Friday, November 02, 2007

Terror Management, Death and Psychological Immune response

There is a new article in Time that reports on a new study that found that when people are confronted with existential anxiety provoked by thoughts of their imminent death, then instead of becoming sad, they paradoxically become happier, although the effect is subconscious.

Here's one for the annals of counterintuitive findings: When asked to contemplate the occasion of their own demise, people become happier than usual, instead of sadder, according to a new study in the November issue of Psychological Science. Researchers say it's a kind of psychological immune response — faced with thoughts of our own death, our brains automatically cope with the conscious feelings of distress by non consciously seeking out and triggering happy feelings, a mechanism that scientists theorize helps protect us from permanent depression or paralyzing despair.

It might explain the shift toward more positive emotions and thought processes as people age and approach death, and the preternaturally positive outlook that some terminally ill patients seem to muster.

There is a plenty of literature on Terror Management Theory that posits that when confronted with thoughts of our death (and the corresponding terror) we manage that terror by reaffirming our cultural identities and sense of self-esteem. The culture, and self esteem, presumably provides a meaning to our lives and as such are helpful in alleviating the terror of self death. The researcher, DeWall, was experimenting on TMT, when he came across this phenomenon, which has been dubbed as a psychological immune response. In the test, the affect , after mortality salience, was measured by having the students fill words that could either be filled as positive words or as neutral/ negative words. this is a good test of unconscious affect and they found that those exposed to mortality salience condition had unconscious positive affect.

About half of the students were asked to contemplate dying and being dead, and to write short essays describing what they imagined happening to them as they physically died. The other half of the group was asked to think and write about dental pain — decidedly unpleasant, but not quite as threatening. The researchers then set about evaluating the volunteers' emotions: First, the students were given standard psychological questionnaires designed to measure explicit affect and mood. Then they were given assessments of nonconscious mood: in word tests, volunteers were asked to complete fragments such as jo_ or ang_ _ with letters of their choice. Some word stems were intended to prompt either neutral or emotionally positive responses, such as jog or joy; others could be filled in neutrally or negatively — angle versus angry. In a separate word test, students paired a target word such as mouth with its best match: cheek, which is similar in meaning, or smile, which is similar in positive emotional content.

Another important finding the team found was that in depression, the psychological immune system is dysfunctional. thus, depressive people may go in a downward spiral as they contemplate their inevitable death or other social/ personal threats to their self-esteem etc.

In his current research, DeWall is finding that other threats, such as that of social rejection, elicit a similar psychological immune response — except, intriguingly, in depressed people — and he thinks that it's a mechanism that healthy people are probably employing constantly, as a way of fending off a lifetime of serious misfortunes: not just the looming specter of death, but also the fact that you're not going to get that promotion, or that your spouse is cheating on you, or that your kid is on drugs. "It's very difficult to keep people in bad moods, and I think this is one of the reasons why," says DeWall. "Let's say we didn't have this. I think we would have a lot more difficulty coping with failure and threats and our own mortality. It would be difficult for us to find solutions. We would be thinking about how bad we were feeling all the time."

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