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Terror Management Theory (Podcast #41 Just a Minute with Dr Kumari)


Terror Management Theory is one of Psychology's "Grand Theories", explaining how existential terror influences decision making and choices. This is my contribution to an observation that we are moving into a time of more right leaning politics. Change can be hard to manage and mean that dysregulated nervous systems struggle more. Download five strategies to help soothe a nervous system:

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Show Notes:

 Hi everyone, it's Dr. Kumari Valentine, Clinical Psychologist. Thank you so much for joining me on my podcast. It's been ages since I recorded a podcast in part because of school holidays, which I just find such a... curveball in terms of time and how much time it takes up, as well as last terms huge rush of bugs and illnesses. I think out of the 10 weeks of the last school term, we only had one week where either, no one had a bug or the toddler's sleep wasn't disrupted or somebody wasn't throwing up or whatever. So I am really looking forward to a term with fewer bugs. I'd like to say no bugs, but with four kids, there's always something about.

So today I have a rather different topic to talk about and it is motivated by the recent elections in New Zealand. I don't want to make it a politicalpodcast. It's not my intention to start arguments about politics or what, what governments have done or have not done, but I thought I would offer. a psychological perspective on what we are seeing in New Zealand, and as I understand, throughout the world. That is a right leaning government here in New Zealand; rhat's what it's looking like. And also, as I understand, there's been a move to conservatism throughout the world. Now, I am really not the most up to date with politics throughout the world. So if you know something different, let me know. But this is, this is what I understand. Here’s my contribution to this conversation even if it may seem very unusual (from your friendly neighbourhood psychologist!).

What I want to talk about is terror management theory. It is one of Psychology's grand theories. One of those theories that tries to explain something really profound, something deep. I actually learned about it as a second year psychology student in my social psychology class. Shout out to Dr. Jackie Hunter, who was an amazing lecturer and who kept us very entertained and very interested in the topics he would teach about in social psychology.

This piece of teaching has always stayed with me, and even though it hasn't come up in my clinical psychology training, I find myself referring to this frequently. Okay, so, here's, here's what terror management theory is. All organisms fear annihilation and death: cats, rats, birds, and so on. According to terror management theory, humans are unique. You might argue that, but anyway, humans are unique in that they are conscious of their mortality and have the verbal skills to articulate this. Okay. So from the little I know, there are discussions about what consciousness means and what level of consciousness non humans have, but this is what the theory argues.

Okay. So, so all organisms are fearful of their own death and humans try to buffer against this fear of death in a number of ways, this existential dread. Term management theory, by the way, was developed by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski Now, until this point, I have never attempted to say his name because it’s consonants one after the other. P SY Z C Z Y N S K I. But thanks to my Polish husband, I thought I might. As soon as I saw that slew of consonants with the ration of vowels. I thought this must be Polish. So apologies, Polish listeners, if I've just butchered Pyszczyński. That's my take on it. And like I say, I've never attempted to say it out loud before. Pszcyzynski and colleagues suggested that what people do in order to try and buffer against the fear of death is that they construct a cultural worldview, specific worldview with belief systems, and this allows them to derive self esteem. So self esteem is one way that people develop security in the face of mortality.

And the way you can derive self esteem is amongst other things by adhering to a specific worldview. Okay, so let's talk about three core concepts in terror management theory. First, mortality salience. This is about the awareness of one's own mortality. You might not always be consciously aware of it, but certain things can trigger that awareness of mortality. So in the laboratory, if you're working in psychological science we increase the salience, the, the awareness, even if it's at a a very low level by showing people things like pictures of, of grave stones or graveyards. That is enough to see some very powerful effects in the laboratory.

