Mixing Memory

i-cf2f17087ca56899d1b21d3afaebccb7-Kandinsky_Composition_VI.JPGI’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.


  1. #1 albatross
    September 26, 2006

    The research seems to be assuming that modern art is basically meaningless, and that this matters more to people when they’re reminded of their mortality. The interesting question is whether this still works with people who don’t consider it meaningless, or unstructured, or whatever. That is, someone who has studied modern art might see something meaningful in the painting.

    How do the researchers distinguish the thinking-about-death->need-more-meaning idea from the (to me equally plausible) idea that thinking about death invokes religious ideas in most people, which may then be linked to more traditional or conservative impulses?

  2. #2 Chris
    September 26, 2006

    Albatross, on the first point, they actually do discuss the fact that expertise alters perception of art. In particular, people who understand the context of modern art find it meaningful, even when it’s nonrepresentational, while nonexperts tend to find it meaningless or close to it.

    On your question, it could very well be that invoking religious ideas is the pathway by which more conservative political leanings are activated by mortality salience. I’m not sure anyone’s looked at the exact causal pathway yet.

  3. #3 Reginleif
    October 1, 2006

    Ah, right. People don’t hate “modern art” (an oxymoron) because the overwhelming majority of it is talentless shite created by politically correct hacks in search of a soapbox. No, those of us who prefer art that required some talent to create, and that is actually pleasing to look at, are no longer just “philistines,” but pathologically afraid of death.

    So glad to hear it. I’m sure these fine folks will be as well.

  4. #4 Chris
    October 1, 2006

    Hey, you’re barkin’ up the wrong tree here. I’m a huge fan of modern art, with prints of work by people like Kandinsky, Klee, and Lewis decorating my apartment. Very little of it is “political” (and when it is — say, Picasso’s “Guernica,”– it’s often brilliantly so). Modern art has a history, and a progression, that fits quite well that can be readily explained and observed, and give meaning to much of the art you find meaningless. I won’t assume that you’re simply unaware of that history, but perhaps with a little more attention to it, you might come to appreciate at least some modern art as well.

    As for your jab at the findings of the research, it doesn’t say, or imply, that all criticism of modern art is based in fear of death. Also, if you want to criticize research on a science blog, it’s better to actually engage that research, rather than just sneer at it with righteous indignation.

  5. #5 Amanda Marcotte
    October 1, 2006

    Heh, odds are you new philistine troll actually likes a lot of modern art that was made safely in the past. 😉

  6. #6 Reginleif
    October 2, 2006

    Modern art has a history, and a progression, that fits quite well that can be readily explained and observed, and give meaning to much of the art you find meaningless. I won’t assume that you’re simply unaware of that history, but perhaps with a little more attention to it, you might come to appreciate at least some modern art as well.

    Oh, I see. My sense of aesthetics is wrong, and yours is right — a sentiment echoed by Amanda, who calls me a “philistine.”

    And the art snobs like yourselves wonder why people won’t go to art museums anymore. Hint: It’s not because “Precious Moments” isn’t on display. It’s because a great many intelligent and art-loving people can’t relate to all the pretentious shit — literally, in one case — that garners so much praise.

    Meanwhile, folks with actual talent are dismissed as “illustrators,” because they create so-called inferior “representative art.”

    I actually have a copy of Picasso’s The Lovers, which is a decent painting. I also happen to like Van Gogh. But I can’t stand Kandinsky, Klee, Klimt, Pollock, or the impressionists. I’m sorry, but dripping paint on a fucking canvas is nowhere near in the same league as painstakingly recreating the human face, or a gorgeous landscape, or something else with recognizable form.

    As for the oh-so-“edgy” autists (no typo) who straight-facedly claim that a crucifix in a jug of urine, or balls of dung on the face of the Virgin Mary, are not only art but are reverent homages to religion…cut it out. You’re not fooling anyone. I’m an atheist and I have no use for organized religion, but I have even less use for that sort of fraud, or the gullible bourgeois bohemians who eat it up.

    (Oh, and to the owner of this blog: Why, exactly, do “nofollow” tags appear in my URLs? Frightened that a “philistine” like myself might redirect your sensitive and refined regulars to Goatse or something?)

  7. #7 Coert
    December 4, 2006

    Settle down Beavis! This is a science-blog where people try to reason intelligibly and on a decent level of discourse. It seems to me that level is quite beyond you. As for your comments about the artists you like/dislike, who cares!? Please save us your piss-christ-bashing, it’s so boring.

    The topic is actually very interesting. It leaves me wondering: The research suggests that everyone starts out with a natural bias towards modern art due his/her mortality salience and, as I understand it, when some conscious knowledge of the context is acquired one will see abstract art as more meaningful in one way or another and by that the bias dissipates. Now I wonder, what does this contextual knowledge actually do to your aesthetic judgement? Were tests done that actually show that contextually informed people with a high mortality salience like the Pollock without a title just as well as the Brancusi? And if so, what then is judged in modern art by an informed observer? The appeal of the artwork itself, or merely ones knowledge of the historical context?

