Thursday, November 7, 2019

Mortality salience hypothesis of terror management theory: Reminders of our future death increase the necessity to validate our cultural worldview and to enhance our self-esteem; we did not observe evidence for a mortality salience effect

Rodríguez-Ferreiro, Javier, Itxaso Barberia, Jordi González-Guerra, and Miguel A. Vadillo. 2019. “Are We Truly Special and Unique? A Replication of Goldenberg Et Al. (2001).” PsyArXiv. November 7. doi:10.31234/

Abstract: According to the mortality salience hypothesis of terror management theory, reminders of our future death increase the necessity to validate our cultural worldview and to enhance our self-esteem. In Experiment 2 of the study “I am not an animal: Mortality salience, disgust, and the denial of human creatureliness”, Goldenberg et al. (2001) observed that participants primed with questions about their death provided more positive evaluations to an essay describing humans as distinct from animals than control participants presented with questions regarding another aversive situation. In a replication of this experiment conducted with 128 volunteers, we did not observe evidence for a mortality salience effect.


Overall, the pattern of results reported in the previous section are inconsistent with
the original results of Goldenberg et al. (2001). This does not necessarily mean that the
original effect was a false positive, but it does suggest that (a) the effect may be
substantially smaller than originally reported or (b) that the effect is extremely sensitive to
contextual factors and perhaps absent in some populations. Consistent with the former
interpretation, our own reanalysis of Burke et al. (2010; see also Yen & Cheng, 2013)
provides compelling evidence that the effect sizes of previous research on mortality
salience may have been overestimated.
But, of course, it is possible that our experiment simply failed to recreate the ideal
conditions for the emergence of the mortality salience effect reported by Goldenberg et al.
(2001). Failed replications of prominent social psychology studies have often been
attributed to the contextual sensitivity of the processes involved in these effects (e.g.,
Cesario, 2014; Sundie, Beal, Neuberg, & Kenrick, 2019; Van Bavel, Mende-Siedlecki,
Brady, & Reinero, 2016). For instance, reviewers of an earlier version of this article
suggested that perhaps Spanish participants (1) do not care so much about uniqueness and
free will, (2) do not care about distancing themselves as much from animals as Americans,
(3) do not fear death as much as Americans. Although none of these possibilities can be
discarded conclusively on the basis of the present data, we deem them unlikely. Visual
inspection of Figure 2 shows that the distribution of the ratings provided by our
participants are in almost perfect agreement with the ratings provided by the control group
in the original study by Goldenberg et al. (M = 5.80, SD = 1.36). This provides little
support to the idea that our essays did not resonate with these participants in the same
manner as they did with participants in the original study.
Of course, our study is not without limitations. Neither our empirical study nor our
reanalysis of the data reported by Burke et al. (2010) were pre-registered, failing to meet
the highest standards of confirmatory research. In contrast, we do offer public access to our
complete data set and invite skeptical readers to test alternative hypotheses that we may
have overlooked and that perhaps may provide stronger support for the mortality salience
hypothesis. Similarly, although the sample size recruited for the present study (N = 128)
was substantially larger than the sample size of the original study (N = 20, in the same two
conditions), given the evidence of bias that we detected in the literature, it might have been
wise to power our study for a substantially smaller effect size, perhaps around r = .22, for
consistency with the bias-corrected average effect returned by the selection model.
In any case, we think that given the theoretical relevance of this effect, it is worth
investing more time and resources in establishing its reliability and boundary conditions.
We hope that the present work will provide some initial momentum for further replication
studies on terror management theory and the mortality salience hypothesis.

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