Effects Of Death Related Anxiety On Ethnic Stereotypes Sociology Essay Example
Effects Of Death Related Anxiety On Ethnic Stereotypes Sociology Essay Example

Effects Of Death Related Anxiety On Ethnic Stereotypes Sociology Essay Example

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  • Pages: 16 (4344 words)
  • Published: August 13, 2017
  • Type: Case Study
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During a study in Sri Lanka after the December 2004 tsunami, the effects of mortality saliency (MS) on Sinhala participants were investigated. Data was collected from a control group and an MS group over a four-month period. The participants were given a list of 21 stereotypes to assess Sinhalese/Tamils.

Retroflexing research with western samples, participants in the MS group perceived their own group as more spiritual - an agency of heightening self-pride. However, the consequences on out-group perceptual experience were completely opposite to research results obtained in the West. Theoretical deductions are discussed, giving emphasis to conflict resolution and peace-making from social-psychological perspectives.


Many individuals assisted me in finishing this project.

I would like to express my gratitude to everyone who has provided support during this process. A special thanks goes to Dr. Des


mond Mallikarachchi, my thesis supervisor from the Department of Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Peradeniya, for their valuable suggestions that have greatly assisted me. I also want to acknowledge Dr. Mark Schaller from the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, Canada for his guidance and expertise in Social-Psychological research.

I am grateful to Mrs. Angela Gertrude Pelpola for her support, encouragement, and financial assistance. I also appreciate Mr. Shamal Abeysinghe's valuable contribution in conducting the experiment and gathering data. Additionally, I would like to acknowledge the late Mr.

I am grateful to Wimal ; A; Rasika Abeysinghe (my father and elder brother) for their invaluable contributions to the success of my life. I would also like to express my gratitude to Ms. Manisha Ariyarathne ; A; Ms. Liendra Miriyagalle for their support, encouragement, and loving care, which played a significant rol

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in my university career and the completion of this thesis. Additionally, I would like to thank Mr. M.K.D.

I would like to express my gratitude to several individuals who have played a crucial role in my research. Firstly, I want to thank Ranasinghe (my roomie) for his unwavering support and encouragement throughout this process. Additionally, I am grateful to Ms. Heshani Ranasinghe, Mr. Nalinda Nagolla, and Ms. Niluka Pathinayake, as well as all my friends who have assisted me in various ways.

Furthermore, I am indebted to my fellow pupils at the University of Peradeniya who generously volunteered as trial participants. Their participation has been instrumental in the success of this study.

Lastly, but certainly not least, I want to express my deepest gratitude to my fiancee, Sumuduni Vithanage. Her support, encouragement, and most importantly her love for me have been incomparable throughout this journey.

The successful completion of my thesis required immense strength. The focus of the introduction is on negative attitudes towards out-groups and their impact throughout history. These attitudes have become even more harmful in today's society compared to a century ago. The study of cultural stereotypes and biases now extends beyond scientific objectives, aiming to address real-world societal problems. The objective is to identify the causes and factors contributing to the development and amplification of these stereotypes and biases. This understanding can help us tackle the issues caused by prejudice and potentially develop interventions. However, it is crucial to exercise caution when applying these findings broadly.

In societal psychological experiments, stereotypes and bias can arise rapidly, but they can also be eliminated more easily than in the real world where bias often have deeper

roots. Since the 1930s, psychologists have been studying the causes of negative attitudes towards out-groups. The factors that contribute to favoring one's own cultural group and inciting violent behavior against out-groups have been extensively researched. These studies have shown that negative attitudes towards other groups can be caused by various aspects of personality, psychological processes, and environmental situations.

Research has shown that various factors contribute to bias in individuals. These include the influence of ambient darkness (Schaller et al., 2003), the experiential fear associated with awareness of one's own mortality (Greenberg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997), the geographical frame of reference (Schaller & Abeysinghe, [on print]), specific aspects of the immediate context (Gilbert & Hixon, 1991 ; Sinclair & Kunda, 1999), and ego threat-challenge to one's self-esteem, which activates negative cultural stereotypes and increases out-group bias (Brown, Collines, and Schmidt, 1988 ; Fein ; A ; Spencer, 1997). These studies highlight the need for further research in order to enhance our understanding of ethno political struggles and human behavior patterns in Sri Lanka.

