Terror Management Theory: What role do Cultural World Views play in the cause and prevention of terrorism?

Bachelor Thesis, 2010

45 Pages, Grade: 1.6


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Terrorism
1.1 Terror Management Theory and the Causes of Terrorism
1.1.1 Symbolism
1.1.2 Stereotyping
1.1.3 Hostility
1.2 Communication and Terrorism

2. Empirical Studies
2.1 Impressional Primacy
2.2 Representativeness Heuristic
2.3 Behavioral Consistency
2.4 Interpersonal Balance
2.5 Victim Derogation
2.6 Just World and Death Thought Accessibility
2.7 Benevolent Causation

3. Discussion: Implication for the Prevention of Terrorism



The issue of worldwide terrorism has gained increased attention during the 20th and 21st century, but there exists an obvious lack of long-term solutions and prevention to this problem. In order to develop preventive methods, a root cause analysis is of highest necessity. Subjectively interpreted values, beliefs and perceptions held by a group or culture often build the basis for the development of aggression towards out-group members. The Terror Management Theory (TMT) is a metatheoretical perspective, concerned with which motivational systems underlie the key psychological structures that could be central to the causes and consequences of terrorism (Landau, Miller, 2005). TMT argues that the subscription to a certain Cultural World View (CWV) serves an anxiety buffering function, by offering stability through a set of beliefs that helps one understand the nature of life and reality. This buffering and structuring function is weakened by the mere existence of a differing, competing CWV and herein lies TMT’s explanation for conflicts between different CWVs. This paper reviews the results of 7 empirical studies on TMT in order to imply insights from TMT to the cause and possible methods of prevention to terrorism. Furthermore the results are linked to the “Staircase to Terrorism” (Moghaddam, 2005). The conclusion is drawn, that Cultural World Views play an important role in the causation of terrorism. Moreover, preventive approaches based on the insights gained in this paper can be developed.

1. Introduction: Terrorism

“People all over the world feel wistful about an earlier, simpler time, and some of them turn to religious revivalism to help inoculate themselves and their children from some of the less appealing aspects of modernity and globalization.” (Stern, 2003)

The issue of worldwide terrorism has drawn increased attention following the events of September 11th. Even though terrorism has a long history there still is no general, universal definition for it. The term itself first appeared in the 18th century, mainly during the French Revolution (“le grand terreur”). This paper defines terrorism as violence which is politically or religiously motivated, plotted by groups or individuals in order to make impact on political decisions, point out grievance and to arouse fear in the population. Is there any way of dealing and coping with the worldwide problem, so that terroristic attacks can be prevented, and furthermore its impact limited? Before methods of prevention and intervention against terrorism can be developed, a decent root-cause analysis is due. This does not only include psychological research, but also highlights its paramount importance to the topic (Stevens, 2005; Moghaddam, 2005) as it will be demonstrated in this paper.

Subjectively interpreted values and beliefs held by a group or culture often build the basis for terrorist action beforehand. Some individuals and groups believe that their voices cannot be heard in society and by politicians. Moreover once incited by their operators they eventually display acts of aggression towards out-groups; and as a result of continuous involvement and a perceived legitimate aim, terroristic organizations are regarded as rightful to them. Aside from that, from the victims’ point of view, the actual attacks aim to rise specific psychological experiences after the attack, such as helplessness and fear. Clinically spoken, terrorism has very harmful psychological, especially posttraumatic, consequences for the individual victim and as well at the communal level (e.g. manifesting negative stereotypes towards immigrants, due to the present fear of terroristic attacks). The underlying psychological processes, e.g. emotions and perceptions, that lead people to become terroristic perpetrators as well as the need to understand and assist victims afflicted with types of psychological distress, emphasize the necessity of psychological research. Hence, in order to provide a long-term solution to the problem it is necessary to understand the concrete root of why people engage in terroristic organizations and even become suicide bombers. Prevention should therefore rather start with the reason for the formation of terroristic organizations and why one would join them, than trying to provide prevention by training specialists in killing the heads of these formations.

