Living With Fear: Terror Management Theory

by Trish Mathis

Recently, I was riding to work on a commuter train when I noticed a briefcase on a seat nearby, unattended. I set my book on my lap and glanced around, but the item didn’t seem to belong to anybody. Although it looked innocuous lying there, I knew better. The many safety warnings about unattended baggage I’d heard broadcast over the station platforms and in airport concourses since 9/11 all buzzed in my ears simultaneously. It must be a bomb.

briefcaseIt suddenly felt very hot and I struggled out of my coat, frantically looking for the conductor. I bit my lip and resisted the urge to get up and run into the next train car. My right leg jiggled up and down seemingly of its own accord and I shifted to the edge of my seat, wondering what to do as the breath caught in my throat. I closed my eyes and hoped that everything would be fine, that we would all make it safely through the morning grind.

Just then, a man stepped into my car from the next one, walked down the aisle, and sat in the seat with the briefcase. He clicked it open, removed a folder, and calmly began reading the pages inside. As my surge of adrenaline drained away, I felt very foolish. Of course there was no bomb. That person probably just had to use the train’s restroom, and who takes a briefcase in there?

Where did my fear come from? According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, terror management theory (TMT) proposes that “control of death anxiety is the primary function of society and the main motivation in human behavior. Accordingly, awareness of the inevitability of death motivates people to maintain faith in the absolute validity of the beliefs and values that give their lives meaning….” This model explains why we react the way we do to the threat of death and describes how this reaction influences our thoughts, emotions, and actions. Introduced in 1984 by social psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski, TMT has become a prominent part of their research. They have published widely on the subject, notably including the APA title In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. (Also check out The Psychology of Hate and Understanding Terrorism: Psychosocial Roots, Consequences, and Interventions.)

psych-of-terrorAlthough death anxiety can be activated by even the most mundane daily events and moments, TMT is also useful for understanding the fears generated by our current sociopolitical climate. We constantly hear media reports about ISIS, see threatening videos splashed across the Internet, and watch news footage of innocent civilians killed by bombs in Spain or shot by gunmen in Paris. Remember the anthrax attacks perpetrated through the U.S. mail in Washington, DC, several years ago? Do you still experience the occasional twinge of apprehension when opening an unexpected letter or package? We can’t help but worry that we might be the next victim.

And so perhaps we decide not to attend a crowded sporting event one day. We cancel a long-anticipated trip the next. We glare suspiciously at strangers on the streets. Yet simultaneously, we proudly hang American flags from our front porches and we donate to charities. Indeed, as Greenberg et al. noted in the introduction of their most recent book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, “the fear of death is one of the primary driving forces of human action.” At the end of the day, we use our traditions, beliefs, and values to give our lives meaning and thus obscure the anxiety created by our awareness of the possibility of death.

Of course, some of us are more successful at this than others. Fortunately, the theory’s originators offer some strategies for how to deal more productively with the anxiety potential threats produce. These include maintaining close connections with others, gathering information to understand an event, and enhancing self-esteem. Perhaps you’ve tried these ideas in some form or another, and perhaps like me, you have a specific approach you find most helpful.

So the next time I see unattended baggage during my commute, maybe I’ll panic again as the prospect of my own mortality slams into focus. But then I’ll remind myself that my response is a natural, inevitable part of being human. When the immediate danger passes, I can return to the sanctuary offered by routine: the book I’m reading on the train, the susurration of passenger conversation around me, and the normalcy of going to work to do something I consider worthwhile.

 

References

Moghaddam, F. M., & Marsella, A. J. (2004). Understanding terrorism: Psychosocial roots, consequences, and intervention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2003). In the wake of 9/11: The psychology of terror. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2015). The worm at the core: On the role of death in life. New York, NY: Random House.

Sternberg, R. J. (2005). The psychology of hate. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2015). APA dictionary of psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Rain, Rain, Go Away

stephanie hendersonby Stephanie Henderson

I hit the snooze button for the third time, begrudgingly slumped out of bed and opened my curtains. It was still raining.

Here at APA headquarters in Washington, DC, it has been raining every day for the last three weeks.

Later that morning, during one of our routine chats, my mother asked me, “Are you doing okay? I know how down you can get when the sun hasn’t shined for a few days.” It was a valid question, considering that to keep me motivated in the winter I often play songs that remind me of summer. Although I have never been clinically diagnosed, her question made me think about seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Although many of us complain about the “winter blues,” SAD can severely affect one’s day-to-day life. The APA Dictionary of Psychology (2007) defines SAD as:rain-cloud-clipart

A mood disorder in which there is a predictable occurrence of major depressive episodes, manic episodes, or both at particular times of the year. The typical pattern is the occurrence of major depressive episodes during the fall or winter months. Also called seasonal mood disorder.

In Creating Well-Being: Four Steps to a Happier, Healthier Life, Pamela A. Hays (2014) explores the importance of light in improving one’s general well-being. While describing her time spent living in Alaska, Hays notes that during the winter the sun shines for only a few hours each day and for some people, this can lead to depression. She then goes on to say that “exposure to outdoor light helps to counter seasonal affective disorder” (p. 131) and cites studies that have shown how light that mimics sunlight can have similar effects.

Although SAD has only recently been recognized as a mental health diagnosis, research on SAD is steadily increasing. This past March, the National Institute of Mental Health published a comprehensive web page exploring SAD: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/seasonalaffectivedisorder.html).  More research still needs to be done, but in the meantime, let’s hope that “the sun will come out tomorrow!”

