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.

New Year, New You? The Nature of Exercise Psychology

by Trish Mathis

Welcome to 2016! Made your New Year’s resolutions yet? I have, and this year I’ll keep them.  No, really. I’m committed to the New Me in the New Year.

Treadmills-in-the-gym-1200Like many people, I once committed to going to a gym for regular exercise. I’d never been to a gym before and felt like an intruder the minute I stepped inside the door. But I gamely persisted, and amidst all the sweating, wheezing, cursing, and grumbling, I somehow improved my cardiovascular fitness, muscle tone, and stamina.

Many people quickly give up on their New Year’s exercise goals. Why? Psychologist James Prochaska offers an explanation. His transtheoretical model of change is a five-stage theory that suggests that people need time to alter their health-related behaviors, that different interventions are effective at different periods in their lives, and that outcomes may vary across these different life periods. One month you might be confident and able to make several significant adjustments to your daily routine, and 6 months later you might be pessimistic and out of sorts, unable to maintain the changes you easily implemented previously. In other words, different times bring different opportunities and reactions, so the key to long-term success is persistence and flexibility.

At the gym, never is this phenomenon more apparent than in January, when eager new exercisers edge out the regulars in their excitement to reach the machines. They keep it up for a week or two, but by the end of the month only a handful of the newbies remain.

Fortunately, the field of exercise psychology exists to help prevent this disappearing act. Practitioners focus on helping everyday people achieve their physical activity goals—not elite athletes training for the Olympics. But people like me who train just for ourselves—for our health and our satisfaction, and maybe a little enjoyment and fulfillment along the way.  When we experience setbacks and need help overcoming obstacles, including our own inertia, pessimistic thoughts, and fear of failure, exercise psychologists have tools and techniques to help.

 

exploring sport & excercise psych        performance psych

References

Hays, K. F. (2009). Performance psychology in action. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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

Van Raalte, J. L., & Brewer, B. W. (2014). Exploring sport and exercise psychology (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

What is Human Systems Integration?

by Trish Mathis

I get upset when things don’t work. Cars breaking down, computers and cell phones going haywire, household appliances malfunctioning—life’s technical challenges can really frustrate me. For the most part though, these occurrences are mere nuisances. But imagine a crew of firefighters deep in a tunnel at the scene of a subway fire. Engulfed in hazy smoke, they slowly make their way to the stopped subway train filled with trapped, panicked passengers who are desperate for help. Now imagine that the firefighters can’t radio EMS personnel maneuvering simultaneously though the tunnel, or police officers coordinating the rescue effort above ground, or any other first responders on scene: The recently upgraded firefighter communications equipment cannot interact with the older communications system still used by most responders. A technological incompatibility has left the firefighters unable to contact anybody, and in turn nobody can contact them. Instead of simple aggravation, we now have potential injury and loss of life.

38853352Fortunately, the field of human systems integration exists to help prevent such disasters. Professionals in this discipline are trained to look at the whole picture—not only the task of interest but also the people who are involved and the tools they use—to make sure everything functions together properly, without failure, without confusion, without complicated training. Human systems professionals understand our strengths and weaknesses and use that knowledge to guide design processes. They create objects and spaces that complement us rather than constrain us; they anticipate problems and devise solutions; they implement changes in response to evolving needs; they evaluate progress and recognize success.

But most of all they mitigate risk by creating safe, efficient operators and reliable environments. Although the field of human systems integration is young, its practitioners are ambitious. Their goal is nothing less than to have harmonious systems of people, tasks, and tools. Think about it: a world that we can navigate instinctively, with items that are easy to use and don’t break down and that work together? I know I’d like that. I’m sure the people on that subway train would too.

Reference 

Boehm-Davis, D. A., Durso, F. T., & Lee, J. D. (Eds.). (2015). APA handbook of human systems integration. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4311517.aspx