Moghaddam created with his “Staircase to Terrorism” model a useful metaphorical approach of how an individual evolves from an unsatisfied citizen to the fearful assassin the world is afraid of. The common focus on the assassination of leaders of terroristic organizations will only provide short-term solutions, but prevention gives the possibility of long-term solutions by “nourishing contextualized democracy on the ground floor” (Moghaddam, 2005). According to his model the actual terroristic act is the last step on a slandering staircase, which is based on six levels (including a ground level), with each floor defined by specific psychological processes. It is important to mention that the actual number of levels, stairs and chambers is not the important feature, but instead how people experience the staircase and decreasing amount of doors, representing available choices. The higher one goes, the lesser the possibilities for choices become, inevitably leading to the act of aggression towards out-group members, the individual itself or both. In order to explain the model in depth, the different levels will be described in the following.

The ground floor is defined by the subjective experience of justice, fairness and feelings of deficiency, caused by political, economic and material circumstances. This floor is occupied by the majority of the population, but those people differ in the decision to move further/higher on the staircase to terrorism. Therefore it is most important to understand the intensity of the perceptions named above. This means the underlying psychological conditions caused by circumstances such as shortcomings in education and grievances are crucial to the process of decision making towards the direction of terrorism, or, in this case climbing the staircase. Moghaddam states that low levels of education and high levels of poverty on their own cannot be seen as the key factors for becoming a terrorist. It is more likely that the subjective perception of these circumstances can lead to a critical development. One’s own condition compared relatively to the environment is the determining factor for a feeling of deprivation. There is a distinct difference between egoistical deprivation (the individual experiencing one’s own, absolute condition, e.g. financial, minor to the other in-group members’ condition) and fraternal deprivation (the individual experiencing one’s in-group condition minor relative to other groups), which is relevant to terrorism (Runciman, 1966). Fraternal deprivation can serve as a better predictor for feelings of dissatisfaction among a (minor-) group than egoistical deprivation does, since this one focuses on individual perceptions. This perceived dissatisfaction can in return result in collective movements and hence result in “us vs. them” thinking; black and white social categorizing. According to Moghaddam, on the first floor, the feeling of (un-)fairness has the biggest impact on the individual. The influence of the Western mass media has spread feelings of subjective minor living conditions through the depiction of capitalistic ways of life in the “rich” West and caused frustration among those who are poor, especially in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This in return causes a greater trend to follow the radical path of antiestablishment for people on the ground floor and may result in aggressive, harming behavior towards those who live in better conditions.

People who leave the ground floor and move to the first floor of Moghaddam’s Staircase to Terrorism, do this in order to find a way out of the grievance they are in. There are two crucial psychological main factors that affect their behavior here on the first floor: one’s own perception of opportunities and possibilities to improve the individual situation, as well as the perceived procedural justice. If individual development and mobility are available, the tendency to attempt non-normative actions (e.g. terroristic attacks) decreases a lot, because one’s ambitions will pay off (Tyler, 1990). Hence in societies where there are not many choices and opportunities, it is far more likely that non-normative actions takes place, e.g. in conditions like the Middle East. In this case, individuals may interpret the existing justice and government as not being fair, which results in less support for central authorities and eases up the influence of terroristic organizations. Procedural justice is of big necessity in this case because it influences how fair people see the decision-making process to be, affected by their own possibility to participate in the process of decision making. The fact is that Saudi Arabia, the country of origin for many of the most influential terrorist networks, particularly lacks any options for voice, mobility and participatory democracy. A consequence of this situation is the displacement of aggression for people’s problems away from the own government onto others, and those who do so will eventually climb up to the second floor, us versus them.

