditions," the researchers said.

Link to related Digest item: "How thoughts of death turn to joy".
Link to further related Digest item: "Baghdad teenagers show heightened sense of self in the face of war".

ResearchBlogging.orgGurari, I., Strube, M., & Hetts, J. (2009). Death? Be Proud! The Ironic Effects of Terror Salience on Implicit Self-Esteem Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39 (2), 494-507 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00448.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


oh see dear said...

This is interesting research however I rather question the implicit measure of self-esteem. Surely some preference whether conscious or not for one's initials and numbers associated with one's date of birth is normal. This preference may well be heightened when under threat, suggesting to me that not one's self-esteem but one's anxiety about one's mortality is heightened. Such magical thinking related to a desire to protect from danger is common with OCD, from which I suffer. OCD tends to be a normal reaction to threat gone wild so I guess this heightened anxiety and desire to protect oneself might apply to the general population too? so maybe this is less about heightened self-esteem than focussing on one's saftey?

That is not to say that such reminders of our mortality will not lead to efforts to increase self-esteem. I just question the findings of this research as the measure itself seems to need to be less *implicit*!

Anonymous said...

I agree with the above comment in that your measure doesn't neccesarily reflect self-esteam. Increased focus on ones initials, or birthdate, only shows more self awareness whether subconscience or not isn't the objective. The results could be simply affected by ones focus on thier own mortality, and/or potential for harm to themselves. This increase in recognition could arguably be a measure of ones worry over the potential ending on the only life they have. It seems to me that self esteam isn't the factor that is dominently being reflected in the results.

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