Terrorists seek to subdue and coerce their targets, but ironically they may end up doing just the opposite. That’s the implication of new research by Inbal Gurari and colleagues, who’ve shown that thinking about terrorism enhances people’s self-esteem, as measured by an implicit test.
Fifty-two Jewish Irsaelis were told about recent terrorist attacks that had taken place in their country, and they were asked to indicate how many times over the last six months they’d been near to where those attacks occurred. The idea was that this would make them think about how close to danger they’d been. Participants who did this before their self-esteem was measured subsequently showed enhanced self-esteem compared with participants who had their self-esteem measured first, before thinking about the attacks.
The implicit measure of self-esteem was rather ingenious. Participants had to rate their preference for numbers and letters. Those participants displaying an abnormally high preference for letters that corresponded to their initials and to numbers corresponding to their birthday, were judged to have enhanced self-esteem.
The findings are consistent with “terror-management theory”, which is the idea that reminders of our mortality leads us to seek comfort by boosting our self-esteem and seeking meaning in the world. The findings also match the way populations have been seen to respond after real-life terrorist attacks. For example, after 9/11 the American flag was flown, religious attendance rocketed and government approval ratings soared.
“The current research suggests that the goals of terrorism – to demoralise a population – may be thwarted in part by our automatic tendency to protect ourselves under mortality salience conditions,” the researchers said.
Link to related Digest item: “How thoughts of death turn to joy”.
Link to further related Digest item: “Baghdad teenagers show heightened sense of self in the face of war”.
Gurari, I., Strube, M., & Hetts, J. (2009). Death? Be Proud! The Ironic Effects of Terror Salience on Implicit Self-Esteem Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39 (2), 494-507 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00448.x