It is evident, that anti-Westernism is used by eastern governments to shift their people’s attention away from their own shortcomings, even though most of them are relying on their financial support (Sharp, 2009). The black and white, good versus evil and us versus them thinking is supported by the education system and leads some individuals of a group to develop openness for physically displacing aggression, once they are afflicted with terroristic ideas. Those leave the second floor and move onto the third floor and become engaged in a morality that condones terrorism. A terrorist organization itself kind of exists in the twilight, as a parallel world where a parallel morality is ruling. This morality justifies the means to a better end, an ideal society, which is the aim to achieve, so that there is no feeling of deprivation in relation to others. This in-group morality is the just one, whereas the out-group morality is regarded as incorrect and wrong; at least that is what terrorist organizations use to persuade individuals to become disengaged from the communal morality as it is defined by the government. Terrorists come to live in two separate worlds. One is the “normal” life as father or mother of a family and member of a community, the other one isolated and secret within the organization, aimed to result in absolute affiliation with other in-group members. The organization sees itself as the only strategy to obtain a reformed society, proven by the government’s shortcomings and furthermore serves as a home for individuals who feel treated unjust and unfair. The potential terrorist on the third floor is now in the isolated secretive organization, with its own extreme morality, dedicated to change the world by any means.

The 4th floor, once entered, leaves barely any options for leaving the secret world of the terrorist organization. There are two types of new recruits: long-term members, who serve as a part of a small cell of 4-5 people; and short-term members, the foot soldiers who will carry out terroristic attacks and become suicide bombers, sometimes only being a member for 24h. These small cell structures, which are not only used by Middle East organizations, but also Latin American Guerilla forces, strengthen the social categorization through us versus them even more. The more often an individual meets another one, the stronger the in-group bonding. Intense small-group activities result in this bounded perception of the world, legitimating the terrorist organization and its goals by any means.

Two psychological processes are crucial to the 5th level: social categorization and psychological distance. The us-versus-them thinking also includes civilians from the same society, but outside the group, categorizing them as out-group members. Consequently they are transformed into enemies, since they are not actively participating in the fight against the grievances, government or intruders. Hence, this justifies the death of multiple citizens during suicide bombings. According to Lorenz’ (1970) inhibitory mechanisms, intra-species killing is inhibited through a particular mechanism that signals (through submission) the stronger being in a fight to stop, before the opponent gets seriously injured or killed. Both humans and animals exhibit this mechanism but through the development of distance weapons, such as guns, the signals of submission cannot be perceived from the attacker. Signals such as crying, eye contact and begging normally trigger the inhibitory mechanism. Suicide bombing involves getting close to at least one of the victims, but even then the inhibitory mechanism is sidestepped through the psychological distance, which is built up on the social categorization of in- and out-group. In addition, the victim itself is not aware of the present danger and pending attack. Hence it cannot trigger inhibitory mechanisms. A person on the 5th level of Moghaddam’s Staircase to terrorism Model has been psychologically prepared and encouraged to display acts of aggression and terrorism.

Of course not everybody is likely to become a terrorist, some are more and some are less. In order to understand the underlying conditions that enable an individual to rise to the 5th and final floor of the staircase, one has to comprehend the situation on the ground floor and change it in order to achieve a long-term prevention against terrorism. Research has to discover which processes are responsible for and are controlling terrorism in order to create and provide an approach of how terrorism might be prevented and furthermore how terror risk can be managed and judged (Fischhoff, Small, Lerner, 2005). Next to Moghaddam’s approach, the experimental psychology of judgment, communication and learning is of big relevance to this scientific topic, too. By providing enough information to the citizens, social risks such as dissatisfaction towards the government and officials due to a feeling of not being informed good enough, can be reduced. The Terror Management Theory (TMT) is a metatheoretical perspective, imbued by the work of Ernest Becker, concerned with which motivational systems underlie the key psychological structures that are central to the causes and consequences of terrorism (Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, Chatel, 1992). According to TMT, when people realize their own mortality they experience a natural fear of death, which leads them to hang onto a specific cultural world view (CWV). That central world view can either be of political or religious nature and it includes a set of beliefs that helps one understand the nature of life and reality, and that offers stability. The CWV therefore inferentially serves an anxiety buffering function. Even though, the meaning resulting from faith in a CWV is important, it does not sufficiently protect one from the threat of one’s own mortality (and therefore one’s own finiteness). A]s a result, it is important that one has the belief that he/she serves an important role in his/her social network, which provides the basis for self-esteem (Landau et al., 2004; Landau, Miller, 2005;). Having contributed something important to the CWV gives one the feeling of being remembered even after mortality, in a sense it offers the opportunity of figurative immortality. In the extreme case of potential terrorists, the perceived inequality of their CWV’s political or religious position can lead them to the belief that terrorism is the only effective strategy available in the asymmetric power context the group finds itself.

