I’ve never really hung out in a social psychology laboratory, but here is how I picture a typical day in one. There are some social psychologists sitting around, drinking some sort of exotic tea, and free associating. One psychologist will say the name of a random social psychological theory, and another will then throw out the first thing that comes into his or her head. They’ll write each of these down, and the associations will then become the basis for their next several research projects. OK, so that’s probably not really what’s going on, and I suppose there’s a more scientific method to the social psychologist’s madness, but occasionally I come across a study that makes me wonder. And the great thing about having a blog is that I get to write about it when I do. Today’s example: terror management theory and modern art.
First, what’s terror management theory (TMT)? In essence, TMT says that we’re all afraid of dying, and when we think about dying (whether we’re aware of doing so or not), our need for coherence, meaning, and familiarity goes up. There are certain stimuli or contexts (e.g., self-awareness) that make us more aware of our mortality (they increase our mortality salience), which leads to fear. We’re then motivated to reduce that fear, and we do so by seeking out things that make sense or are familiar to us. Thus, when our mortality salience is high, we tend to be more likely to cling to our cherished beliefs and central cultural values, and to be less tolerant of conflicting beliefs and violations of those values1.
In what is probably the most famous set of TMT experiments, Landau et al.2 first showed that priming participants with thoughts of death (as opposed to a neutral control topic) made them more supportive of President Bush. Then, after an experiment showing that thinking of the September 11 attacks increased mortality salience, they showed that thinking of the September 11 attacks also increased support of Bush. In a follow-up study3, Cohen et al. showed that during the 2004 presidential campaign, participants whose mortality salience was high (through a manipulation similar to that in the Landau et al. experiment) were much more likely to say they would vote for Bush than Kerry, while participants in the control condition were much more likely to vote for Kerry than Bush. Apparently, mortality salience makes us more supportive of authority figures, and perhaps a bit more politically conservative as well.
On to modern art, and what TMT has to do with it. As you might imagine, people tend to prefer art that they find meaningful, and most people don’t find modern art all that meaningful, particularly when it’s not representational. So, just as when mortality salience is high, people tend to prefer coherence and familiarity when evaluating art. Landau et al.4 (a different Landau et al.) made this connection, and hypothesized that increasing mortality salience will make people like modern (nonrepresentational) art less, because it will increase their desire for meaning.
To test this hypothesis, Landau et al. conducted four studies. In the first, half of the participants read the following instructions designed to increase their mortality salience:
Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you.
Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you physically as you die and once you are physically dead.
The other half of the participants responded to similar instructions, but in reference to an upcoming exam rather than death. After a delay, participants viewed two modern paintings, Wyndham Lewis’ Workshop (below, left) and Patrick Caulfield’s After Lunch (below, right), and were asked to rate the attractiveness of the paintings on a 9-point scale.
As TMT predicted, participants found the paintings less attractive when they’d written about death than when they’d written about an upcoming exam. In a second experiment, Landau et al. found that this effect was strongest in individuals with a high “personal need for structure,” as measured by a personality test. They therefore focused on individuals with high personal need for structure in the final two experiments.
The third experiment was designed to determine whether “imbuing” a nonrepresentational work with meaning would decrease the effect of high mortality salience. As in the first two experiment, participants wrote about their death (high mortality salience) or another unpleasant event (low mortality salience; in Experiment 2-4, the unpleasant event was a visit to the dentist), and then viewed two paintings — Jackson Pollock’s Guardians of the Secret (below, bottom) and Constantin Brancusi’s The Beginning of the World (below, top).
They argued that the Pollock painting, when presented alone, would be interpreted as meaningless, while Brancusi’s photo, in which the rock is clearly a rock, and even egg-shaped (sorta), will be interpreted as meaningful. Half of the participants were thus presented with the Pollock painting labeled simply with “#12”, and the Brancusi photograph with its title. The other half of the participants viewed the Pollock painting with its title, and the Brancusi photograph with “#12.” Landau et al. believed that giving a title to a painting that would otherwise seem meaningless would help participants find meaning in it, and thus decrease the effect of high mortality salience. Consistent with this prediction, participants’ in the high mortality salience condition liked the Pollock painting better when it had a label than when it was just #12, while their opinion of the Brancusi photograph was the same whether it had a title or not.
Finally, experiment four showed that imbuing a work of art perceived as meaningless with meaning by having participants relate it to personal experience also decreased the effect of high mortality salience. So, in sum, the Landau et al. studies show that high mortality salience makes modern, nonrepresentational art less attractive, especially for participants who have a high personal need for structure, and that imbuing such works with meaning (either by giving it a title or having participants relate it to their own experiences) reduces that effect. If the authors had stopped here, they would have an interesting set of results that show how motivations can affect the perception of art, and that TMT is relevant to the interpretation of some art. Buuuut, they wouldn’t be TMT theorists if they didn’t leave behind their empirical work and attempt to say something much, much broader. Thus, they argue that art is actually designed to alleviate the fear associated with mortality salience. They write:
In sum, art has the potential to contribute critically to beliefs in the significance of ordinary experience and the existence of extraordinary worlds, helping to imbue reality with an overall sense of order, beauty, and purpose, thereby helping people to maintain psychological equanimity in the face of death while simultaneously.
Of course, this is not really what their data says. It’s not even very close. TMT is not going to give us a very broad aesthetic theory. Still, I think the studies do provide interesting insight into one of the reasons why we’re so drawn to art, and why most of us generally prefer representational art, as well as why our aesthetic preferences may differ depending on the context.
1Rosenblatt, A., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Lyon, D. (1989). Evidence for terror management theory: I. The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who violate or uphold cultural values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(4), 681-690.
2Landau, M.J., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Cohen, F., Psyzczynski, T., Arndt, J., Miller, C.H., Lgilvie, D.M., & Cook, A. (2004). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 30, No. 9, 1136-1150 (2004). Deliver us from evil: The effects of mortality salience and reminders of 9/11 on support for President George W. Bush. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(9), 1136-1150.
3Cohen, F., Ogilvie, D.M., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2005). American roulette: The effect of reminders of death on support for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 5, 177.
4Landau, M.J., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Martens, A. (2006). Windows into nothingness: Terror management, meaninglessness, and negative reactions to modern art. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(6), 879-892.