On life and death: vitality, mortality salience, and worldview defense

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


Human experience is most notably characterized by feeling or being 'alive.' However, according to Terror Management Theory (TMT), humans possess the awareness of their own mortality, and the resulting potential for existential anxiety produced by mortality salience might interact with vitality, or the subjective experience of enthusiasm and aliveness. The construct of vitality includes attributes such as resilience and self-esteem, which is why vitality was predicted to be a more holistic approach to dealing with the potential death anxiety triggered by mortality salience. TMT operates under the notion that anxiety from the realization of one's mortality is managed in part by embracing cultural worldviews, or psychological systems that provide life with meaning. When one fails to employ such a psychological buffer in the face of mortality concerns, this results in an increased defensiveness toward those who threaten or violate cultural worldviews. As such, Study 1 hypothesized that, under mortality salience, those low in a self-report measure of vitality would react more defensively to a moral transgressor than those high in vitality. To test this prediction, 176 individuals completed a self-report measure of vitality and were randomly assigned to provide a written response to two open-ended questions about their own death or to two parallel questions about watching television. Then, following a necessary delay, all participants provided judgments of moral transgressors; previous work shows that reminders of death lead to harsher judgments on this scale. No evidence for buffering was found in the results of Study 1, and findings failed to replicate past TMT research. To better understand vitality as a construct, Study 2 randomly assigned 90 individuals to view photos of either natural, outdoor scenes, or photos of built, outdoor scenes and were subsequently measured on vitality. Results of Study 2 conceptually replicated findings of previous work illustrating that those exposed to photos of nature reported higher levels of vitality than those exposed to photos of built environments. These findings strengthen evidence of the vitalizing effects of nature and supports contact with nature as a potential factor in future studies on vitality. Alternative explanations and implications are discussed.




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