Volume 24, Issue 2 (summer 2022)                   Advances in Cognitive Sciences 2022, 24(2): 71-83 | Back to browse issues page

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Nejat P, Heirani Tabas A. The effect of pictorial induction of death and Coronavirus threat on death thought accessibility: An experimental study based on Terror Management Theory. Advances in Cognitive Sciences 2022; 24 (2) :71-83
URL: http://icssjournal.ir/article-1-1338-en.html
1- Assistant Professor of Psychology, Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran, Iran
2- MA Student of General Psychology, Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran, Iran
Abstract:   (699 Views)
Death is among the most ubiquitous threats in human life, and thus, thoughts of death result in considerable anxiety, which must be constantly fended off by the use of specific psychological defenses (4). Terror Management Theory (TMT), an existential theory in the realm of experimental psychology, was proposed to account for the effect of mortality salience on cognition and behavior (5, 6). Two methodological concerns related to this theory include induction of death threat and assessment of death thought accessibility. Indeed, to study the effect of a death threat on psychological functions, it must first be established that a particular manipulation procedure increases death thought accessibility.
Various procedures have been employed to induce mortality salience across the TMT literature (7-9, 12). Some of them possess a conscious nature and thus require a time delay after manipulation for the detection of Death-Thought Accessibility (DTA). This is because inducing death threat in consciousness stimulates proximal defenses, or suppression, to remove anxiety-laden death thoughts from consciousness. However, after an unavoidable delay and attention distraction, suppression is relaxed. As a result, death thoughts become highly accessible at the hinge of consciousness (11).
The present study aimed first to assess the efficacy of a pictorial manipulation in inducing death threat (Hypothesis 1) and second to compare the effect of COVID-19 threat against that of death and control threat on the basis of this theory. To the best of our knowledge, no empirical study has yet examined the effect of COVID-19 threat salience on the accessibility of death thoughts. Given the terror caused by Coronavirus during the pandemic and the everyday death toll associated with that (18), this research anticipated that COVID-19 threat manipulation would elicit a similar level of DTA as death threat (Hypothesis 2). Moreover, given the less explicit nature of the pictorial manipulation, it was hypothesized that the effect of threat induction on DTA would not depend on delay for either death (Hypothesis 3) or COVID-19 (Hypothesis 4) threat.
Participants were 148 Iranian university students (70.3% female, mean age=21.25, SD=3.26) who were randomly assigned to one of the six experimental conditions specified by threat type (death, COVID, toothache) and delay (non-delayed, delayed). To assess death thought accessibility, and following Arndt et al. (13), a Lexical Decision Task (LDT), consisting of 70 trials (ten practice, 30 non-words, ten neutral, ten negative, and ten death-related) was used. The task involved presenting one word at a time, instructing the participant to press K for words and D for non-words. Lower reaction time to death stimuli indicated a higher DTA.
In an online study relying on voluntary participation, respondents were first presented with 11 images (three neutral, eight death-/COVID-19-related). After the presentation of each image for five seconds on the screen, they responded to a question about the size, shape, color, or orientation of one of the visual components in that image. The delayed group completed an irrelevant verbal task for four minutes before proceeding to the LDT, while the non-delay group answered to LDT immediately after viewing images. Prior to data analysis, according to Arndt et al. (13), trials with incorrect responses, as well as those with reaction times outside 200-2000 milliseconds, were removed, and mean reaction times were calculated for neutral, negative, and death-related words.
Experimental groups did not differ with respect to either age or sex ratio. Mean reaction time to negative, and death words were regressed to mean reaction time to neutral words to control for individual differences in reaction time. A mixed analysis of variance with threat type and delay as between-subjects factors and stimulus type (negative, death) as the within-subjects factor was run on regression residuals. The only significant effect in the analysis of variance was that of the two-way interaction of stimulus type and threat type, F(2, 142)=3.20, P=0.044. Simple effect tests to track the significant interaction term revealed that reaction time to death-related stimuli in the death threat condition, t(50)=-0.02, P=0.049, but not other types of threat manipulation, ts<1.15, ps>0.24, was lower than negative stimuli. This confirmed Hypothesis 1 regarding the efficacy of this method in inducing death threats. However, inconsistent with Hypothesis 2, the COVID-19 threat did not differ significantly from toothache (control condition) in stimulating death thought accessibility.
In line with Hypothesis 3, the three-way interaction of threat type, stimulus type, and the delay was insignificant for the two-leveled death/toothache threat type, F(1, 94)=2.39, P=0.125. However, contrary to Hypothesis 4, the three-way interaction of threat type, stimulus type, and the delay was significant for the two-leveled COVID-19/toothache threat type, F(1, 93)=4.19, P=0.043. More specifically, death thought accessibility in response to the COVID-19 threat was more similar to that of death type in the delayed condition. In other words, DTA in response to the COVID-19 threat tended to be low and high in non-delayed and delayed conditions, respectively.
The present study’s findings suggest that the proposed pictorial manipulation effectively induces mortality salience. Therefore, it can be used in future studies to elicit death thoughts, particularly in online surveys, due to its relative ease of implementation. Moreover, given the lack of moderation of the effect of a death threat on DTA by delay, this method can be assumed to be less direct than conscious verbal methods commonly employed in the TMT literature.
Four possibilities can be imagined with respect to the relationship between COVID-19 and death threat as follows:
  1. COVID-19 is not associated with death.
  2. COVID-19 is only implicitly related to death.
  3. COVID-19 threat is similar to and equal to the death threat.
  4. COVID-19 threat elicits more potent thoughts of death compared with death threat itself.

The first possibility suggests low DTA in both delay and non-delay conditions. The second possibility involves high DTA immediately after the manipulation. For the third possibility to be correct, the pattern should not differ from death. The pattern yielded for COVID-19 threat in the present study can only be consistent with the fourth possibility, wherein the delay increased accessibility of death thoughts. However, the COVID-19 threat interacted with delay in a different manner from the death threat. In conclusion, the pattern yielded for the COVID-19 threat points to its more substantial potential to evoke death thoughts than death induction itself, similar to prior findings regarding cancer (13). A possible explanation for these findings is the more concrete nature of the death threat caused by COVID-19 due to constant coverage of its death toll in news and media and the availability of everyday cases. A similar effect has been found with respect to cancer in the TMT literature.
Limitations of the present study include the relatively young age of participants and the particular time of data collection, i.e., not very long after the pandemic outbreak. Future researchers are recommended to investigate the effect of systematic variation of the pictorial induction method on DTA. A second possible direction involves exploring the moderating role of individual differences in the perception of vulnerability to disease.
Ethical Considerations
Compliance with ethical guidelines
Informed consent was received from all participants. Voluntary participation, data confidentiality, the irrelevance of personal identity, the total time required for responding, and the pictorial nature of the stimuli were stated in the informed consent.

Authors' contributions
The first author designed and implemented the study collected and analyzed data, and wrote the paper. The second author implemented the computer task and contributed to data collection, analysis, and manuscript preparation.
The authors received no financial support for this study.
Acknowledgments The authors would like to thank students at Shahid Beheshti University for participating in this study.
Conflicts of interest
The authors declared no conflict of interest.
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Type of Study: Research |
Received: 2021/10/2 | Accepted: 2022/04/21 | Published: 2022/08/11

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