This Theory Holds the Secret to Healing America's Division

Terror Management Theory explains how we became divided and how to heal.

Posted Feb 12, 2019

Dreamstime
Source: Dreamstime

It’s clear that America is becoming increasingly divided, and if we remain on the path we’re on, things are only going to get worse. There will be more aggression in the streets, more gridlock in Washington, and that’s really just the beginning of how bad things can get. So, if we truly want to make America great, then we have to make a collective conscious effort to heal the division. And we have to do it soon, because if the division gets too severe, there might be a point of no return.

But how do we fix this division problem? Well, science might have an answer to that. If we can understand how we became divided, then we can start to see how we might be able to reverse the process. While there are many explanations for such a complex issue, I believe one well-supported psychology theory explains the essence of the phenomenon better than all the others. That theory is called Terror Management Theory (TMT).

TMT is based on the idea that human behavior is largely driven by our fear of death. Unlike all other animals, we have a conscious awareness of our own mortality. It is difficult to live a happy life knowing that you will someday die and not long after, all traces of your existence will be erased from history. According to TMT, as a way of dealing with this persistent existential fear, humans created cultural worldviews that instill our lives with meaning and purpose, and give us a sense of permanence.

Worldviews—like religions, national identities, and political ideologies—ease our fears and distract us from the cold hard fact that we will soon be gone and forgotten. For the average conservative individual, Christianity serves the purpose of mitigating existential fear by providing a path to immortality through the belief in an afterlife. Being an “American” provides a path to symbolic immortality, meaning a national identity makes people feel like they are part of something bigger that will outlive the individual.

So, for many Americans, nationalism and Christianity provide a moment-to-moment defense of a deep-rooted existential fear that would otherwise cause perpetual terror. Essentially, worldviews are death-anxiety buffers.

So how do we know TMT is correct? Well, we use it to make a hypothesis and we test that hypothesis. If the theory is true, we should expect people who are presented with messages that stoke existential fears to strengthen their worldviews as a defense. Existential fear should also cause them to invest more support in those who share their worldviews while becoming more aggressive toward those who do not. This is at the crux of why America is becoming increasingly divided. By creating an atmosphere of existential fear, Trump causes his supporters to bolster their worldviews. In other words, they become more extreme Christians and Americans. By describing illegal immigrants as murderers and rapists, and telling conservatives that Muslims hate America and want to destroy it, Trump is systematically radicalizing them. Existential fear is one of Trump’s key political tools, and it is the primary reason he is in the White House. The belief that Trump is a Christian savior, the growing nationalist movement—it can all be traced back to existential fear.

We can be sure that this effect is real because it is supported by many psychology and neuroscience experiments. For example, a study, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that death reminders increased nationalism and amplified racial bias. A 2006 study found that making conservative Americans think about their own mortality increased their support for extreme military interventions that could kill thousands of civilians overseas. And a study published in 2017 by the co-founder of Terror Management Theory found that priming death-related thoughts directly increased support for Donald Trump. The same study found that these participants viewed immigrants moving into their neighborhood as an existential threat.

So there’s a pretty simple narrative here. Fear strengthens support for leaders with Nationalist messages. Those nationalist messages create more fear, and a dangerous feedback loop is established that leads to a sort of right-wing extremism and unconditionally loyalty for the president.

The same effect occurred in 2004 when George Bush had a spike in popularity after 9/11. This was investigated with another Terror Management Theory study, which confirmed the relationship between existential fear and increased support for Bush.

In light of the research, there should be little doubt whether the global nationalist surge we are currently experiencing—which fueled the Brexit movement and the rise of Donald Trump—is in many ways a result of the existential terror created by ISIS, and increasing cultural fears over immigration. It is equally certain that the emergence of Islamic terror groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda were largely a result of the ongoing chaos in the Middle East, and its occupation by outside military forces, like the U.S. Army. When an existential threat looms, it can create a sweeping psychological condition that can set the stage for waves of both religious fundamentalist and far-right nationalist movements that encourage prejudice, intolerance, and hostility toward outside groups.

But fear is not just affecting the right in this country. The existential threat posed by Trump and his nationalist ideology has shifted many liberals toward more extreme positions. America has seen the rise of the militant left-wing group known as Antifa, whose tactics have grown increasingly violent in confrontations with the alt-right. Liberals, understandably afraid of the growing white nationalist movement, have become less tolerant of anyone not clearly on their side, and more sympathetic to hostile behavior toward Trump supporters.

Also, TMT predicts that liberals who feel their worldview is under threat will enforce their left-wing norms more strongly than usual. A 2017 study in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology found that the over-enforcement of PC norms has directly contributed to increased support for Donald Trump. And when we start calling for censorship, restrictions on free speech, and banning books perceived to be offensive, we gradually begin to look a lot like the authoritarianism that we’re supposed to be against.

So it doesn’t seem to matter what ideological side it occurs on, polarization seems to be intrinsically bad for society. It helps Donald Trump, because it energizes his base and pushes the Democrats further to the left, giving him a better chance with moderates, independents, and libertarians who can swing the vote. The Russians know this better than anyone, and it is precisely what motivated their online social engineering efforts.

The good news is that Terror Management Theory offers a solution to the division problem. If we defend against existential fear by strengthening our worldviews, then a worldview that unites us all is the obvious solution. It is unfortunate that our most popular worldviews—the major religions, national identities, and political ideologies—divide us into tribes and turn neighbors into spiritual and ideological enemies.

In the following video, I describe in greater detail how Trump has divided America using fear, citing Terror Management Theory studies, and I make the case for this new worldview, which I call the “Cosmic Perspective.” From this perspective, we are all part of an interdependent whole, united under a common existential goal—the continued survival, progress, and ultimately, the outward expansion of humanity. With the Cosmic Perspective, there is no “us against them,” there is only we. The real existential threats we face are things like nuclear war, climate change, unconstrained A.I., and the increasing centralization of wealth and power. While this might sound overly idealistic to some, I do believe it is a supremely reasonable and attainable worldview, and one that any enlightened society will eventually move in the direction of. If we all make a conscious effort to ease the division by adopting this general worldview, we can be confident that a new, stronger form of order will emerge from the current sea of chaos. 

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