Terror Management Theory

Terror Management Theory



American Military University

Given the devastating effects that the increased terrorist activities that have plagued the society in recent years have imposed on society, it is appropriate for various stakeholders to channel their energy towards the formulation of solutions that will suppress the severity of terrorism’s effects. The application of Terror Management Theory is one of the most effective measures that can help both the victims and perpetrators who have been directly affected by terrorist activities. The ideas that make up the pillars of the theory were first conceived by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon and Tom Pyszczynski who were psychologists practicing in various tertiary education institutions. The proper application of the Terror Management Theory can help the people who are affected by terrorist attacks to mitigate the challenges that they face in life.

The Terror Management Theory mainly covers the psychological manifestations that occur in an individual after being aware that he or she must die. Jeff Greenberg, who was a major contributor to the formation of the theory, believes that human beings have a bigger role to play as far as life and death are concerned. This is mainly due to the fact that human beings have the thinking capacity to evaluate situations and predict the imminent changes that occur in life. Greenberg, Solomon & Pyszczynski (1997) created the Terror Management Theory to evaluate the emotional or psychological groundwork surroundings features like prejudice and self-esteem after an individual becomes aware of his or her imminent death. The changes expected to manifest on an individual’s psychological features results from the possession of the terrifying information that everybody must die. Most individuals do not initially cope with information regarding their death in normal situations. However, the manifestations start to occur after an individual gets involved in a life-threatening situation like a major accident or even a terrorist event.

The basic aspects of the Terror Management Theory focus on how human beings emotionally react after being reminded of death. Every individual aims to leave a good reputation after his or her death. Therefore, people feel compelled to defend their cultural practices and perspectives about the world. For example, if an individual is a vegetarian, then he will defend the common practice associated with vegetarians. Such an individual will also be opposed to any person who tries to criticize the vegetarian practices. Another key aspect of the Terror Management Theory is the tendency among people to improve their personality and safeguard their self-esteem (Greenberg, Solomon & Pyszczynski, 1997). Individuals who have pondered over their mortality tend to concur with people who praise the progress they have made in life. They also desist from engaging in activities that pose a danger to their confidence.

Death is a terrifying event since it implies that an individual will cease to exist. Therefore, when a religious belief asserts that there is life after death, a person might be influenced to follow that religion. A person who has comprehensively thought about his or her morality might feel compelled to practice religion in order to maintain hope and hold a positive mentality about the future. Greenberg, Solomon & Pyszczynski (1997) reveal that thoughts regarding death can rise if an individual changes the way he or she sees the world. A person might also be influenced to cultivate the belief that human beings are superior as compared to animals. Leaving a legacy or a blueprint on the face of the earth is extremely important for people who have been hit with the awareness of their mortality. Such individuals might aim to create something that will exist beyond their lifetime. For instance, one might be encouraged to make an invention that will remind the future generations of his or her experience. The common way that people aim to leave their legacy in the world is through giving birth to children.

Several deadly terrorist attacks targeted on western countries have taken place in the recent past. However, virtually none of the terrorist attacks that have happened in the last five years can eclipse the Paris attacks. A team of militants whose allegiance belongs to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria performed three attacks in a span of two hours in the French capital killing 130 people and injuring hundreds more. The Terror Management Theory can be used to better understand the psychological phases that the victims of the Paris attacks went through in their plight to recover and survive. Some of the people who survived the attacks had experienced a traumatic event of that magnitude for the first time.

Reports suggest that the gun shootings that took place at the La Belle Equipe Bar on the night of the attacks left 15 people seriously wounded. Some of the people who were seriously wounded came very close to death and thus they might have started to think about their mortality. Questions about the animosity of the people who organized the attacks must have also emerged among some of the people who lost their loved ones during the Paris attacks (Nail, 2016). Questioning the moral standards portrayed by various members of society is another psychological manifestation that sprouts out of people who get affected by such devastating effects. A lot of issues with the preparedness of the country’s rescue facilities emerged after the Paris attacks. People who have witnessed such events often feel encouraged to construct an organized and safe environment that can help prevent future terrorist attacks.

There was some controversy surrounding the attack on the Bataclan Concert Hall attack in which resulted in the death of 89 people. Reports suggest that the concert was playing host to a concert designed for gay people (Nail, 2016). Given the controversy that surrounds the practice of the gay culture, some of the survivors from the attack might feel compelled to reform so as to leave a good legacy behind once they die. One of the aspects of the Terror Management Theory requires an individual to safeguard his or her self-esteem and culture. Those who are receptive to the gay culture could as well defend their practices and use various methods to justify their sexual orientation. Just as it is the case with most terrorist attacks, the issue of religion was at the center stage of the Paris attacks. Some people who hail from Islamic families do not support the actions of the terrorists who claimed to be acting in the interests of their religion (Nail, 2016). Such an undertaking adversely affected the image of Islam. Therefore, there are people who might have felt encouraged to defend the Islamic religion by focusing on its good teachings that require people to live in peace and harmony.

It is important to examine how the factors included in the Terror Management Theory in order to come up with strategies that can aid to reduce the adverse effects of terrorist activities. Rosenblatt et al (1989) believe that the perpetrators of terrorist activities can be influenced to cease from malicious activity by being indirectly or directly confronted by the victims of terrorist activities who practice the same culture and religion. Being close to death awakens one’s survival instinct and it also influences an individual to do whatever is in their power to enhance the level of security in the society. Vail et al (2010) assert that there is some psychological pressure that can influence potential terrorist attackers to desist from such behavior after noticing signs of their future infamy in the manner that members of their own culture perceive their actions. A number of Muslim leaders came up to shun the Paris attacks that had been organized by a group that claimed to act in the best interest of the religion. Those young people who join terrorist networks to gain some form of psychological reward might be discouraged by this criticism hence reducing the chances of terrorist attacks in the future.

If applied effectively, the Terror Management Theory can be appropriate in reducing the occurrence of terrorist attacks. Another theory that can be used to serve the same function is the Contemporary Deterrence Theory. This theory lies on the assumption that the application of severe punishment on the perpetrators of terrorist activities can deter people from engaging in them. The three foundational tenants of the Contemporary Deterrence Theory are swiftness, severity, and surety. Although this strategy might be appropriate, it is slightly impaired by the fact that most jihadists are not intimidated by violence since they are ready to sacrifice their lives. The Terror Management Theory is more appropriate because it gets to the root of the problem and counters the justifications that the terrorists use to convince their followers.


Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., & Pyszczynski, T. (1997). Terror management theory of self-esteem and cultural worldviews: Empirical assessments and conceptual refinements. Advances in experimental social psychology29, 61-139.

Nail, T. (2016). A tale of two crises: migration and terrorism after the Paris attacks. Studies in ethnicity and nationalism16(1), 158-167.

Rosenblatt, A., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Lyon, D. (1989). Evidence for terror management theory: I. The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who violate or uphold cultural values. Journal of personality and social psychology57(4), 681.

Vail, K. E., Rothschild, Z. K., Weise, D. R., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Greenberg, J. (2010). A terror management analysis of the psychological functions of religion. Personality and Social Psychology Review14(1), 84-94.