Terror Management Theory

March 29, 2007

entershop.pngTo the best of our knowledge humans are the only animals aware of their own mortality. We also have an innate desire for self-preservation and therefore much angst can be generated when exposed to the awareness of the inevitable end of our existence. Terror management theory concerns itself with how we deal with the paralyzing fear of our own death.

Recently there have been a few articles and studies conducted linking terror management and consumerism. It seems that the accumulation of material goods helps us relieve, albeit temporarily, our existential angst. As mentioned briefly in a previous journal entry, one enormous aspect of the Internet is to draw the user closer and closer to the ‘buy’ button. What place could this new form of communication and purchasing tool have in terror management theory? Surely there are many, but I will cover one which can be dubbed bargain hunting.

Many of us know someone who loves to collect coupons for everything. Perhaps some will consider them to be penny-pinchers but I think another mechanism better explains their behavior. From an evolutionary perspectives we as humans have developed to seek out our food. Throughout the ages we have created more efficient tools to kill and grow food with. Participating in the act of obtaining or preparing sustenance likely relieves anxiety, increasing self-esteem, etc. (perhaps this one reason why a housewife finds a degree of fulfillment.) As humans have developed the ease by which we obtain goods has increased immeasurably. Today all we must do is sit in a car, drive to our local supermarket and purchase whatever we like, as long the amount of credit or money we have is sufficient. Alternatively, we can turn on the computer, click a few buttons, and wait for the goods to be delivered in a few days.

Clipping coupons not only allows us to save money but also increases the complexity of obtaining the desired goods. If we assume purchasing products helps us relieve existential angst then finding coupons turns the ‘hunt’ into something more complex, into something resembling a game. Suddenly the phrase ‘bargain hunting’ takes on a whole new dimension. Marketing and large companies have not overlooked this and brought coupons into an electronic format. Now when you purchase a product online you will often find a field where you may insert a coupon code. Because the Internet is at its very basis a tool for communication, these bargain hunters have created enormous communities where thousands of users share coupon codes and links to the latest ‘hot deal’. It doesn’t take too much analysis to see that these individuals no longer dedicate their time to this in order to save a few dollars but rather to increase the complexity and joy experienced while shopping.

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Self-Awareness

March 21, 2007

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Self-Awareness can be triggered by various stimuli such as our environment or the presence of other people. Objects such a mirror or photo can also trigger this state. Often this leads us to compare our current self to certain standards. It’s important to note that our perception of our self can be often skewed and inaccurate. We can also experience conflicting feelings as a result of the discrepancy between our actual self, ideal and ought self. Our ideal self is how we want to be and the ought self is who we think we should be. Depending on the extent of these discrepancies we may experience various negative affects such as hopelessness, resentment, regret, powerlessness, depression, etc.  

Because self-awareness can be aversive, people spend a lot of energy trying to avoid such circumstances through a variety of means. These vary in effectiveness and range from alcoholism, self-deception, drug use, isolation, masochism, sex etc. The last method mentioned has particular significance on a biological level. In a 2006 issue of Neuron psychologists revealed that the superior frontal gyrus plays a significant role in self-awareness. In particular, during certain activities such as sex or watching movies, activity in this region of the brain is inhibited.

It could be argued that the Internet is a form of what some have dubbed ‘media addiction’. I would maintain that this is somewhat amplified in such online activities as multiplayer gaming and in communities as Second Life. This is because like communicating over the Internet, individuals can be social anonymously, however online games and other communities allow for the construction of entirely new identities which are less anonymous. Also, these communities have slightly different social standards and indicators of success. In a virtual world it is a lot easier to bring the perceived actual, ideal, and ought into balance. Users can customize their physical experience and behave in ways divergent from their ordinary personality. I do not think this is entirely a bad thing, however the impact this has on individuals in the non-virtual world is not entirely certain as of yet.