Ethno-Political Background of Sri Lanka in Brief Sri Lanka is a diverse country with various cultural groups, including Sinhala, Tamils, Muslims, Malay Muslims, Portuguese Burgers, Colombo Chetty's, Boras and Parses. Ethnicity in Sri Lanka is determined by shared histories and differences based on religious affiliations. Even within the major cultural groups like Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims, there are divisions based on beliefs and customs. The dominant cultural group in Sri Lanka is the Sinhalese who make up approximately 74% of the population. They not only outnumber other groups but also have greater political and economic influence in the nation.

The Tamil population, which makes up approximately 18%

of Sri Lanka's total population, is the country's second largest ethnic group. However, a long-standing conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils has led to continuous military violence since the early 1980s. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an organization that uses political, military, and terrorist tactics, has been striving to establish an independent Tamil province called Eelam in the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka since the mid-1980s. In response to this campaign supported mainly by Tamils, the Sri Lankan government – primarily consisting of Sinhala individuals – has deployed its armed forces to suppress it.

The struggle and its effects have greatly impacted life in Sri Lanka for over two decades. Since 2002, there has been a delicate ceasefire in place, along with slow-moving negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict. Despite ongoing peace efforts during this research, there is evident mistrust among the Sinhala people towards both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.


Just like death is inevitable, so are the thoughts and fears associated with it. This truth holds universally true. The various beliefs, rituals, and literature about death across all cultures provide substantial evidence for this fact.

Research in the United States and Europe suggests that the fear of impending death or the anxiety caused by one's own mortality significantly influences a person's behavior and personality, making them distinct within society based on how they cope with this anxiety. Studies on Terror Management Theory have provided evidence that individuals attempt to overcome their fear and anxiety by aligning themselves with their own culture and cultural artifacts. However, this also results in negative attitudes and unfavorable actions towards other cultures or groups who

differ in their worldviews. It is important to note that while studies in the Western world support these findings, Terror Management Theory has not been extensively tested in other regions.

Sri Lanka has been experiencing the negative consequences of an intergroup conflict for more than 20 years. The origins of this conflict can be traced back to the colonial period and even further to the ancient Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa territories of Sri Lankan history, which date back over 2000 years. According to the Mahawamsa and Choolawamsa historians of Sri Lankan history, there have been numerous instances where rulers from South India invaded the island, but brave kings like Dutugamunu successfully fought for independence and liberated the Sinhala people from these foreign invaders.

The Sinhala perspective on Sri Lankan history greatly differs from the views held by the L.T.T.E and certain Tamil political movements. This suggests that negative attitudes and biases towards Tamils have been deeply embedded in the historical and cultural fabric of the Sinhala community. These attitudes and prejudices hold significant historical and cultural importance, thus it is crucial to analyze potential factors that have fueled these negative beliefs and stereotypes in order to seek a resolution.

Sociological and anthropological studies conducted thus far have primarily focused on societal factors and latent levels, including potential cognitive factors, among surfboarders. However, there have been very few or no studies conducted on the underlying psychological factors that contribute to cultural stereotyping and biases in Sri Lanka. This also encompasses individuals' behaviors in liminal situations. Additionally, this research marks the first time Terror Management Theory is being tested in Sri Lanka. Thus, the subject matter of this research holds significance

in terms of political psychology, personality, and social psychology within the field of research in Sri Lanka.

Aim of the Study

The principal aim of this study is to examine how death-related anxiety, which refers to anxiety caused by thoughts of one's own mortality, contributes to the development of cultural stereotypes when considering one's own group (clique) and other cultural groups (out-group).

The survey was carried out regarding the Tsunami incident that took place on 26 December 2004. Its secondary goals included testing the applicability of Terror Management Theory within Sri Lanka, introducing Terror Management Theory into societal psychological research in Sri Lanka to initiate a new scientific survey in the field of Personality Psychology, and identifying causes and potential solutions for ethno-political struggles from a psychological perspective to contribute to the survey field.

Importance of the Research: The research holds significance for various reasons. It offers a chance to delve into biased behaviors in Sri Lanka, a subject that is not commonly explored in the country's context. Consequently, the study's findings will motivate scholars to further investigate factors contributing to negative attitudes and stereotypes while shedding light on this critical research domain.

Moreover, these survey results have significant implications not only for comprehending the ethno-political situation in Sri Lanka but also for researchers interested in studying ethno-political conflicts and peacebuilding in any setting. Additionally, psychologists focusing on stereotypes and political attitudes can gain valuable insights from these findings. Furthermore, scholars investigating the Origins of Personality and behavior change within the Sri Lankan context will find this study particularly valuable due to its scarcity of research conducted in this field. Furthermore, since there is a lack of studies on Terror

Management Theory in Sri Lanka or other parts of the world, this groundbreaking study offers an opportunity to understand Death Related Anxiety specifically within the Sri Lankan context.

