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Seeing Red

Images of destruction may make us more dogmatic.

     

Pictures of crumbling skyscrapers or crippled houses have a propensity to shock. Now research suggests that feeling may precede an even deeper impact: The sight of destroyed buildings may galvanize our convictions, as well as the resolve to guard them against perceived threats.

Those threats can easily take the shape of foreign countries, a report in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests. 

In a series of studies, students who were shown pictures of destroyed buildings — as opposed to fully intact or under-construction buildings — responded to queries with more dogmatic attitudes and greater support for military action against Iran, according to Kenneth E. Vail III of the University of Missouri-Columbia, who conducted the studies with a team of researchers from Missouri, Virginia and Colorado.

The researchers made another important distinction: The dogmatic sentiments corresponded with an increase in something called “death thought accessibility.” Asked to complete a word stem like “SK_ _L,” destruction-primed respondents were more likely to write “skull” than “skill.”

This is key in the context of Terror Management Theory, which posits that humans deal with existential threats by seeking literal or symbolic “immortality”—e.g. by going to Heaven, creating a work of art, or raising a family that preserves our values. The beliefs we share with other members of our society legitimize our notions of immortality.

Images of destruction induce our minds to think about death, the researchers write, and in response, we hold on more closely to our beliefs.

Since destruction breeds dogmatism, Vail says, it’s conceivable that visual reminders of terrorist attacks and other violent disasters have shaped the psyche of Americans in the shadow of 9/11. Have we been primed for a confrontation?

“Over the past 10 to 12 years or so, we saw some pretty blatant demonstrations of that tactic,” he says. “Both politicians and the media [tend] to replay and display images and footage from those sorts of events when they’re trying to push various policies and/or military campaigns.”

And in wreckage-strewn corners of the world, it’s possible that the ongoing visual presence of destruction is steering prospective militants into more dogmatic circles, Vail says. “What that rubble is doing, our research is showing, is serving as that daily death reminder.” 

An option, he says, “now that we know that that's a possibility, would be to make a stronger case for reconstruction and rebuilding.”

 

Matt Huston is an Assistant Editor at Psychology Today.

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