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  • Someday, I will die.

  • But should I?

  • If I was offered a longer life,

  • I would take that in a second.

  • But how long is too long?

  • Is death something I should deny forever,

  • or is death and the role it plays in the universe

  • something I am better off accepting?

  • I want to start by looking at a particular way

  • death affects how we live and treat one another.

  • Terror Management Theory

  • proposes that people like you and me

  • manage the terror of death's inevitability

  • by embracing cultural values.

  • That the more aware a person is of their own mortality,

  • the more vehemently they will enforce

  • their particular views of the world onto others.

  • Created by social psychologists Sheldon Solomon,

  • Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski,

  • Terror Management Theory, or TMT,

  • suggests that, often, we are afraid of change

  • because we're afraid of death.

  • Each one of us has a worldview,

  • a set of beliefs, customs and norms

  • we identify with that can live on

  • after our physical bodies die.

  • TMT suggest that rises in nationalism and prejudice

  • are correlated with rises in the salience of mortality.

  • That is, how present the inevitability of death is

  • in people's minds.

  • Now this role that death plays fascinates me,

  • and two of TMT's originators, Jeff and Sheldon,

  • have agreed to work with me on a pilot study

  • of Terror Management Theory

  • and real-life reminders of death.

  • What's your hypothesis today?

  • Well, I think we're going to hope for the participants

  • who are reminded of their mortality

  • to be more punitive in their assessments.

  • See what happens.

  • For our study,

  • we created a fake research center,

  • staffed by actors,

  • and invited participants to be a part

  • of what they were told was a focus group

  • about the criminal justice system.

  • During the actual study, each group will hear a list

  • of several different crimes that have been committed,

  • and will then be asked to propose a punishment

  • for each offender with a severity level

  • ranging from 1 to 7, with 1 being the most lenient

  • and 7 being the most severe.

  • The control group will simply enter the survey room

  • and be asked to answer the questions.

  • The experimental group, however,

  • will first be exposed

  • to reminders of their own mortality

  • with strategically placed posters in the lobby.

  • Also, the questionnaires they fill out

  • will include questions about their own death.

  • Decades of TMT research have shown that when presented

  • with violations of common worldviews,

  • those who are more aware of their own deaths

  • will recommend bigger punishments

  • for the crimes presented.

  • But will our real life reminders of death,

  • not just the survey questions usually used,

  • make a difference?

  • Well, first, let's look at the control participants.

  • [woman] Well, thank you so much for being here.

  • Now, I cannot emphasize this enough.

  • There are no right or wrong answers.

  • This is just about your gut-level reactions.

  • All right, let's begin.

  • After raising millions of dollars in grant money

  • to fund education for needy children,

  • a fundraising manager unhappy with this life

  • fled with all the money

  • and was arrested months later in Tasmania,

  • where he was living under a different name.

  • So, 1, least punishment: three months in prison;

  • 7 is most severe: ten years in prison.

  • Please answer now.

  • This is one that I think does have worldviews on both sides.

  • [Michael] That is a lot of 7s.

  • If our control group is already maxing out like that,

  • well, then our scale has no room in that direction

  • to show any effect of mortality salience.

  • Discovering issues like this, learning how to better isolate

  • mortality salience's effect,

  • is exactly what a pilot test is for.

  • Hey, personal differences, huh?

  • [woman] An imposter with no medical training

  • posed as a surgeon and bungled a minor operation

  • to remove a child's tonsils.

  • The patient recovered fully after additional treatment.

  • 1 is six months on probation, 7 is ten years in prison.

  • [Sheldon] Okay.

  • If you are taking on the persona of a doctor,

  • we would expect good behavior.

  • [woman] The surgeon botched the operation

  • and was found to be under the influence of narcotics,

  • causing her to have permanent hoarseness

  • and ruining her career.

  • A 16-year-old girl who had just received her license

  • drove through a red light,

  • hitting another car that was being driven

  • by a talented pianist.

  • A couple was taking their two children to the playground

  • when they saw a woman sunbathing nude.

  • Look at that. There could be a gender gap.

  • We're also learning a lot about the worldviews people have.

  • [Jeff] Yeah, absolutely.

  • An anti-government protester was arrested

  • for spray-painting profanities at the Lincoln Memorial

  • in Washington, D.C.

  • 1: 40 hours...

  • Wow, she went 1 right away.

  • She's not a fan of authority and rules.

  • [Sheldon] Yeah.

  • Okay, thank you so much for your time.

  • We really appreciate it.

  • All right, so here's the results

  • in a mathematical analysis.

  • These are averages per question.

  • These are the averages and medians per participant.

  • [Jeff] The 4s are great. The 3's great.

  • But this is ground for optimism, at least.