The study focuses on the significance of multiple grounds and is based on data collected during a tsunami. It investigates how individuals' behavior changes when they perceive civilization being overcome by nature. This research will be of interest to scholars interested in the advancement of psychological research in Sri Lanka and contributes to existing research in the field.

Scope of the Study

This study specifically examines one psychological factor in ethno-political conflicts and explores the consequences of death-related anxiety on human behavior in Sri Lanka. The study involves a limited number of participants from one region, with the aim of attracting future researchers to this area of study. Furthermore, it examines how individuals think and act when faced with the impact of nature on human civilization, including the accompanying fear of death.

Hundred and 24 university undergraduates (age between 20-27 years), who were Sinhalese, from the central part of Sri Lanka participated in the study.

The study has several significant limitations:

Firstly, it was not possible to accurately measure the psychological effects of the tsunami catastrophe on the participants before mortality was made salient with the evaluation question. This also means that future research cannot reliably replicate this process for studying mortality.

Additionally, statistical assessment of how the experimental conditions influenced responses was not conducted in this study. Moreover, generalizing the results of this study is not feasible.

Due to time and resource limitations, the experiment was only conducted once in Sri Lanka. The participants were a limited number of individuals from one region and

cultural group who were of the same age and educational background. Even though data was collected about four and a half months after the tsunami disaster, there is no empirical evidence suggesting that mortality was not still prominent in the participants' subconscious minds. Therefore, it is possible that if data had been collected before the tsunami disaster, the experimental conditions would have had a different effect. However, this should not be seen as a limitation when considering the goal of contributing to peacebuilding since conflict resolution must be addressed under current conditions.

Literature Review

Prior studies on "death" and "ethnic stereotypes" have paved the way for this study and are continuously examined by both academics and the general public.

The main focus of this literature study is the research findings that connect anxiety related to death to human thought process involving cultural stereotypes. To begin, let's refer to some readings on the subject of 'Death'.

Death and Death Related Anxiety

Death has always been a significant topic for humanity. Ideas about what constitutes death differ among different cultures and time periods. According to Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2003, death is defined as the cessation of critical bodily functions, such as breathing, circulation (as seen through the beating of the heart), and brain functions, to an irreversible state. Throughout history, individuals desired to believe that death was not the end of life's journey.

There have been numerous studies conducted on the topic of 'death'. Individuals from various fields including scientists, politicians, poets, have all discussed it. According to Diane E. Papalia ; Sally Wendkos Olds, there are at least three aspects associated with dying.

There are three

aspects of decease: biological, societal, and psychological. According to Encarta 2003, the physical definition of decease is the cessation of pulse or electrical activity of the brain for a significant period of time. However, this definition is becoming more complex due to advancements in science and technology. The societal aspect of decease involves funeral ceremonies, mourning rituals, and legal matters regarding inheritance and wealth distribution of the deceased individual.

The psychological aspect of death encompasses individuals' feelings about their own impending death and the death of loved ones. Many individuals struggle with comprehending the true meaning of death in current times. The underlying question remains, 'is it the end?' Human beings instinctively fear the unknown and anything beyond their control. No one has ever returned from the afterlife to provide accounts of what death is truly like.

The near decease experience, also known as NDE, has not been proven to be actual decease, thus leaving decease a topic shrouded in unknown. Furthermore, decease is uncontrollable and inevitable, making immortality nothing more than a mere dream. All of these factors create the perfect conditions for humans to fear the concept of decease.

Peoples have a preference for discussing decease using academic terminology and from a global perspective, such as phrases like 'living existences dice' or 'someday, we all die'. Nevertheless, it is rare for someone to say 'someday, I will die'. As explained by Alpitiye Gnanissara Thero, death is merely a transition or a change in form. This teaching is known as Anicca or impermanence in Buddhism. The Buddhist literature provides further explanation of this phenomenon.

According to Gnanissara thero, death is sorrowful for worlds, with no enjoyment or lasting

benefits derived from it. Buddhism teaches that Anicca (impermanence) leads to agony.
[ 13 ]
The Tibetan Book of the Dead states that it discusses the most important question concerning human existence. The Mahayanists believe that this book primarily teaches about life instead of death.
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This philosophy emphasizes that "to learn about death is to learn about life."

