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February 17, 2021 at 3:36 am #74913JaycutzaParticipant@jaycutza
I just posted something to Facebook that (it occurred to me) would fit under the rubric of Biasology. I thought I’d share it here, in the interest of finally making a very small contribution to the university I got my PhD from. Here’s what I wrote:
I have a theory about the many divisions in the United States right now. Bottom line up front, we’re not going to be able to come back together as a country (if we manage it at all) until most of us are vaccinated, or until COVID-19 otherwise is brought under control somehow. Bear with me…
Back in 1973, Ernest Becker published The Denial of Death, which argues that human civilization itself is one big defense mechanism to help us cope with our existential terror at the awareness that each and every one of us is going to die someday. Later, the social scientists Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski developed Becker’s argument into a social psychology theory, terror management theory (TMT). I first ran into TMT back in 2003 when I read their book In the Wake of 9/11, which I heartily recommend. The idea is that here we are, a bunch of humans, who demonstrably die, and we sublimate or otherwise combat the anxiety this knowledge causes by seeking immortality. Some of us do this literally, through our religious beliefs. Others do it symbolically, through our worldviews – national identity, political identity, basically anything that can make us feel superior to animals so we can forget that we ourselves are also animals – meat-based, mortal animals. (As you might imagine, cultural perspectives on sex get all mixed up in this too, because being a sexual creature tends to remind us that we are, indeed, creatures. But I digress.)
There have been hundreds of experiments on TMT since 2003, and they’re fascinating. Basically, it turns out that people double down on their cultural values and worldviews under conditions of mortality salience. And when we double down, we also react with greater hostility toward anyone whose worldview threatens or contradicts our own. In other words, it turns out that judges who happen to drive past a cemetery on their way to the office hand down harsher penalties for the same crimes than judges who don’t drive past cemeteries. People in experiments who are asked to rate the attractiveness or intelligence of other people to give lower rankings to people who aren’t like them (religion, race, gender) under conditions of mortality salience. Self-esteem plays into all of this as well, in complicated ways; for example, it turns out that when self-esteem is involved, mortality salience may actually increase people’s resistance to admitting that yeah, they’re vulnerable. For instance, anti-smoking campaigns make some people just want to smoke more. “I know the CDC says this can kill me, but you know what? Eff them.”
Now here we all are in 2021, a year into a deadly pandemic. Even the Americans who don’t think the coronavirus is any worse than a cold are hearing all day every day that YOU COULD DIE, PEOPLE YOU LOVE COULD DIE, PEOPLE ARE DYING IN GREAT NUMBERS EVERYWHERE, AND GUESS WHAT, THERE ARE RISK FACTORS, SURE, BUT SOMETIMES THIS THING KILLS OTHERWISE HEALTHY PEOPLE AND IT ALL FEELS INCREDIBLY RANDOM. Like, even the people who think it’s all a hoax are being reminded all the time that humans are mortal. I don’t know how mortality could get much more salient than it’s been for the past year. IT IS NOT FUN.
And I don’t think anyone will disagree with the assertion that just about everyone is REALLY DOUBLING DOWN on their worldviews these days. It makes sense. We’re anxious, so we’re doubling down on the beliefs that make us feel safer. That means that we’re more hostile than usual toward anything and anyone that contradicts our worldviews in any way. And when self-esteem is involved, all this mortality salience can make people defiant when it comes to admitting vulnerability: “I know the CDC says that wearing a mask can save lives, but you know what? Eff them.”
In short, bad news, friends. I don’t think our country is going to get back to being United until we can all stop thinking about death, death, death all the damn time. Yet another reason to get everyone vaccinated as soon as possible. We’ve got to stamp this ish out so that we can start being tolerant of differing worldviews again – not that we were ever great at that, as a species; but it’s especially difficult “in this unprecedented time.”
Thank you for coming to my TED talk. Drink some water and get a little exercise today. Be kind to yourself and to each other.
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