TMT states that the mere existence of another CWV destabilizes one’s own worldview, and by doing so it reduces its buffer-function. This can be seen as the possible cause for the development of terrorism. Since both possible victims and terrorists subscribe to a certain kind of CWV, this thesis addresses the question, which implications can be made from empirical TMT research regarding the prevention of terrorism. Can the Terror Management Theory give insight into why some extremist fundamentalist groups wreak havoc and aggression among people who do not share their opinions, values and beliefs and provide an approach for prevention? Moreover, the results will be combined with Moghaddam’s “Staircase to Terrorism” Model.

1.1 Terror Management Theory and the Causes of Terrorism

A Cultural World View is build up of shared values and beliefs about reality, based upon religious or political points of view. In order to adhere to this sometimes unstable construction of beliefs, a stable social compliance is necessary among one’s CWV and its members. Present other CWV’s are responsible for the fragility of one’s own and result in a decreased buffer function against the recumbent existential anxieties (Landau, Miller, 2005). Hence the mere existence of another CWV, with differing values and beliefs, saps the strength of and our reliance on our own CWV. Therefore the other existing CWV is decreasing the effectiveness as a buffer against mortality and anxiety. This condition eventually triggers compensatory psychological defense mechanisms, which serve the function to upkeep one’s confidence in the subscribed CWV. Once triggered, the compensatory mechanisms reinforce one’s own faith in the CWV by, e.g. gaining an increased tolerance for compatible other worldviews, or the exact opposite, namely decreasing the tolerance for incompatible worldviews, in order to perpetuate and restore the CWV’s buffering function.

Landau and Miller state that once an individual becomes aware of its mortality again, the first reflex is to project the potential anxiety onto strangers who do not share one’s beliefs about reality; a case of intolerance . Instead of oneself, these individuals should experience the anxiety that haunts one. Nevertheless, if a human is not capable of persuading them to adapt to the same CWV or persuade oneself of the inferior nature of this competing world view, the final solution as it is concluded by most terrorist fascist, is to diminish this threatening presence. Hence this gives an insight into the mechanisms that motivate individuals in terrorism, in need to reassure and stabilize their own, buffering CWV and perceived nature of reality. One of the underlying processes for this phenomenon is the so called empirically supported mortality salience hypothesis (MS). It states that conditions as mentioned earlier heightens the salience of mortality in order to intensify diverse cognitive and behavioral efforts to defend or bolster central aspects of the individual’s worldview and self-worth (Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszcynski, 1997). Research has shown that MS effects particularly result from activating thoughts of death. This has been proven by research from Greenberg, Solomon & Pysczynski and Greenberg, Martens and Jonas (1997, 2004), during which participants had to think about aversive topics such as physical pain and social or academic failure. Even though the effects sometimes produce more negative affect than MS inductions, such as arousal and fear concerning pain that is linked to the experience of, e.g. dental pain, they never produced the same effects that MS has on triggering primary measures of worldview defense.