  • [Michael] 7 was the max sentencing value,

  • and our control group gave an average of 4.5.

  • I'm really happy with that as a control group.

  • Absolutely.

  • Now, our experimental groups.

  • Remember, they will be seeing posters that remind them

  • of their own mortality,

  • and will be asked different questions

  • in their questionnaire.

  • For example...

  • The point is to prime their mortality salience.

  • Let's see if this group is more punitive

  • towards worldview violations.

  • After raising millions of dollars

  • to fund education for needy children,

  • a fundraising manager fled with all the money

  • and was arrested months later in Tasmania.

  • 1: three months in prison;

  • 7: ten years in prison.

  • Please answer now.

  • Okay, he's thinking about it.

  • Please hold up your answers.

  • All right. Thank you so much.

  • Ah, okay.

  • [woman] An imposter with no medical training

  • posed as a surgeon and bungled a minor operation

  • to remove a child's tonsils.

  • 1: six months on probation;

  • 7: ten years in prison.

  • -They are thinking a lot more. -Yeah.

  • -[Sheldon] Wow. -[Michael] A 10.

  • I'm pretty sure she knows that 7 is the highest.

  • [Jeff] We'll call it a 7.

  • It's funny to see when people feel bold enough,

  • even though I'm breaking the bounds

  • and the rules of the task.

  • An anti-government protester was arrested

  • for spray-painting profanities at the Lincoln Memorial

  • in Washington, D.C.

  • [Sheldon] I really do appreciate the way

  • they clearly seem to be taking a bit more time

  • -to deliberate. -Yeah.

  • Okay, they can put the papers down,

  • and tell them that we will be in shortly.

  • [woman] Okay, thank you so much.

  • We've finished with this part of the study.

  • So if you won't mind hanging out for a moment,

  • and our researchers will be in here in a moment

  • to ask you a couple questions.

  • [Michael] Let's find out if the reminders of mortality

  • we showed our experimental group were salient enough.

  • [Jeff] Let me ask you about one thing.

  • Out in the waiting room,

  • did you all notice the posters at all?

  • [woman] Yes, they are all death-related.

  • Okay. All right.

  • Yeah.

  • -That's right. -[all laugh]

  • So we are looking into

  • something that's called Terror Management Theory.

  • And it's the idea that your own awareness of your mortality

  • can affect the behaviors that you exhibit.

  • That we all manage the terror that we feel

  • knowing that we are mortal, by behaving in certain ways,

  • especially in ways that reinforce our own worldviews.

  • Because we could kind of live on through the societies

  • and cultures and identities that we have today.

  • [Jeff] Did any of you feel like you were still thinking

  • a little bit about death when you came in here?

  • I was definitely going after people who transgressed

  • against my worldview, to use your term.

  • -Yes, I noticed that. -I was definitely doing that.

  • [Michael] So this was incredibly helpful.

  • -[Jeff] Yeah. -[Michael] Thank you very much.

  • [Jeff] Thanks so much. I appreciate.

  • [Michael] It looks like our experimental stimuli were successful.

  • They were salient, but didn't cause the participants

  • to think they were related to the study.

  • The control participants averaged about 4.5.

  • The experimental participants were close to 4.7,

  • if we round up.

  • So there's a slight tendency for the experimental people

  • to be leaning in the direction that we predicted.

  • But we're talking about

  • relatively inconsequential differences.

  • That's right. It just makes me hungry to run more people.

  • And with the number that we had,

  • that's statistically insignificant.

  • Do you think that we did see any effects

  • of mortality salience today?

  • [Jeff] I feel like the mortality salient groups

  • tended to think a little longer before responding.

  • Yeah, me too.

  • [Jeff] And they seemed more thoughtful.

  • -They were really-- -They put more effort into it,

  • into trying to do the right thing.

  • The difference was dramatic enough that we picked up on it.

  • -Absolutely. -Although our stimuli

  • might need to go through more passes and more vetting,

  • we did find an interesting difference

  • in the time it took

  • for our groups to respond.

  • Our control group took an average

  • of 4 minutes and 46 seconds to decide on their punishments,

  • but our experimental group

  • took an average of 7 minutes, 18 seconds.

  • In a sense, that really is the prediction.

  • The right thing by their own worldview,

  • but by the same token, when we think about death,

  • we want to do what's right.

  • And if we're acting like jurors,

  • we want to make the right decisions.

  • As we very much learned today,

  • the goal isn't to prove one thing one way or the other.

  • It's just to reduce uncertainty...

  • -That's correct. -...in the most careful way.

  • Absolutely. To know a little bit more today than yesterday.

  • [Jeff] Yeah.

  • [Michael] Our pilot test shows

  • that there's still a lot to discover

  • about terror management

  • and many promising ways to do it.

  • I'm particularly intrigued by our observation