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Letter to the Editor   |    
Terror Management Theory
E. JAMES LIEBERMAN, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2004;161:1508-1508. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.161.8.1508

To the Editor: The dismissive review by Lynn E. DeLisi, M.D. (1), of In the Wake of   9/11: The Psychology of Terror(2) failed to grasp the significance of an important theory being put to extensive, ingenious, and successful testing. The book addresses death awareness and its consequences in individual and group behavior. Terror management theory has come of age, but its focus is the broad social context of—and response to—terrorism rather than profiling individuals, as the reviewer did, with the questionable conclusion, "A form of mass culturalparanoid psychosis occurred in its extreme. The high-jackersof the airplanes on 9/11 shared the common delusion that allAmericans are evil" (1, p. 1019).

The book’s focus is the half-hidden everyday terror that lurks everywhere: plain, ordinary, inevitable death. The co-authors, psychologists whose research on terror management theory is known to readers of scholarly journals, summarize it here for a larger audience. Their efforts test a thesis of social anthropologist Ernest Becker, best known for The Denial of Death(3). According to Becker, human beings need two kinds of support against the knowledge that we must die: self-esteem and a sustaining cultural world view.

Self-esteem buffers anxiety, including death-fear. A good society provides its members with meaning, value, and sustenance at the least cost to themselves and their neighbors. Because cultural world views differ and clash, the validation system (religion, political ideology) that provides a sense of security may be threatened by a neighbor’s different ideas. Feuds, vendettas, crusades, wars, and today’s terrorism prove how hard it is for different world views to coexist.

This research tests ways in which awareness of death directly affects feelings, attitudes, and behavior. In the death-salient condition (subjects have recently discussed or encountered ideas about mortality), prejudice emerges against an "out" group. The studies locate the genesis of terror and explain its expression, effects, and responses. A rare example of validation of a depth-psychological hypothesis, this work deserves to be studied and further developed by psychiatrists.

DeLisi LE: Bk rev, T Pyszczynski, S Solomon, J Greenberg: In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. Am J Psychiatry  2003; 160:1019
[CrossRef]
 
Pyszczynski T, Solomon S, Greenberg J: In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. Washington, DC, American Psychological Association, 2002
 
Becker E: The Denial of Death. New York, Free Press, 1973
 
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References

DeLisi LE: Bk rev, T Pyszczynski, S Solomon, J Greenberg: In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. Am J Psychiatry  2003; 160:1019
[CrossRef]
 
Pyszczynski T, Solomon S, Greenberg J: In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. Washington, DC, American Psychological Association, 2002
 
Becker E: The Denial of Death. New York, Free Press, 1973
 
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