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The Hammer of God: Mortality Salience under COVID-19

In 1974, Ernest Becker wrote The Denial of Death, a wonderful piece of psychology. While one of the characteristics unique to human beings is their awareness of their own mortality, the brutally obvious fact is that we all die. Becker argues that much of human psychology is built around denying it, deceiving ourselves about it, hiding it from ourselves, and defending ourselves in various ways against this deep existential terror. There is even an Ernest Becker Society founded to address and make people aware of these issues and their consequences. Three social psychological researchers have developed something called Terror Management Theory, which explores the consequences of situations in which our mortality is made salient to us, comparing experimental groups for whom mortality has been made salient to control groups for whom it has not. There are a lot of ways to make mortality more salient, from exposing people to images or representations of death, to measuring responses in front of a funeral home versus an electronics store. What mortality salience does is to invoke, however indirectly, the terror of death. The consequences include shoring up one’s beliefs or ideologies, often making them more rigid or their holders more defensive, and the stronger the manipulation, the more readily that defensiveness can lead to anger or even violence against those who threaten them.

What I want to explore here is how a major historical event, like the events of 9.11.2001, and certainly 2020's nigh year-long pandemic producing millions of deaths, have contributed to a polarization of beliefs and ideologies. I am sure many other things have also contributed, like the “siloing” of information sources for different belief groups, misinformation campaigns, and tribal identifications of the sort Jonathan Haidt explored in his book The Righteous Mind. But mortality salience must surely have made no small contribution despite the likelihood that we may be motivated to hide from ourselves this source. We’d best be careful, as one of the products of our denial is to project our fears onto others and act accordingly. This is precisely what no less of a thinker than Sigmund Freud, responding to the terrors of the “War to End All Wars” (Part I), added Thanatos to Eros as the twin towers of human motivation. Where Eros is a tension-reduction motivation tied to the fulfilling of sexual desires, conscious or not, Thanatos is the motivation to reduce ALL tension, in death, a motivation commonly kept unconscious but nevertheless driving many of the “security operations” by which we avoid acknowledging this motivation by projecting it onto others against whom our fear and aggressiveness can then be directed. I have long thought that a lot of our airport security, and our “homeland security” more generally, involve a whole lot of security operations that are demonstrably ineffective in actually making us more secure, like the “security operations” of our psychological defenses (no more, really, than a catalog of techniques for self-deception, of denying ownership and otherwise keeping ourselves unaware).

Let me illustrate how Terror Management works in an unpublished study I used to regularly “simulate” as a “studio” during my last ten or fifteen years of teaching social psychology to college sophomores. I called it “The Hammer of God” study, which was a bit tongue-in-cheek, as we will see. I may have given too much away by calling it this, as it didn’t always work, wily students being pretty good at figuring out what was going on and what I expected to show. Several weeks prior to the exercise, for other purposes, I asked students to fill out a “Belief-O-Matic” survey available at no cost on the internet, which would assign each of them to rank-ordered scores on different systems of religious belief. Keeping myself “blind” to individual scores, I could later assign each student to a subject variable category of “Believer” or “Unbeliever” based on their adherence to the canonical beliefs of Western Christianity. Students randomly assigned to the “Control” condition would sign up for times an hour or so prior to class, so each could do a timed task relevant to Christian beliefs. The “Experimental” group would perform the same task during the hour or so after class. The “mortality salience” manipulation was a set of clips for the first half of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, including the final clip in which one of the Marine recruits, sitting in the bathroom in his underwear loads an ammo clip for an M-14 rifle with several rounds of bullets that are “7.62 millimeter, Full Metal Jacket), after killing his drill sergeant with a shot to the chest, puts the barrel in his mouth and blows his brains onto the tile wall. Students are treated as actual research subjects during the procedure, signing an “informed consent” sheet describing their right to withdraw at no penalty, and assurances of confidentiality in connecting their identities to any data. I also had a long discussion with the College Chaplain about whether anything in the exercise might construed as prejudicial or discriminatory against anyone based on their beliefs, regardless of this being a replication of a previously vetted study. I was assured that since we'd discuss the results fairly and openly, there would be no problem.

The “procedure” being timed as our behavioral measure was to use the contents of a box which they were told contained a block of wood, a few red nails, and something to use as a hammer. They were to start a stopwatch, then open the box, remove the contents, and then pound a nail into the wood until it stood up by itself, then stop the watch and record their time. The catch is that the “something to use as a hammer” was a foot-long oak crucifix. What the original study found, was that while there was no significant difference between the nail-pounding times without the mortality salience manipulation, that after watching the violence and death from the last clip of Full Metal Jacket, a mortality salience manipulation par excellence, the Believers were significantly slower in pounding a red nail into a block of wood with a Crucifix. Indeed, some simply failed to do so at all. Some of the Unbelievers were even a little faster, but that result was not statistically significant.

The point is that under normal circumstances, you don't find any real difference between the Believers and the Unbelievers, so the polarization of behavioral differences between the two groups is not produced by the procedure alone but is significant when they are subjected to a mortality salience manipulation. I would often generate quite a discussion when I asked my students what they thought the consequence of a massive, nationwide “mortality salience” manipulation like the events of 9.11.2001 and its sequelae. How much more of a polarization of political ideologies, their aggressive and even violent defense, and the production of clearly variant tribal identifications might you get with a year-long pandemic causing millions of deaths, particularly during the political firestorm of our once every four years national experiment in electing a president, especially with a sitting president notorious for fanning these very differences?

