Cultural Background Impacts Thoughts About Death

A new study to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science shows how culture can influence how people respond to mortality.

In particular, investigators found European-Americans confronted with thoughts of death are likely to try to protect their sense of self, while Asian-Americans are more likely to reach out to others. Psychologists label the topic of thinking about death as “mortality salience;” much of the research has been performed on people of European descent. In their studies, scientists have learned that “mortality salience” appears to cause people to think in dramatic ways. For example, “Men become more wary of sexy women and they like wholesome women more. People like to stereotype more. You see all these strange and bizarre occurrences when people think about the fact that they aren’t going to live forever,” said researcher Christine Ma-Kellams, a doctoral student at the University of California Santa Barbara. Researchers say another interesting observation is that people try to protect their sense of self, by putting down people who aren’t like them or distancing themselves from innocent victims. But, as a cultural psychologist, Ma wondered if this reaction might be different in other cultures. In particular, she wanted to look at people of Asian backgrounds, whose sense of self is generally more linked to people around them. Ma-Kellams recruited both European-Americans and Asian-Americans for the study. Each person was told to either write down thoughts that come to mind when thinking about their own death – or to write down their thoughts about dental pain. (Those people were the control group.) Then they were asked to decide what bail should be set for a prostitute and given a survey on their attitudes toward prostitution. As other research has found, European-American people who had thought about death were much harsher towards the prostitute than those in the control group. But Asian-Americans who thought about death were much kinder toward the prostitute – even though they started out more conservative. In a second experiment, participants were presented with a less extreme case, a story about a university employee who’d been injured in an accident through no fault of his own. The same result was found; European-Americans were more likely to blame him if they’d contemplated their own mortality, while Asian-Americans were less likely to blame him. This aligns with research that finds that European-Americans and Asian-Americans think about the self very differently. “For European-Americans, everyone wants to save themselves after thinking about death because loss of self is the worst possible consequence,” Ma-Kellams said. “Asians don’t necessarily see themselves in that individualistic kind of way. Self is very much tied up with the people around you.” In this case, that means that when they’re threatened with their own mortality, Asian-Americans apparently reach out to other people. Source: Association for Psychological Science

View of Mortality Affects How We Live Our Lives

View of Mortality Influences the Way We Live Our LifeThinking about one’s own death seems to heighten our concern for others, according to a new study that looks at how our thinking about death affects how we live. In the study, led by doctoral student Laura E.R. Blackie and colleagues from the University of Essex, researchers had people either think about death in the abstract or in a specific, personal way. They found that people who thought specifically about their own death were more likely to demonstrate concern for society by donating blood. The researchers recruited 90 people in a British town center. Some were asked to respond to general questions about death — such as their thoughts and feelings about death and what they think happens to them when they die. Others were asked to imagine dying in an apartment fire and then asked four questions about how they thought they would deal with the experience and how they thought their family would react. A control group in the study thought about dental pain. Next, the participants were given an article, supposedly from the BBC, about blood donations. Some people read an article saying that blood donations were “at record highs” and the need was low; others read another article reporting the opposite – that donations were “at record lows” and the need was high. They were then offered a pamphlet guaranteeing fast registration at a blood center that day and told they should only take a pamphlet if they intended to donate. Researchers discovered people who thought about death from a theoretical or abstract perspective were motivated by the story about the blood shortage. They were more likely to take a pamphlet if they read that article. Conversely, people who thought about their own death were likely to take a pamphlet regardless of which article they read; their willingness to donate blood didn’t seem to depend on how badly it was needed. “Death is a very powerful motivation,” Blackie said. “People seem aware that their life is limited. That can be one of the best gifts that we have in life, motivating us to embrace life and embrace goals that are important to us.” When people think about death abstractly, they may be more likely to fear it, while thinking specifically about your own death “enables people to integrate the idea of death into their lives more fully,” she said. Those who think about their mortality in a more personal and authentic manner may make them think more about what they value in life. The study will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Source: Association for Psychological Science
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