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Art Markman, Ph.D. Headshot

Terror Management Theory and the Boston Marathon Tragedy

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In the wake of the bombing of the Boston Marathon, Americans all feel closer to the city of Boston. A wonderful cartoon in the New Yorker this week showed two Yankees fans wearing Boston Red Sox uniforms. Even Yankees fans can put aside their rivalry in the face of tragedy.

This pattern is similar to one we have seen before following horrible events. After the 9/11 attacks, French newspaper Le Monde ran a headline saying, "We Are All Americans."

Why do we feel closer to others in times of crisis?

There is a prominent framework in social psychology called "terror management theory" that helps us to understand this behavior.

This theory starts with the observation that -- as human beings -- we are probably the only species on the planet that are able to think about our own death. This creates a kind of existential terror. We know that some day we will not exist any more.

How do we deal with this knowledge that some day we will die?

In order to relieve the anxiety that comes with think about our death, we try to find ways that we will live on beyond our years. One way that we do this is to strengthen our ties to the groups we belong to and to our culture more broadly. So, the typical Yankees fan may usually be focused on the rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox. In times of threat, though, the identity as an American becomes more important, because that is something that will live on. And in that moment, the distinction between the Yankees and the Red Sox fades into the background.

There is a downside to terror management as well. People who are dealing with thoughts of death tend to treat others who fall outside the group and who violate the social norms of a group negatively. In times of crisis, we judge others particularly harshly.

In the case of suspected terrorists, this judgment can ultimately lead to abuses. Those who committed the atrocities on 9/11 deserve to be punished. Similarly, as the plot related to the bombing of the Boston Marathon becomes clear, all of those responsible should be brought to justice.

However, in the aftermath of 9/11, we also condoned torture of suspects and the suspension of due process. Well over a decade after 9/11, we still hold prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. We have denied them the rights we give to U.S. citizens. Our need to grapple with threats to our existence makes it easier to dehumanize those we see as the enemy.

Ultimately, we do not want to lose our own humanity as we grapple with events like the tragedy in Boston.

That is how the terrorists win.

For more by Art Markman, Ph.D., click here.

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