Landau et al (2004) assume that next to practical means, the need for preserving one’s structure, concepts and schemas about nature and reality also serves the function of maintaining epistemic perspicuity, which is due for keeping faith in the individual terror- satisfying view of reality. That faith is kept by minimizing possible double entendre and thus maintaining durability and order. This complements the lay epistemology theory (Kruglanski, 1990), because it assumes a distal motive for striving for closure on conclusive and certain judgments (Landau et al, 2004). Lay epistemology claims that clinging on certain hypotheses helps a person to restrict the amount of contradicting information that is processed through ignoring alternative hypotheses, because those might bring one to question the faith in held beliefs (Kruglanski, 1989). When linking this with TMT, the mere consideration of an alternative hypothesis can undermine the coping with death-related anxiety, since this hypothesis can intervene with the subscribed, implicit thoughts and beliefs of a person’s worldview.

To sum it up, according to Landau and Miller, the reason for the creation of terrorism is a reciprocal relationship between one’s own mortality salience, the need for finding a stable buffer against this anxiety and the threat that is created by the existence of another Cultural World View, representing a potential destabilizer for one’s own subscription. TMT gives a crucial account for the reasons why the frameworks of a CWV are psychologically significant. As further addition, Landau and Miller discuss the importance of Communication Theory (CT) to the topic of terrorism. While TMT explains why the frameworks of values and beliefs about reality are important, CT gives an account of how these frames are created and perceived. CT provides insights into several important aspects of the concept of terrorism, particularly about how people react, feel and think about terrorism.

1.1.1 Symbolism

Following the attacks of 9/11, American citizens displayed patriotic reactions, including songs of honor for victims and firemen, as well as nationalistic pride in the form of images and narratives in the media, and especially big support for the government. The last one became obvious through reactions towards increased security measures, decreased privacy rights, which would not have been imagined before the attacks (Landau, Miller, 2005). If one transfers these happenings onto the level of CT, the symbols of patriotism represent the shared views and values of Americans and their CWV, “freedom”, “liberty” and “justice”, which represent sacred symbols of their nationalistic pride.

1.1.2 Stereotyping

After the attacks of 9/11, many Americans increased their use of stereotypes. Stereotypes are a kind of heuristic that serve the function to simplify conceptions about others, especially those considered to be enemies (in this case people from the Near and Middle East) and thus making them more predictable (Landau, Miller, 2005; see also Uncertainty Reduction Theory below). According to TMT this mechanism functions as a mean to give order to one’s own CWV, because they offer us simple and coherent ways of reflecting about dissimilar others, lending meanings to a confusing social world. By serving these functions, stereotypes work economically, making one to have to think less careful. Moreover, as a defense against anxiety, by allying one in that it is all predictably unsurprising. Berger and Calabrese (1975) state with their Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT), that humans have a primal need of decreasing uncertainty concerning their interacting environment. However, uncertainty is increased by the dissimilarity between people, resulting in a trend of reducing resemblance, which means they distance themselves from dissimilar others. Hence, stereotyping in this situation might amplify a condition that already is uncomfortable, through increasing the distance to those who are seen as subscribed to a different CWV. This can be linked to the earlier mentioned psychological distance that is necessary for someone to be capable of performing an act of violence towards innocent, but nevertheless dissimilar others.

1.1.3 Hostility

TMT has proven that a consequence of mortality salience can be observed in increased negative thoughts about those people whose cultural values and beliefs differ. The “Coordinated Management of Meaning” (CMM), which was created by Pearce and Cronen (1980) states that, the concept of “deontic logic” gives a guideline for how social interaction should or should not take place, thus, CMM is normative. Everyday life situations confront people with the need to decide of what should be done next. This decision or question of what to do, is surrounded by a web of rights, interdictions, obligingness duties and efforts. The overlap within this web forms a deontic logic of people’s systems of norms (Pearce, Cronen, 1980). In addition, Pearce has tagged a category of conflict for dissimilar social or cultural groups, who differ so intensely that there is no basis upon which the two can cooperate about a conflict (Pearce, 2004). The deontic logics are, according to CMM, the basic instance behind cross-cultural violence (Landau, Miller, 2005). This statement is supported by TMT research, during which mortality salience led to the increased negative reactions towards others, as mentioned above. One of those experiments, conducted by Greenberg et al. (1990), used mortality salience induction, which resulted in a bigger hostility rating towards members of the out-group ( in this case Christian vs. Jewish ), in comparison with the control group participants. An exaggerated hostility towards the Jewish targets was displayed.