I am going to argue that in recent years, the pandemic, I know that's such an unpopular topic at the moment. We want to make as if it didn't happen, but I suggest that the pandemic, the experience of COVID 19 has made our mortality very evident to us individually and at a global level. So, these stimuli such as seeing a death, hearing about a death, experiencing suffering, thinking about our own life, the own limits of our life, and even experiencing political changes make our mortality very salient. Okay, second concept, cultural worldviews; these are shared beliefs, norms, values within a society. So people adopt these worldviews in order to have meaning and purpose. What we know is that when people become more aware of their mortality, they hold stronger to the cultural worldview and to a more conservative worldview. The more black and white it is, the more secure it is, the more people get a sense of, right, this is, this is how things make sense. This is how I will survive. And people are not necessarily doing that consciously. This is about psychological forces within. Okay, third concept, self esteem. Maintaining and boosting self esteem is a really fundamental part of terror management theory. People seek to feel valued, feel important. It provides a sense of psychological security. And under conditions where people are more aware of their death, they In Group and Out Group more. In Grouping is when we value and feel part of an in group and we stick with our in group, we endorse our in group, and favour our group. Out Grouping is when we exclude others who don't hold that viewpoint and/or show bias towards those who we think do not belong to our group. And our behaviors towards those others can be very extreme. So in a laboratory setting, when you when you trigger mortality, when you trigger the awareness of death, what people do are things like they will allocate more resources to the group they're part of, even if this group is rather arbitrary and simply created by the by the researcher and they will allocate fewer resources or be punitive towards members of the out group. Okay. So, so I, I hope that's provoking some thinking and I guess I'm also highlighting my hope that as we come into a new chapter of our country, that we. We see ourselves as part of, of a group working together and that we are inclusive in that, in that approach.

So if we apply the principles of terror management to a real world scenario it can be useful and we need to remember that a change can be unsettling as it can challenge people's existing beliefs and values. A conservative government may have policies, might have ideologies that differ significantly and people who identified strongly with the previous worldview, such as myself, incidentally, may experience fear and anxiety when these beliefs are challenged. Two, the fear of death in the context of this kind of change can be because of uncertainty. People try to minimize uncertainty. So people will react, this is what terror management suggests, by reinforcing their existing worldviews or engaging in behaviors that align with these beliefs. For example, people may become more politically active or seek like minded communities or reassurance.

So here are some suggestions from a clinical psychologist about navigating these uncertain times. One: dialogue. We have open dialogue expressing our anxieties, fears, and uncertainty, and that there are safe spaces for these. Two, I want to make a point about attachment. Many of you know that this is one of my interests. Our attachment patterns, the patterns we developed from when we were very young, because of the behavior of our carers towards us, whether they were warm, sensitive, protective, allowing us to both safely explore, as well as creating a safe haven, those develop A template for how we see ourselves and the world. Because of the behavior of our carers, we develop a sense of ourselves as good, of the world is trustworthy or not, and we develop a sense of safety (or not). And so if you don't have a secure attachment system, change can be experienced as. more disruptive as more anxiety provoking. And what we might seek are secure relationships and community for that stability and emotional security.

Okay. And it might be that we need to be careful to not In Group and Out Group or to consider ourselves part of a bigger group to see connections to see our ways in which we are the same* rather than seeing those differences. So I think terror management theory gives us really profound understanding into how human beings cope with life and that there's this fear of death constantly present.

The last few years that we have dealt with have been very huge. The impact of COVID is still present in our communities. There are many areas like hospitality, which are still trying to recover, which have been profoundly affected. Something I really liked was during our lockdown in New Zealand, that we really made an effort to think about each other, to support local industries, to support local sellers. And I think that is my, my plea and my request that we, we have that same mentality of seeing ourselves As as a country working together. Because ultimately, we want the same things, right? And we are careful about how we In Group and Out Group.

Okay, so that did end up being more politically charged than I had intended. I hope that it makes sense in the context of what I usually talk about, which is about how the experiences that we have had. In childhood, for example, shape how we are as human beings, as I was writing and recording this, I was thinking about how those templates affect how we deal with changes. And how we deal with unsettling changes and how we try to, to get meaning. Some of us may not even be aware that those templates are at play. The world might be experienced as confusing and overwhelming. And I guess what I hope is that this information is power and it allows us to reflect about our workings both as individuals. As well as more broadly that we are, we are not isolated islands we're not on isolated islands, but, but interconnected.

So a bit of a different podcast from me, as always, I'm really keen to hear what you think. I'm most active on Facebook Dr. Kumari NZ (and on Instagram). If this is probably a good place to say, if you are struggling with anxiety and that disrupted nervous system, I do have a download if you sign up to my extremely rare newsletter. I don't think I have written one yet this this year. Gosh!

Here is a link:

I have videos and audios to help you learn five strategies, five strategies I use as a clinical psychologist routinely in my life and in my work to regulate that nervous system.

So we might all have just a bit more activation for a variety of reasons. And all of us can benefit from strategies to regulate, soothe, and nurture our nervous systems. I hope you found it useful! Let me know what you think! Take care.

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