  8. #8 victoria
    December 20, 2006

    If tests like this must be done to prompt more positive analysis from people when they see Modernist Art I think it shows how worthless most of it is. These kinds of psychological tests are unnecessary for masters like Raphael, Michelangelo or Manet.

  9. #9 tristero
    November 2, 2007

    The first experience of art I can remember is seeing the big Jackson Pollock at MOMA during a field trip. I absolutely loved it. The rest of the class, including the teacher, snickered, “Hey, I can do that!” Not true.

    To this day, I fail to understand how anyone could enjoy representational art merely because it represents familiar objects, whether it is Rembrandt or Wagner. It seems such simple-minded and cheesy reasons to waste time staring at a painting. OTOH, Mondrian, Duchamp, or more recently, Ann Hamilton and Richard Serra – now that’s real art. Sublime, witty, tough as nails, and utterly unreal. I can, and have, stared at that art for hours. And the experience of it is one important reason I became an artist (composer).

    As for the kind of social psych questions asked here, about the popularity or non-popularity of a genre of art, those are as coherent a set of questions as ones about the popularity of a particular Hox gene. I truly fail to understand what they are asking.

  10. #10 tristero
    November 2, 2007

    Coert, There is no artwork that exists outside an historical context. Nor can historical context redeem a lousy work of art.

    In fact, the aesthetic notion of timelessness – that is, an artwork existing outside of history – is a conscious one exploited by many artists, including myself. There are many ways to do this. For example in his music, Bach deliberately invokes styles that were forty or fifty years “behind the times” but also employs harmonies and textures that were inconceivable within the actual constraints of those styles. The effect, noted by many people, most recently Martin Beck in his new biography of Bach, is that his music floats outside of a specific time.

    The reasons why someone would want to write like that, or paint like that, are however a function of the historical moment, a response – for example – to a rapidly changing aesthetic that seems ephemeral.

    Sorry for all the big words here, but it’s hard to express this in simpler language.

  11. #11 Nomen Nescio
    November 2, 2007

    i could accept that one needs to understand a historical context in order to make sense of modern art. the thing is, though, i already do understand a historical context — the same one anybody who lives in, and can function in, modern western society considers just plain “history”. why should i have to study and learn another one just to comprehend why (for instance) a blank canvas is a “work of art” that can be “ruined” by having an overenthusiastic spectator scribble red lipstick over it?

    we’ve already got a shared historical context, a perfectly good one that’s served as the framework for much great art. why do modern artists seemingly feel the need to invent a different one just for themselves?

  12. #12 Colugo
    November 2, 2007

    Historian Roger Griffin on modernism:


    “Unlike “modernity”, the impact of new technology and social relations which has the tendency to destabilise traditional societies, “modernism” is a term usually applied to the arts that have broken with the formal conventions of the Renaissance. …

    (A) major paradox lies at the heart of modernism: its emotional wellspring is not modern. Rather it lies in a primordial human drive to erect what sociologist Peter Berger called “a sacred canopy” to act as a shield against the terror of the void of chaos and death. Modernity, by tearing holes in that canopy, by threatening the cohesion of traditional culture and its capacity to absorb change, triggers an instinctive self-defensive reflex to repair it by reasserting “eternal” values and truths that transcend the ephemerality of individual existence. …

    From this perspective modernism is a radical reaction against modernity.”


    “(T)he cultural rebellion against the Enlightenment project which gathered such strength from the 1880s onwards in Europe … can be seen as the synchronic appearance … of a number of highly idiosyncratic quests to put an end to ‘decadence’ (i.e. a ‘fallen’, disenchanted, entropic, private, ‘old’ time) and inaugurate a ‘rebirth’, (i.e. enter a ‘higher’, magic, regenerative, collective, ‘new’ time’). … The leading figures of the occult revival and many pioneers of artistic modernism fit this pattern. Thus, figures like Madame Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, Yeats, Wagner, Stravinsky, Segantini, Kandinsky, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Rilke, and artists in such disparate movements as Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism were in their very different ways concerned both with the achievement of ‘ecstasy’ … and with acting as a catalyst to the diffusion of new forms of consciousness to ‘save’ the West from what they saw as a process of spiritual atrophy.”

  13. #13 freds
    November 2, 2007

    Seems like pretty straightforward hypothesis driven experimentation until that last sentence. Oh my.

    For an interesting hypothesis about how art and physics have paralleled each other in western civilization, see Art & Physics by Leonard Shlain. Well written and fun to think about even if you ultimately reject his hypothesis. I think his ideas are relevant to both the blog and the discussion. He gives you a different way of approaching the conceptualization that goes into art, whether it is art you appreciate or not.

  14. #14 bfy28lee
    June 4, 2009

    hey, that is a different painting bu i like it

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