Death as the ultimate loss of control: comparing the effects of mortality salience and loss of control through an examination of moderators and outcomes

Zenobia Talati

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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[Truncated abstract] After experiencing a self-threat, people engage in a range of compensatory strategies to alleviate the discomfort caused by this threat. Two self-threats examined in the present thesis were loss of control and reminders of death (mortality salience). After experiencing mortality salience or a threat to control people tend to engage in worldview defence. For example, they show more ingroup bias by showing greater approval of ingroup supporters and greater disliking of ingroup critics. Proponents of Terror Management Theory assert that worldview defence allows people to feel validated by their culture and experience symbolic immortality. Control theorists propose that worldview defence helps restore a sense of control by allowing individuals to vicariously feel in control by aligning themselves with large powerful groups. Given that death contains an element of uncontrollability, it is likely that the compensatory strategies which people engage in after mortality salience are driven at least in part by a need to restore one's sense of control. The aim of this thesis was to compare the effect of loss of control and mortality salience on different compensatory strategies and examine what variables moderate this relationship. I also sought to apply the findings from the present thesis and the wider literature to real world situations. Study 1 adapted a previously used experimental manipulation in which participants were either asked to think about a controllable death, an uncontrollable death or a control topic. Manipulating the degree of control associated with death allowed us to tease apart to what extent death or loss of control was responsible for subsequent worldview defence. Past research has generally manipulated this by asking people to write about controllable or uncontrollable death. Study 1 began by examining whether the concepts of death and loss of control could be primed by having participants read a scenario in which a person experiences either a controllable or uncontrollable death. This manipulation was used since it more closely parallels the way in which we would be exposed to this information in daily life (i.e. by reading about it in a newspaper article or fictional story). The results from this study suggest that reading about, compared to writing about, death or loss of control is not a sufficiently powerful prime to evoke worldview defence. Studies 2 - 4 tested whether the effects of controllable and uncontrollable death on worldview defence would apply across cultures, using samples from Australia, the US and China. Across all 3 studies, results consistently showed that participants showed greater worldview defence when they thought of an uncontrollable death compared to a controllable death. Locus of control and implicit self-esteem moderated the effect but explicit self-esteem did not...
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2013


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