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Posted: December 20, 2005

Spiritual Caregiving

In the Mirror: What We Believe, How It Affects Us

(Editor’s Note: Have you ever looked in the figurative mirror of life and seen just exactly what you believe and how what you believe shapes your life? These two articles may help clarify that “image.”)


Truly Dismal Science:
How Simple Reminder of Death Shifts Voting, Encourages Martyrs

Long before the attacks of 9/11, there was a theory in psychology called Terror Management Theory (TMT). According to psychologist Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore University, TMT seeks nothing less than “a comprehensive account of the basic motivations underpinning human behavior.”

The root of the theory, based on work by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, is this: while we share with animals a fundamental instinct for survival, what sets humans apart is a profound anxiety based on the knowledge that our efforts will ultimately prove futile, for death cannot really be anticipated or controlled. According to the theory, we humans seek to ease this terrible anxiety in two ways. First, we create shared cultural worldviews that make life seem stable and meaningful, a world in which we have a chance to achieve at least symbolic immortality perhaps by amassing a great fortune or by writing a book. Secondly, we ease our anxiety by boosting our self-esteem, creating the belief that one is a valuable participant in that social structure and therefore qualifies for immortality.
While this seems a rather dry and dismal theory, consider two recent studies by Solomon and his colleagues that show what happens to people’s behavior when their fundamental anxiety is boosted by a simple reminder of death.
In one study, a group of American college students was asked to “Jot down as specifically as you can what you think will happen to you when you physically die, and once you are physically dead.” Another group was asked to jot down their thoughts about an upcoming exam. Then both groups were asked to read statements from three sample gubernatorial candidates — a charismatic leader, a task-oriented leader, and a relationship-oriented leader — and vote for their favorite.
Compared to a control group that set the base-line for voting behavior, the students who thought about death surged away from the relationship-oriented leader and toward the charismatic leader — raising the charismatic leader’s tally from 4% to 32%. The task- oriented group remained unchanged at about 50%.
In another study at a Middle Eastern university, college students were again randomly assigned to answer questions about either their own death or an upcoming exam. They then read and evaluated materials from fellow students that either supported or opposed martyrdom attacks against the United States. Whereas control participants preferred the student who opposed martyrdom, participants reminded of death preferred the student who supported martyrdom and indicated they were more likely to consider such activities themselves.
All of this is a long way of saying that people are drawn toward extremes to buffer extreme anxiety. This suggests that an Orange Alert breeds terror at least as much as it protects us against it.

A Study to Map the Physiology of Belief



How our spiritual and religious belief systems affect our state of consciousness is one of the big questions to be explored by Oxford University’s new Centre for Science of the Mind.
The center, headed by neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, an Oxford professor and president of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, will draw from the fields of anatomy, pharmacology, philosophy, physiology, theology, and ethics. Using imaging technology to map brain activity, the researchers aim to shed light on the physiology of belief.
One controversial aspect of this research is an attempt to study the impact of faith on pain and suffering. During experiments the scientists will induce a sensation similar to that caused by a burn and will then show subjects religious images to find out whether viewing them reduces pain.
The two-year, $2 million pilot program is being funded by the John Templeton Foundation.
Says behavioral scientist Dr. Barnaby Marsh, director of new programs at the Templeton Foundation, "Our hope is that this new grant will encourage scientists worldwide to become increasingly open to the promise of discovery at mind-body frontiers and to significantly advance knowledge and understanding rooted in the accumulated wisdom of the world’s various great faith traditions and God concepts.” 

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2005 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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