It’s not like the differences in beliefs and ideologies, the variant attentions, and the variant informational (and misinformational) selections weren’t already there. The structural differences in our society between the haves and the have-nots, between races, in job situations and economic circumstances, between those with access to technology and those without, between those who could work from home and those who could not, between those who suddenly had a much larger role to play in educating and caring for their offspring, and those who did not could only be seriously exacerbated by such a massive “mortality salience” manipulation. And we certainly saw this in the differences on position about race, gender, individual rights and freedoms versus community good and public safety. Never mind the massive political differences between supporters of a sitting president and his challenger that would produce the largest voting percentages of at least a generation, and an election that drove a wedge between two halves of the nation, now referred to as “red” and “blue,” over the “white” funereal pall of the sick and dying, of lost and deeply mourned loved ones on either side. Red, white, and blue after all.

I must also confess that there has been a seismic change in my own personal life, and I suspect I am not alone, where differences within families started to take on the same significance as they did in the Civil War, not just in political positions, but in, beliefs and preferences, individual values and goals, and even differences in personalities and decisional styles. Yes, I am one of many of what we might call the COVID-19 divorced. I know there are some couples, and some families for whom the salience of mortality in this pandemic has fired and tempered their strengths, even magnified them in comparison to those whose weaknesses became apparent. But we all have differences in what we believe, in values and character, but also in temperament and personal style. In my case, there was also the elephant in the room of a sizable difference in age, experience, and life-stage that accelerated an end that, while it might have been inevitable, was and is particularly painful at a time when it is difficult to believe that even a loving marriage, based on equality and friendship, could be chaperoned to its end under circumstances where its strengths might have been a boon to both parties.

There are many reasons we have separated, and I will certainly own my contributions, and it may be that we will both be better off, happier, and live fuller and richer lives than we might have otherwise. We had been together for ten and a half years, sharing the joys, as well as the tribulations of life. We had many good years, supporting each other in many ways even if we fell short in some, we had a beautiful son together, for whom we are both committed to sharing custody, and the resources of time and energy to help him grow to adulthood. We are quite amicable, to the surprise of many, and care about each other’s well-being and future happiness. But we could no longer do it together. My ex-wife was always the maximizer, the planner and the worrier, but she often had difficulties with execution, so I have a bittersweet pride in her that she was the one who left, who moved out, making a difficult decision that I can understand must have been months or even longer in the making, fully and dearly considered. I am also certain that the salience of my own mortality made no small contribution. I retired early several years ago, and tried to be the stay-at-home dad, the househusband supporting his wife’s growing business, but I also felt that I had paid my dues with 40 years of 50-60-hour weeks, had earned the worth of my retirement investments, and could now find some peace and contentment in resting on the laurels of a successful career, and a life richly lived, and pursue my interests avocationally. But my ex-wife is over the cusp of emerging adulthood, considering her own future both short and long-term, hearing the clock of her fertility ticking and wanting to grow a young family and a full life, and dreaming of a future I could not give her.

In the early days of the pandemic, since I am a “senior” and therefore in an “at risk” category, it was my ex-wife who carried most of the fine-grained decisional burdens of what she believed she must do to keep me safe, suffering the decisional fatigue that came along with those burdens. As my level of stress and anxiety, tempered by years of life’s ups and downs, only suffered minor fluctuations, hers was going through the roof. I have no doubt that the mortality salience of a pandemic also made salient by my own individual mortality, and a future likely to include eventual decline and death, long before hers would, leaving her absent of a future she has every right to anticipate in hope and joy. My retirement avocations, though suffering some necessary downsizing, could be put off or in abeyance with no great suffering, while her business, already struggling had first to be put on hiatus, and still is a long way from being rebuilt, even to pre-pandemic “early business” levels, and I was little help. I did help to see that our young son would be kept safe and psychologically healthy, have the care and socialization, and the enriching experiences his young mind and heart deserve, but his pre-schooling was far less affected than the institutional structures of education from which so many others suffer. I know that I was far from able to meet my wife’s emotional and physical needs, a situation also exacerbated by pandemic constrictions and restrictions. We were in therapy, both individual and marital, and were working to ameliorate our difficulties, but life would inevitably have its eroding effects. There was no problem that our healthy relationship, our good communication and problem-solving skills could not have helped to resolve. But there was still that elephant in the room of age and experience differences that time would only deepen, and my ex-wife’s relative youth still placed her squarely at an advantage in the relationship marketplace. It hit the nail on the head after a night of watching a romantic comedy in which she could not identify with any of the major characters because, as she put it, “I don’t have the experience,” and there are many things that she must learn from that experience, many not pleasant, but I think she had to make the decision she did and will have a richer life and deeper character for it in the long run. I think I was surprised only because I had become complacent, but I still mourn the loss of affection and companionship that friendship has yet to replace. Still, I have lived a rich and rewarding life, the ten years with her being among the best, and feel mainly gratitude for the many gifts she has given me, the most golden and glowing of which is our beloved son. I have even said to myself, more than once even since she left, that if I died tomorrow, I would die a happy man. I don’t intend to. My son keeps me young and committed to being around for a long time and I have faith that the loneliness and isolation of the pandemic will be finite. At 67 years old, I still have years left, but I also know, and value, the gifts of passion, and focus, and care that a finite and mortal life make possible.