References

Hays, P. (2014). Creating well-being: Four steps to a happier, healthier life. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2007). APA dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

April Releases from APA Books!

college dictionaryAPA College Dictionary of Psychology

SECOND EDITION

Editor-in-Chief Gary R. VandenBos

 

The APA College Dictionary of Psychology, Second Edition, is a reliable resource that answers the needs of both advanced placement high-school students and college undergraduates—whether they are taking psychology as part of a broader curriculum or making it their major field of study.

 

 

 

child maltreatmentChild Maltreatment 

A Developmental Psychopathology Approach

by Kathryn A. Becker-Blease and Patricia K. Kerig

 

This book explains the science of developmental psychopathology for clinicians and other professionals who work with at-risk children. The authors focus particularly on how maltreatment differentially affects children at key stages of their lives, from infancy to early adulthood.  Armed with this understanding, clinicians can be aware of age-specific vulnerabilities and better tailor their interventions.

 

 

empowered learningEmpowered Learning in Secondary Schools

Promoting Positive Youth Development Through a Multitiered System of Supports

by Cynthia E. Hazel

 

Positive youth development (PYD) is a strengths-based, positive psychology approach to fostering adolescents’ educational engagement and achievement. It focuses not just on students’ academic development but also on their vocational, social, and emotional development. The PYD philosophy is at the heart of Cynthia Hazel’s unique model of secondary school change, which is presented in this book.

 

 

critical eventsSupervision Essentials for the Critical Events in Psychotherapy Supervision Model

by Nicholas Ladany, Myrna L. Friedlander, and Mary Lee Nelson

 

Many supervisors need help navigating the most challenging dilemmas and conflicts that arise in supervision of trainees, addressing skill deficits and competency concerns, working through role conflicts, and gender or ethnicity-related misunderstandings. Because these interpersonal conflicts can be so challenging, however, they often represent a golden opportunity for real progress.  This book presents a process model with specific strategies that together enable supervisors and trainees to successfully resolve the problem at hand and achieve lasting success in their careers.

Exciting News at APA Books!

dictionaryWe are pleased to announce that in January, the APA Dictionary of Psychology, Second Edition, was named the Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2015!

A review of the dictionary was previously published in Choice’s October issue, in which it said, “Thorough but concise definitions remain the norm in this update, and the challenge of encompassing the diverse fields of psychology in a single volume makes this a triumph of cooperative composition and outstanding editing.”

Choice’s January 2016 issue highlighted the list of winners and best in scholarly titles.

Good Design is in the Details (With Plenty of White Space in Between)

by Kristen Knight

Released in March 2015 with approximately 1,200 pages and 26,000 entries, the APA Dictionary of Psychology, Second Edition, is a behemoth of a book by any definition. But it was the smaller details in the text that garnered the attention of judges when they awarded it first prize in the typographic text category (large nonprofit) of the 2015 Washington Publishers Book Design and Effectiveness Awards.  Those details included good column width, the use of guide words and rule at the top of each page, and cleanly executed thumb tabs for easy navigation.

“We gave the nod to your dictionary because the design is technically effective and successful in all of the ways that dictionaries need to be,” said awards judge John Guthrie, who is the managing editor of the book program at the American Diabetes Association. “I’ve worked on dictionaries before, so I am fully aware that the apparent simplicity of a well-designed dictionary belies the amount of planning, skill, and expertise that goes into creating an effective one. We commented frequently during the judging process about how good design also exhibits restraint. The design of the APA Dictionary of Psychology represents creativity, attention to purpose, and restraint.”

Guthrie also praised the dictionary’s effective use of font size, boldface, italics, and small caps, along with the “incredibly descriptive” guide to format for readers, which appears in the front matter of the book.

DoP2 Award_Inside spread graphicFor you font nerds out there (yes, they exist!), this second edition of the dictionary was typeset in 9-point Photina. The design and composition of the text were produced by Anne Kerr at Market House Books, Ltd., in Aylesbury, England. With almost 45 years of experience in creating specialty dictionaries for various publishers, Market House is perhaps the premier reference compiler in the United Kingdom.

“The font was selected for clarity and economy of space,” Anne said about the design. “I think the font is easy to read and, as using this font meant we needed less space for the text, we were able to increase the interentry space. From the design point of view, the white space is as important as the text itself!”

Anne typically offers APA reference editors several samples to review prior to the production phase for a dictionary. “Generally, there will be different typefaces and variations in type size, leading, and kerning from which to select,” explained our Reference Director Ted Baroody. “For the APA Dictionary of Psychology, Second Edition, we chose the specs that seemed most generous for ease of reading while also being most closely aligned with our desired overall page length. It was a great plus for APA and Market House Books to be able to land on such an aesthetically pleasing set of specs.”

The collaboration between APA and MHB goes back more than 16 years, dating to work on the critically acclaimed first edition of the dictionary and encompassing several subsequent derivatives, among them the well-received APA College Dictionary of Psychology and APA Dictionary of Statistics and Research Methods. Ted describes the partnership this way: “It is certainly not overstated to note that APA Reference staff has learned substantially about the profession and art of lexicography from our English colleagues, and, perhaps, MHB staff has even learned a little bit about psychology from us!”

As you might guess, producing such a considered and inclusive second edition required years of effort on the part of a large team of psychologists and allied health professionals, editors, and designers. The reference team at APA is pleased that the Washington Publishers Association award recognized the result, and specifically the way in which all of that knowledge is so effectively presented for readers.

Reference

VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2015). APA dictionary of psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.