The experimenter asked each person if he or she would be willing to participate in a short survey about “consumption and television behavior.” Much of the survey items (24 questions in total) were simply filler—that is to say, the experimenters weren’t really interested in them, but were included to prevent the participants from cluing in to the true purpose of the study. Below are the key items the researchers used, predicting that those in the mortality salience condition would be more “pro-German” in their responses to these questions than those in the control condition.
(1) Picture you have won in a contest and you can buy a car. How likely is it that you would buy an Audi, Toyota, Volkswagen or Renault?
(2) How much do you like travelling within Germany? How much do you like travelling to foreign countries?
(3) Picture a friend would take you out for dinner. What kind of food would you prefer? How much would you like German cooking? How much would you like international cooking?
(4) What currency do you like better? How much do you like the German Mark? How much do you like the Euro?
(5) How handsome do you think German talk/game show hosts are? How handsome do you think foreign talk/game show hosts are?
(6) How likely do you think it is that Germany will win the soccer world-cup in Japan and become world champion? How likely do you think it is that Brazil will win the soccer world-cup in Japan and become world champion?
(7) How representative/appropriate do you think Paris would be as a capital for a united Europe?
As hypothesized, the data analyses revealed that “compared to participants in the control condition, mortality salience participants showed a [highly significant] decreased liked of the foreign items as well as an increased liking of German items.” The main reason the study was published in the Journal of Economic Psychology—as opposed to some other scientific journal—was the investigators’ curiosity about why the introduction of the Euro had met with some resistance in Germany. Like many other European countries, the introduction of the Euro aroused fear of negative economic consequences in Germany. Among the 12 members of the European Monetary Union, only Finland was less favorably disposed to the introduction of the Euro. The authors conclude that, “the reservations German citizens had against the Euro can be better understood when considering the function the cultural worldview serves in managing existential fears. Since the German currency represents Germany, many people feel that the loss of their national currency threatens their national identity.”
In an earlier study published in a 1996 issue of Psychological Science, another prominent terror management theorist, Tom Pyszcynski from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and his colleagues found a very similar effect of mortality salience with people from this largely conservative American town. In this study, 124 pedestrians of both genders and ranging in age from 15 to 86 years were randomly assigned to be interviewed by a female experimenter 100 m before, directly in front of (mortality salience condition), or 100 m after a funeral home. Those in the mortality salience condition were interviewed so that they faced the funeral home—“the nature of the establishment,” Pyszcynski and his co-authors assure us, “was obvious to anyone standing in front of the building.”
In this clever study, participants were asked two very simple questions: “What percentage of Americans do you estimate believe that Christian values should be taught in public schools?” and “Do you believe that Christian values should be taught in public schools?” The prediction was that participants in the mortality salience condition would overestimate the percentage of Americans who shared their views, but only if they held the minority view. The authors reason that people in the minority feel vulnerable and insecure, with their cultural worldviews at risk of being eclipsed by the majority view. In this case, the minority (45 percent) was in favor of teaching Christian values in public schools. In fact, mortality salience (facing a funeral home) led these participants to view themselves as being in the majority on this issue, an effect not seen for similarly minded participants in the two other conditions (100 meters before or after the funeral home). The authors explain it this way: “When people are reminded of their mortality, enhanced estimates of social consensus can serve to sustain the anxiety-buffering effectiveness of their cultural worldviews.”