The Frontal Cortex

Mortality Salience

Over at Mind Matters, I’ve got an interview with Sheldon Solomon. We talk about fear, death, the fear of death, and politics. In this excerpt, Solomon describes an extremely clever experiment, in which he primed judges to think about death and then observed how this affected their judicial decisions:

LEHRER: How does this theory relate to mortality salience (MS)? And what’s an experimental example of mortality salience at work?

SOLOMON: A large body of evidence shows that momentarily making death salient, typically by asking people to think about themselves dying, intensifies people’s strivings to protect and bolster aspects of their worldviews, and to bolster their self-esteem. The most common finding is that MS increases positive reactions to those who share cherished aspects of one’s cultural worldview, and negative reactions toward those who violate cherished cultural values or are merely different.

Our first experiment was conducted with 22 municipal court judges in Tucson, Ariz. We told the judges we were studying the relation between personality traits, attitudes and bond decisions. A bond is a sum of money a defendant pays prior to trial to be released from prison in the interim. The judges completed a set of questionnaires consisting of some standard personality assessment instruments. Embedded in the personality assessments were two questions designed to trigger mortality salience: “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you” and “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.” Only half of the judges were randomly given these questions to answer.

The judges were then given a legal case brief virtually identical to one they would typically see before a trial. The brief stated the arresting charge, which was prostitution, and the defendant’s address, employment record and length of residency. A copy of the citation issued to the defendant when she was arrested was also included. Finally, the judges were given a form to set bond for the defendant. We chose judges for the study because they are rigorously trained to make rational and uniform decisions based solely on evidence relative to existing laws. And we had them pass judgment on an alleged prostitute because prostitution offends the moral sensibilities of the average American. To the extent that cultural worldviews serve to mitigate mortal terror, we hypothesized that judges who thought about death would set higher bonds than those in the control condition. The results were striking. Judges in the control condition set an average bond of $50, which was typical for this charge in actual cases at the time. However, judges who thought about their death set an average bond of $455.


  1. #1 karin Wells
    November 7, 2009

    This is fascinating!

    Also, is there any research that covers the way people defend their faith in false information and that calling out the inaccuracies isn’t all that effective in changing minds?

    We’re seeing it right now in our health card debates – people cling to their belief in “death panels” even though is has been proven to be false information.

    Why do people do this? How can they be encouraged to examine evidence and show rational thought once their minds are made up?

    Is it all based in fear?

  2. #2 Petronila Swearngin
    November 27, 2010

    Wow, this actually makes me wonder. It is a type of mouth-opener to me.

  3. #3 Emily
    January 2, 2011

    Searched Google and ended up here – its good so I posted the site on my Facebook account !

  4. #4 Emily
    January 2, 2011

    I’m still learning from you, but I’m making my way to the top as well. I definitely liked reading all that is written on your blog.Keep the stories coming. I enjoyed it

  5. #5 Nickolas Norsaganay
    September 14, 2011

    The problem with your analysis is that in Mormonism a Prophet is a duly recognized authority, and not just anyone spouting off revelations. That isnt to mean that Mormons dont believe in personal revelation. However, that is the key word: personal. He wouldnt have any authority and be ex-communicated if he did proclaim himself a prophet.

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