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Human behavior can be the result of intentional voluntary cognition or less controlled automatic cognition. In the past psychologists believed that we engage in either controlled thinking or automatic thinking, but newer studies reveal that we can engage in both to varying degrees. I maintain that this co-occurrence is commonly experienced during activity on the Internet, especially in individuals who are well acquainted with its use. For those who grew up with a computer like me, browsing the Internet has become a second nature, or automatic process, not unlike driving a car or riding a bike. However, unlike the latter activities one must be in conscious control when seeking out information. To complete the analogy, it would be more akin to the automatic process of driving a car whilst consciously seeking correct directions on a map.

If you were to observe an older adult lacking expertise with computers and someone highly familiar with them, both attempting to locate a particular type information, you would find the latter to succeed many times faster. True, this is partly a result of one knowing where to click and the other not being so sure, but another aspect to this situation is that the more accustomed individual no longer has consciously think about what the next step is in obtaining the desired piece of information. Often you will find older computer users, even those with many years experience, still speaking to themselves “double click explorer, type the address, hit enter…” etc. Just as such an individual is on one extreme of the spectrum, the opposite extreme is occupied by the computer user who has lost some degree self-awareness in their behavior. These are the individuals who will find themselves browsing the Internet for hours unaware of the amount of time that has passed by and likely not accomplishing their goals. Automatic behavior occurs when we’re not particularly motivated to avoid error and when we are unable to focus on a particular task. This seems to be shared by both the heavy Internet user as well as some with attention deficit disorder.

It doesn’t take much to notice this trend in the development of technology. Simply take the evolution of the Firefox browser as an example. Tabs were created so we could flip from one page to another while each is loading; weather reports and email notification were added to keep us updated, and so on. RSS feeds are now the newest popular innovation allowing users to know instantaneously when their favorite websites are updated. Ultimately, these share the common goal of time-management in combination with multitasking. Certainly we must question what effect this will have on our ability to manage controlled and automatic thinking. I would postulate that although creating a degree of frustration, it is also generating a challenge which we as a continuously developing animal will be exposed to ever more frequently. Perhaps an outcome of this may be a more developed form of cognitive processing.

Conformity

March 10, 2007

One aspect of conformity I found to be fascinating is its role in the phenomenon known as flash mobs. This is where people meet up at a given time in a public space to perform what is usually considered to be a bizarre act. Observing the reactions of the bystanders provides valuable insight into both the personality and situational factors of conformity. One reaction of bystanders which can be observed at almost every flash mob is one of hostility. As observed in this video :

I would argue this to be strongly correlated with personality type. An individual who is disturbed by events out of the ordinary may experience cognitive dissonance and feel distressed. When asked, such individuals try to rationalize their reaction yet they are often inconsistent because most often nothing wrong is done at flash mobs. The very goal of many flash mobs is to do something unordinary yet not evasive or illegal. When I organized a protest against nothing some bystanders felt appalled because we were ‘abusing’ our rights to protest, while others supported us for using them freely.

I would also hypothesize that those individuals who experience less distress by the sight of the flash mob are more likely to engage and thus conform to the behavior of the group.

Non-Verbal Expression

March 3, 2007

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Non-verbal cues such as facial expressions are incredibly important in our everyday interaction with others. As mentioned in the entry regarding information influence, we do not have the person we are communicating with in front of us. In many ways communication over the internet lacks a mechanism by which one can express emotion, which relies heavily on non-verbal cues. Those who are more articulate in their writing have less of a problem here, but a large portion of internet users rely on other ways of conveying emotion instead of text.

One could hardly discuss this topic without mentioning the ‘smiley’ or happy face symbol. Since the beginnings of lay user internet communication, this symbol has evolved immensely. With some chat services it’s possible to convey everything from hunger to frustration however this is not without its own faults. Because the emotions or feelings we are trying to conveyed a reduced to a mere symbol, much of the user’s intent will be lost and there also exists much more room for misinterpretation by someone else. Does the smiley convey happiness? Is it ironic or sarcastic? To encode and decode non-verbal expression over the internet becomes a challenge in some situations.

Update: For related research see PsyBlog