'Death is simply another province of the samsara chakra or the circle of life. Consequently, it is another important, graceful, and necessary state in this journey. The following quote from the Tibetan Book of the Dead clearly illustrates its perspective on death.

And as we stand on the brink of darkness Let our chant fill the emptiness So that others may understand In the realm of darkness The sun's vessel Is guided by The grateful dead

Rev. Gnanissara concludes his book by stating that, according to Buddhism, death is an inevitable natural occurrence that cannot be changed.

In simple terms, birth is the reason for death. Understanding death helps people realize the reality of life and eliminate suffering. From a western perspective, Dr. James Kalat states that people generally associate death with older individuals, even though death can occur at any age. "This is because people wish that death could be planned and not sudden."

People often choose to ignore the fact that there are individuals in various age groups, from babies and children to young adults and older individuals, who are aware of their impending death due to terminal illnesses. This includes those who are incarcerated and awaiting their sentence. Each of these individuals must face the emotions that come with knowing death is near.

How they respond to these emotions varies depending on their ability to comprehend and rationalize their impending death, their individual personalities, and the social circumstances they find themselves in. Some may react with anger, others may turn to spirituality or religion, while some may enter states of denial.

According to Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist known for her groundbreaking research on death and dying, it is impossible for humans to constantly deny their fear of death. They cannot consistently pretend that they are safe. Instead of denying death, people may attempt to understand and come to terms with it. They may participate in competitions, such as races on highways, or keep track of the number of deaths during national holidays, feeling a mixture of both fear and relief, thinking "It was someone else, not me, I survived".

Kubler-Ross states in her book 'On Death and Dying' that people use various methods to overcome or understand mortality. According to her, engaging in warfare and defeating enemies is a way of confronting death and triumphing over it. She sees these actions as a result of the inability to face one's own death with dignity and confidence. Another approach humans take when faced with the awareness of impending death and the desire for immortality is to challenge it.

This can be done in various ways, such as driving or sitting at high velocity on the main roads, bungee jumping, and taking various risks in athletics. According to Ernest Becker (1973) in his influential book, 'Denial of Death', individuals engage in activities such as having children and passing down wealth to future generations in order to attain a sense of symbolic

immortality. He further argues that the fear of death is innate and exists in everyone, regardless of how hidden it may be. This fear is an emotional expression of the instinct for self-preservation. Most people likely rarely contemplate death or their ultimate individual worth. Instead, they focus on their goals and aspirations related to their careers, relationships, hobbies, and the means through which these goals are achieved [20].

According to Becker, death comes to most people in a way that they do not decide. It is the inevitable end of life, which begins with birth. As someone is dying, they may reflect on their life and try to find meaning in it. After someone dies, those around them try to find meaning in their life.

When I was born I was given the name Etok. What does Etok mean? It has no meaning? I don't understand. Why not? Until I die. Then the meaning and definition of the name Etok will be written. How? The meaning and how of Etok has lived.

This Native American belief about the significance of a person's name after their death speaks to how culture allows individuals to live on after natural death in a supposedly eternal culture. Figures like Lord Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Che Guevara are examples of such personalities. Culture evaluates and grants eternal life in the minds of people. Therefore, people tend to rely on these cognitive functions created by culture as it helps them overcome anxiety about their impending death.

Death has been a topic of study since ancient times and will continue to be so as long as humans exist.

While the main focus of this thesis is not solely on death, it is important to consider ethnicity and cultural stereotypes when discussing the increased anxiety about death that individuals experience. According to Greek philosopher Socrates, he stated, "But it is now time to go, - for me to die, for you to live." Cultural Stereotypes are also a fascinating subject in social sciences. It is worth noting that the term 'Ethnicity' is relatively new.

It was first used by David Riesman in 1953, and it appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary only in 1972. This term originated from America. People who came to America (the new world) from different parts of the world retained their separate identities even after several generations. Therefore, the term 'ethnicity' was used to understand these differences. From a sociological perspective, when a group asserts their separate identity based on assumed or real cultural differences, this collective identity is called 'ethnicity' and the resulting group 'an ethnic group'. This form of identity (ethnicity) is usually inherited rather than achieved.