1.2 Communication and Terrorism

Without good communication, people do not know how to behave and respond, before, during and after an incident with such an impact like a terroristic attack. Therefore, ever since 9/11 has happened, research started to focus on turning communication research into practical approaches to prepare and make citizens aware of possible threats stemming from terroristic attacks (Sparks, Kreps, Botan, Rowan, 2005). The individual citizen has to decide how to protect him-/herself and their families. Hence, decent and a satisfying amount of information has to be offered beforehand. If not, direct victims, as well as indirect victims (family members, members of a community/society) will have the feeling that they were denied critical information. This can in turn not only aggravate an already complicated situation, but also turn them against their own governments, resulting in an unstable social condition (Fischhoff et al, 2003). Thus, citizens need qualitative information as well as the policy makers need to comprehend their citizens’ beliefs.

Crisis communication is described as the communication with the public before, during and after an impactful, negative event such as 9/11 (Coombs, 1999). The definition for crisis event is an event that entails big uncertainty and discerned threat to the population, in this case a terroristic attack (Seeger, Ulmer, 2002).

2. Empirical Studies

The research on the prevention of terrorism is very restricted to only a few empirical studies. Even though Landau et al. have conducted seven studies concerning terror risk perception, the results from those experiments have not yet been applied to the topic of terrorism. The set of studies investigates the impact of mortality salience on the preference for simple, consistent and meaningful views of the social world (Landau et al., 2004), which does not imply that the preference for simple concepts is a universal terror management strategy. Terror management differs among people in the extent to which they show preference for simple, unambiguous knowledge structures in order to give consistence and meaning to experience. Some can in contrast prefer ambiguity and rather prefer diversity, tolerance and novelty (Kruglanski & Freund, 1983). For their research, Landau et al. argue that the induction of mortality salience should increase the tendency to heuristically use schemas that support one’s expectations. This idea is consistent with the TMT prediction that suggests more stereotyping as a form of structuring which results from mortality salience. Schimel et al. (1999) discovered that mortality salience would lead to more positive evaluations when out-group targets behave in a stereotypic manner and in turn to more unfavorable judgments when they behave in an un-stereotypic manner. In the following the seven studies by Landau et al. (2004) will be presented and then discussed from the point of view of TMT.


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Terror Management Theory: What role do Cultural World Views play in the cause and prevention of terrorism?
Maastricht University  (Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience)
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Terrorism, Terror, Psychology, PRevention, Intervention, Cause, Moghaddam, TMT, Terror Management Theory, approach, Staircase model, Ursache, Terrorismus, Psychologie, Loesung, Long term solution, short term solution, root cause analysis, landau, miller, Terrorismusbekaempfung, Terrorismupraevention, praevention, internationaler terrorismus, prevention of terrorism, psychology of terrorism, terror in the name of god, religious terrorism, political terrorism, politischer terrorismus, terror im auftrag des herrn, terrorismus im auftrag des herrn, terrorismus im auftrag gottes, terror im auftrag gottes, terrorismusanalyse, analysis of terrorism, category, prinz, roman, Roman Prinz, mortality salience, impression, cross categorizing, intercultural, relation, world views, osama bin laden, greenberg, impressional primacy, representativeness heuristic, behavioral consistency, interpersonal balance, victim derogation, just world, death thought accessibility, benevolent causation, implication, stereotyping, heuristic, symbolism, stern, fraternal deprivation, individual deprivation
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Roman Prinz (Author), 2010, Terror Management Theory: What role do Cultural World Views play in the cause and prevention of terrorism?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/172015


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