Milton Gordon (1964) describes ethnicity as a sense of 'peoplehood' that is formed through common race, religion, national origin, history, or a combination of these factors. Similarly, Francis (1947) argues that while every cultural group possesses a distinct civilization, it does not necessarily represent the entire group. Considering these points, an ethnic group can be defined as a subset of people within a larger society who share common cultural norms, religion, and patterns of behavior. They also have a shared identity and sense of belongingness. Now, let's explore the concept of stereotypes. According to the sociological perspective in Encarta Encyclopedia 2004, stereotypes perpetuate

a simplistic image of a specific category of individuals, institution, or culture. Stereotypes are typically negative and often rooted in bias and irrational fear. Sometimes they stem from difficulties in perceiving differences. Rarely, they may be based on accurate and insightful summaries of past experiences.

As a result, various groups such as Jews, women, black people, homosexuals, aliens, immigrants, and minorities in general have experienced and continue to face negative stereotyping. This often involves mockery and can even lead to punishment, including violence and genocide. Disturbing examples of successful stereotyping and racism can be seen in the European fascist movements during the inter-war years as well as the post-war struggle against segregation in South Africa. Stereotypes also extend to a person's social class, occupation, accent, and other distinguishing characteristics. Stereotyped depictions of individuals have been and continue to be perpetuated in literature and various other forms of culture. Some of these representations have been extremely brutal, such as racist propaganda, though they may also sometimes be presented for the purpose of entertainment.

In his essay on stereotypes, A.H. Halsey concludes that pigeonholing, which has deep roots in the human mind, may have originated from early battles for land control and tribal unity. However, in the modern world, these parochialisms are generally harmful to human well-being. The main political and social issue in human life is still the struggle to create a free, democratic, just, and rational society, with a focus on equality for individuals regardless of their origins, gender, and other distinguishing characteristics. Cultural stereotypes, therefore, refer to largely negative beliefs about groups of people who share a common culture and/or religion and have a sense of

belongingness to it. These beliefs can be held by individuals or other groups and can also be perpetuated by individuals within the group.

Although there have been studies on the treatment of death and ethnic stereotypes from various perspectives, few studies have examined the effects of anxiety related to death on cultural stereotypes. One modern psychological theory that addresses this issue is the Terror Management Theory.

Terror Management Theory

Introduced by S. Solomon, T. Pyszczynski, and J. Greenberg in the mid 1980s, Terror Management Theory (TMT) focuses on this subject.

One main concern of this theory is cultural biases, which primarily focus on the origins of human personality and latent and unconscious mechanisms that determine human behavior. As a result, TMT (Terror Management Theory) is highly relevant to the present study on Death and Death Related Anxiety. According to Pyszczynski, Greenberg, and Solomon (1997), TMT investigates various ways in which people manage their experiential fears. For instance, avoiding thoughts of one's death has been associated with bias (e.g., Greenberg et al.).

1990; McGregor, Zanna, Holmes, & Spencer, 2001), care of cultural norms (Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Lyon, 1989), self-esteem care (Greenberg et al., 1992b; Harmon-Jones et al., 1997), protection of cultural icons (Greenberg, Porteus, Simon, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1995), optimum peculiarity theory (Simon, Greenberg, Arndt, Pyszczynski, Clement, & Solomon, 1997), foolhardy drive (Taubman Florian, & Mikulincer, 1999), patriotism (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Simon, & Breus, 1994; Nelson, Moore, Olivetti, & Scott, 1997), objective self-consciousness (Arndt, Greenberg, Simon, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1998), the false consensus effect (Pyszczynski et al., 1996), a desire for high-status products (Mandel & Heine, 1999), sexual neuroticisms (Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, McCoy & Greenberg, 1999), and aggression (McGregor

et al., 1998), to name several.

Deceiving death is inevitable in the realm of life (as it is for other living beings as well). This concept, which pertains to the fear and anxiety caused by death and human responses to overcome it, connects Terror Management Theory (TMT) to a wide range of phenomena. Therefore, it can be argued that TMT can be seen as the comprehensive theory of self-psychology, as its founders state. However, it is important to test its validity to apply it to all humans because most experiments on this theory have been conducted in the Western world. TMT proposes that individuals tackle the issue of death through two distinct defense mechanisms:

  • Direct: This approach is rational and centers on threats. It aims to diminish an individual's perception of their vulnerability to life-threatening situations, thus pushing the issue of death into a vague and distant future.

The second approach involves using culture as a defense mechanism against anxiety. It involves integrating oneself into a timeless concept of society that is larger, stronger, and more enduring than any individual. This approach emphasizes the value of each person within the broader framework of civilization.

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